Our man in the US - Week 15

It was perhaps the most striking visual of the entire NFL weekend. Even more than Matt Prater kicking a 64-yard field goal, or Eagles players picking themselves out of a snow drift, the image that lingered with me was that of an almost completely empty FedEx Field during Washington’s game against Kansas City.

Some qualifying statements need to be made. Snow was falling in Landover on Sunday, even if not as heavily as in some other parts of the country. Washington were also in the process of being humiliated, finding themselves 38-10 down after just two quarters. And the photo I have linked to above was also taken immediately after the interval, at a time when some fans might still have been wandering the concourses and purchasing snacks.

Even so, this was a startling sight. Washington are traditionally one of the NFL’s best draws, pulling in an average of 79,654 fans last year – the third-highest figure of any team in the league. On Sunday their listed attendance was 56,247 – the lowest for any game at FedEx Field since it opened in 1997.

Were Washington not supposed to be one of the most exciting teams in the league this season? With a highly marketable quarterback in Robert Griffin III, and an underrated running back in his fellow second-year player Alfred Morris, they were touted as the poster-children for the new wave of pistol formation teams, with their option plays that were set to take over the league.

Instead, RG3 has tanked, enduring one of the worst sophomore slumps since Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris in 1973. As a rookie, Griffin completed 65% of his passes, threw just five interceptions and had a passer rating of 102.4. This year, his completion percentage is down to 60.1, his passer rating is 82.2 and he has been picked off 12 times already. Washington have slipped to 3-10, a year after winning the NFC East with a 10-6 record.

Theories on what prompted Griffin’s decline are a dime a dozen. Many believe that he still has not fully recovered from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that he suffered at the end of last year. Others point out that he has become more predictable by running less often – a consequence of his desire to avoid further injuries. Or perhaps this is just something that often happens to second-year quarterbacks, for whom opponents can better prepare with a full season worth of game tape at their disposal.

One way or another, RG3 will not play for Washington again this season. Head coach Mike Shanahan announced on Wednesday that the quarterback would be de-activated for the team’s remaining three games, ostensibly to make sure that he stays healthy heading into the offseason – giving him the opportunity to participate fully this time around, and giving him the best chance to be firing on all cylinders next year.

But now it appears there is more to the story. On Sunday ESPN reported that Shanahan had almost walked out on Washington last year, clearing out his office after becoming frustrated with favouritism shown by owner Daniel Snyder towards Griffin. It was claimed that the player was receiving special treatment from his employer, to the exclusion of his team-mates – a situation which Shanahan allegedly felt was damaging the locker room environment.

The head coach declined to comment directly on those reports during a lengthy press conference on Wednesday, but did reject the suggestion that he was benching Griffin in a bid to get himself fired. Shanahan has one year left on his $7m per season contract, and as such would be due a hefty severance package if the team decided to let him go.

As the coach pointed out, however, the decision to drop Griffin had been made in consultation with his owner. “If I were trying to get fired, I’m not gonna call up Dan Snyder and ask his opinion on a player I don’t have to,” said Shanahan. “And if he says no, I’m not gonna go that direction.”

More plausible was the argument made by Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post, who suggested that Shanahan was simply trying to establish what authority he had left. With three games left in a season that has already fallen apart, he wanted to know if it was even worth trying to stay around for another year. If he no longer had the power to choose his own starting quarterback, then really, what was the point?

Jenkins went further, arguing that the only way for Snyder to salvage this situation now would in fact be to give his head coach another year – offering validation to this move. “If [Shanahan] can’t bench Griffin, then he’s not really the head coach, and in fact no one will ever be Griffin’s coach, they’ll just be his concierges,” she wrote. “If Shanahan is sacrificed to Griffin, there won’t be anybody, be it [Baylor University head coach] Art Briles or Pepe Le Pew, who can coach this team.”

But as Jenkins also noted, this is not exactly the first time that Snyder has been accused of giving special treatment to star players. “Remember the move Bruce Smith put on an imperiled Steve Spurrier in 2003?” she continued. “Smith, the 37-year-old husk of a defensive end with a $23 million deal, got publicly sore-headed when Spurrier benched him, and took the matter upstairs …

“The Redskins were 3-5, but Smith thought it was more important to chase Reggie White’s career sacks record. After two days of complaining he got what he wanted: an assurance he would start … It was Spurrier’s death knell, and a bad season got even worse. The Redskins finished 5-11, and the evidence that Spurrier had no authority resulted in a series of slaughters. Over the last three games, they were outscored, 85-31.”

Perhaps Snyder has learned a lesson or two since then, and that is why he consented to Shanahan benching Griffin. Or maybe he simply feels backed into a corner by the very public way in which this story is playing out.

But right now the only real winners in the whole sorry mess are St Louis. It was the Rams who traded their second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to Washington – allowing Snyder and Shanahan to grab Griffin in the first place. In return, St Louis received first round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The last of those selections now has the potential to become very valuable indeed. If the season ended today, the Rams would, neatly enough, get the second overall pick from Washington. Even if the fans in DC can no longer stand to go and see their team, you can be sure that St Louis is watching.

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Making headlines

A few more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

  • Brett Favre has added another trophy to the collection – helping Oak Grove High School, for whom he has been serving as offensive co-ordinator, to a Mississippi state championship. The former Packers quarterback has been roundly ridiculed for his post-game remark that, "I can't say it's like a Super Bowl, but it's pretty close”. But I say cut the guy some slack. Even for the most successful professional athletes, there has to be life after what is ultimately a very brief career. The fact that Favre can still get such a kick out of being involved in the sport at a far less prestigious level is pretty cool, if you ask me.
  • A string of blown calls in recent weeks have sparked fresh debate about what can be done to improve the consistency of officiating across the NFL. Among other things, the league is now considering centralising the replay system used for in-game reviews. Instead of officials in the stadium making the call on such plays, they would be referred back to a single monitoring station, where a panel of video judges would sit, overseen by the league’s vice-president of officiating, Dean Blandino. It’s an interesting idea, and one that could have the benefit of make games quicker. On the MMQB site this Monday, Peter King noted that the length of games has been steadily creeping up in recent years – from just over 3hrs 2min in 2008 to 3hrs 8½min in 2013. Not a drastic change, perhaps, but given that it has got slightly longer in each of the last five years, certainly something that the league is right to keep an eye on.

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Quote of the week

"I can do whatever I want. I'm The Kraken. ... If you feel you can ask The Kraken personally where he goes to school, and prove me wrong, then I feel like I'll change it" – Asked why he claimed to have attended Hogwarts on Monday Night Football, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy leaves us none the wiser

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Three-and-out

• What would today’s best NFL quarterbacks look like if they were bald? 

• Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly takes part in a dance-off against an elementary school teacher. To a backdrop of Vanilla Ice. 

• “Some people say we’re not a real team because we’re never actually on the field together. Sometimes we even play against one another, and a lot of us have never met” – Andrew Luck delivers a (brilliant) pep talk to his Fantasy team-mates

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