LANDOVER, MD - A dejected, half-dressed Robert Griffin III sat inside the home dressing room Sunday night, staring blankly into the wooden crevices of his locker.
His pain was two-fold: He and his Washington Redskins were feeling the sting of having just been eliminated from the playoffs at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in a 24-14 loss. But it was the pain of Griffin's right knee -- the one that hasn't been right since Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens -- that was on the minds of many inside the building.
The rookie passer sat motionless until teammates and other team officials came over to offer him words of encouragement. After he finished putting on his white button down shirt, gray vest and purple striped tie, a visibly disappointed and irritated Griffin slowly walked over to a packed post-game interview room, where he again had to field questions about the topic that just won't go away: His dissipating health.
That's because once again this season, he suffered an injury -- this time tweaking his already-sprained right knee in the first quarter. Once again this season, he had to go inside the trainer's room with orthopedist Dr. James Andrews for a medical evaluation. And once again this season, he was allowed to go back onto the field to try to play through it.
"I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there," he said. "But every time you step on the football field in between those lines you're putting your life, your career [and] every single ligament in your body in jeopardy."
The conflicting philosophies of playing through injury versus preserving one's long-term health played out in full Sunday night, as Griffin's athletic pride and desire to be there for his teammates kept him on the field despite his health clearly being compromised.
"I'm the quarterback of this team. My job is to be out there if I can play," the quarterback continued. "I'm the best option for this team, and that's why I'm the starter.....there was no way I was coming out of that game."
It was that mindset that Griffin's veteran teammates appreciated.
"A guy like that has earned the right to make his own decision [to stay in the game]," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "If he's hurt, and he feels like he can play through it, you let him go out there and play through it."
"Never underestimate the heart of an athlete in a competitive situation," added defensive captain London Fletcher. "Robert, he willed himself to be able to play. He's earned the right to be able to play, and if he tells Coach he can play, let him play."
But despite showing determination to stay in the game, it was clear the Redskins star signal caller was not right. As he hobbled and galloped down the field in his bulky black knee brace, it became apparent that if Griffin was not pulled from the game, a disaster could be waiting to happen.
And sure enough, it did.
The nightmare scenario occurred when Griffin attempted to field an errant fourth-quarter shotgun snap from center Will Montgomery. As he reached for the ball in midair, his knee got caught in the shoddy FedEx Field turf and bent backwards awkwardly. He not only re-injured his sprained LCL earlier in the game, but appeared to suffer an even worse injury to one of his other ligaments.
As he was lying in pain on the turf, the nervous anxiety inside the stadium suggested that health of the franchise's most important player dwarfed that of the desire to win one postseason game. And with that sentiment in mind, the focus naturally shifted to coach Mike Shanahan, who had the chance to pull Griffin before he suffered a major injury.
"You have to go with your gut," the coach said. "I'm not saying my gut is always right....I'll probably second guess myself [for not taking him out earlier]."
Shanahan's controversial decision to leave Griffin in the game after his first-quarter injury -- which presumably led to the subsequent fourth quarter injury -- will kick off an offseason-long discussion about how the quarterback should be handled going forward.
Is Griffin playing too recklessly? Should the Redskins coaching staff protect him more? Should they change the offense to limit the dangerous hits that come along with designed quarterback runs? How much of his offseason will be spent rehabbing his injured knee? And perhaps most importantly, will he ever be able to come back the same player he was when he was healthy?
All of those questions now hang over what was supposed to be an offseason full of optimism for the 2013 season. Instead of fans reflecting on what was a better-than-expected 2012, the lasting image of a grimacing Griffin will now cloud some of the more positive memories of the season, as well as trump any flashy personnel acquisition that may come in the next few months.
In his first year in the NFL, Griffin was able to emerge as a team leader, provide highlight-reel worthy plays on a weekly basis, galvanize a wounded fanbase, and help resurrect a Redskins franchise that had been floundering for over a decade. But his inaugural season concludes the same way it began -- with many wondering whether or not he'll ever be able to hold up for a full season.
After he finished speaking with the media Sunday evening, Griffin found his mother, father and fiance, all of whom were waiting for him near the South Field Tunnel. They all left the stadium together, only it wasn't to go home.
Instead, Griffin and his family had to spend the first night of the Redskins offseason in the doctor's office for an MRI -- one that will set the tone for 2013.