Robert Griffin III made very few mistakes in his rookie season with the Washington Redskins until, with the acquiescence of his coach and apparently his doctor, he made an enormous one. He began to think of himself as indispensible. As a result he may be facing the possibility that he is exactly the opposite because of an injury this misjudgment brought about.
His is a textbook example of what is wrong with professional football when those in charge forego their better instincts and good sense in the short term, producing long-term damage at the expense of players who consider themselves indestructible.
That Griffin's potential as highlighted by a brilliant first year could be shortened by all this is a real tragedy for him, his fans, his sport and the organization that put so much into acquiring and nurturing him -- until it didn't.
Coach Mike Shanahan's explanation that he thought Griffin's knee was enough to support another performance because the young man said so when nearly everyone in the stadium and watching on television could tell otherwise was utterly delusional. His action was as irresponsible as any in recent sports memory.
It contrasts sharply with the decision of the Washington Nationals to limit the number of innings pitched by their wunderkind, Stephen Strasburg, after more than a year of elbow rehabilitation. It may have cost the baseball franchise a place in the World Series but it preserved Strasburg's potential for a long and fruitful career and his team's chances to benefit from that.
The injuries to Griffin may ultimately prove as nonthreatening to his future as every Washington fan hopes. But surgery is always a major setback that involves long rehabilitation and often problematic success. The explosive traits that make Griffin so good could be impaired; his game completely changed.
In the world of professional or even college sports there comes a time when someone has to make the tough calls, to use their authority to overrule the baby superstars they are supposed to nurture.
Griffin has been one of the most acclaimed rookies in the recent history of the NFL, receiving incredible quarterback ratings week after week and renewing the confidence that once made the Redskin's among the league's elite. But the 22-year-old started echoing the daily publicity, frequently referring to "my team" and "my leadership." No one seemed to explain to him the dangers of that.
For the casual observer it seemed to paint a different picture of the young man described often as not only enormously talented but also mature and frequently self-effacing.
He is a leader but he also is, if I can be forgiven for what might be considered a sleight, still a kid -- one whose judgment in this case reflects the overconfidence and self-indulgence of youth. In this macho sport and with his level of achievement, it could be expected that he might say he was ready even though deep down he knew he wasn't.
When he was told to rest before the end of the season, he was petulant, telling the press it wasn't his decision as though he had been forced unfairly to relinquish his right to call the signals.
This might be considered a local subject if it weren't for what it says about the system that has turned professional football into a national mania. Griffin left the realm of just another player when he won the Heisman Trophy a year earlier and then proceeded to draw media attention not only for his potential skills but how he used them on game day, which like Strasburg on the baseball diamond, were extraordinary.
Now with the whole world watching and pondering the mayhem of the sport, he has become the poster child for unintended consequences, the possibility of a severely damaged career that was clearly avoidable. The silence from the fans as they watched in horror as his knee buckled for the second time in one game told the story as eloquently as it can be said. They understood the threatening consequences that we all hope don't come about.
As the brilliant Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins said, the Redskins may have sacked their own quarterback.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)