WASHINGTON — The three of them entered, one after another, trying to explain a Washington Redskins season — and what’s ahead — in their own very different way. Three faces of a wounded organization and three very different perspectives — each trying to explain and influence their version of an undefined future.
Kirk Cousins went first, showing eagerness and calm; his career’s greatest opportunity awaits these next three weeks as the team’s new starting quarterback. Next came Robert Griffin III, benched Wednesday morning and, for the season’s final three games, representing the latest Washington sports shutdown, a year after the Nationals prematurely ended Stephen Strasburg’s season. Griffin was somber and seemed worn down by the drama of 2013.
“I don’t know,” Griffin said. “I just know Coach decided to shut me down, and that’s that.”
And finally Mike Shanahan, with his crumbling job security and questions about his motivations and relationships with Griffin and team owner Daniel Snyder, and whether he is trying to force Snyder to fire him. During an occasionally fiery and defensive 28-minute meeting with reporters, the Redskins head coach said Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen were in favor of benching Griffin.
“If I’m trying to get fired, I’m not going to call up Dan Snyder and ask his opinion on a player,” Shanahan said.
The only person missing from the ensemble Wednesday was the team owner — off at NFL owners meeting in Dallas — the only person who ultimately can determine the future of all three men.
On and on they went, each positioning himself for what’s coming next — unclear as that remains — and trying to sell a message of peace in what feels like an NFL war zone. Reporters packed into the Redskins media room, Griffin’s walk from the team facility to the practice bubble was shown repeatedly on national networks, the gossip website TMZ has begun following the team’s many twists.
“I just thought it was another normal week,” Griffin said. “Turns out, it’s not that way.”
Washington is now the epicenter of the NFL’s newest circus, moved north from Tampa Bay and Miami to Ashburn, Va., site of the Redskins’ headquarters. Griffin, benched supposedly to prevent injuries, seemed exhausted by a season of 10 losses, numerous rumors about his own relationships and endless questions about his health and confidence. And for the first time, there was no optimism in his voice, because this is how his season ends. Griffin won’t even be in uniform for the final three games.
He stood during most of his news conference with his hands on his hips, his eyebrows raised as he answered questions. He didn’t flash that famous smile until someone asked what it has been like to be Robert Griffin III these last few weeks and months.
“I still feel blessed,” he said. “You just have to look at life in a different way in times like these and try to find a way to make it better.”
His long-term future won’t change, and in that way, he’s the only one of the three who can claim such stability. But following Washington’s 45-10 loss Sunday to the Kansas City Chiefs, an embarrassing defeat overshadowed by an ESPN report that morning that Shanahan considered quitting after the 2012 season, it was clear a change was coming. The surprise was that it was Griffin and not Shanahan who lost his job.
“You just have to lean on what you’ve been taught in life, and my parents, being two military parents, have taught me to respect authority,” Griffin said. “And I have to respect what Coach says.”
Cousins, drafted in the fourth round last year, was smooth and thoughtful during his remarks. The next three games will serve as an audition for the former Michigan State quarterback, and his performances will either reaffirm his place as an NFL backup or potentially entice another franchise to trade for him and make him a starter.
NFL quarterbacks don’t often get these chances, and so amid the chaos, Cousins acknowledged that this is his career’s biggest opportunity.
“I’m always trying to prove myself,” he said, “and I’ve felt that way for a long time.”
Cousins perhaps handled Wednesday’s scrutiny best, maybe because he’s the one with nothing to lose. He was deferential to Griffin as Washington’s long-term starter — “This is Robert’s team,” Cousins said — and was poised amid the strengthening storm.
Shanahan spoke last and longest, his voice rising and his gestures occasionally resembling a pastor engaging his congregation — the message similarly being that, no matter the signs, this is a time to believe.
“What I’m trying to do is be as honest as I can,” he said. “And I don’t normally do that, because I don’t really think it’s anybody’s business, except the guys in our locker room. And I don’t get into a lot of detail, but here I think it’s a must.”
Shanahan, whose contract expires after the 2014 season, has survived so far this week, and each news conference has been more bizarre than the last. After Sunday’s game, he indicated that Griffin’s job was unsafe and sidestepped questions about his relationship with Snyder and whether it was he who leaked the information to ESPN. A day later, he was again evasive, and his suggestion that Griffin might be shut down was seen as a possible power move for Snyder to react to. The owner has so far reacted by doing nothing, which shifted the attention toward what Shanahan might attempt next.
On Wednesday, with local and national media leaning in for the best view, fans listening closely for meaning in the coach’s words, Shanahan didn’t disappoint. He projected the image of a man who won’t back down but who’s aware of his unsteady footing; who’s in full control but who asked for assistance in the Griffin decision from Snyder and Allen; who’s hopeful that the fire eventually weakens but who’s unable to stop himself from stoking it.
Asked about why he consulted Snyder about the quarterback change despite maintaining total control over football operations, Shanahan said: “He [Griffin] is your franchise. That’s why you ask those questions. You don’t do it about the other positions. Dan couldn’t care less about the other positions.”
Griffin’s long-term future is secure, even if the next three weeks will be disappointing, and Cousins’ immediate future will hint at what the rest of his career holds. But it’s Shanahan who has matters undefined for the short- and long-term, with no solid footing in either position, whose public performance Wednesday showed a man trying to show control during a season that has featured almost none of the sort.
“All I want to do,” Shanahan said, “is fight for our lives.”