By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; 8:36 PM
In an offseason marked by dramatic change throughout Redskins Park, there's one player on the roster who knows the team's new offensive playbook better than his teammates. It's not exactly common across the league, but for now, Washington's No. 2 quarterback has a better grasp of the new system than the starter, Donovan McNabb.
Eighth-year quarterback Rex Grossman has the benefit of having played in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system last season in Houston, and his comfort level was clear in the Redskins' first preseason game. The new scheme features language, concepts and plays nearly identical to what Shanahan used in the Texans' prolific attack a year ago.
While no roster decisions will be made for a few more weeks, Shanahan says Grossman enters this weekend's game against Baltimore with a "firm grip" on the backup quarterback job. It's a far cry from where Grossman was a year ago.
Just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, Grossman sat through a quiet free agency period and didn't sign with Houston until June 2009. Matt Schaub had the Texans' starting job locked up, and the backup spot wasn't really up for grabs either. The Texans had just signed Dan Orlovsky to a three-year, $9 million deal. To top it off, the offensive system beared little resemblance to the one Grossman had run in Chicago.
"He was more of a freelancer," Shanahan said. "So he wasn't as detailed when he got [to Houston]. Once he saw the success that Schaub had, I think he really bought into it and became what we wanted him to be."
Grossman hurt his hamstring in the Texans' first preseason game and missed the next two. He was in danger of not even making the roster before his performance in the final preseason game - 9-of-16 passing for 197 yards and a pair of touchdowns - lifted him past Orlovsky.
As Schaub's backup, Grossman did a lot of clipboard-holding last season, seeing action in just one game (he was 3-of-9 passing for 33 yards and an interception against Jacksonville). But still, his coaches say he's a better quarterback than ever because of what he picked up last year in a reserve role.
"He learned a lot from that experience," said Matt LaFleur, the Redskins' quarterback coach who was an offensive assistant in Houston. "I think he's a much better quarterback than he was a year ago. It was good for him to sit back and watch Schaub play and see him manage the offense and operate at a Pro Bowl level. I think it really did him well."
Grossman said his level of comfort with the offense is "night and day" from last year in Houston, and he says the stringent structure of the scheme limits his mistakes, a common complaint he faced during his tenure with the Chicago Bears. "I had freedom there that I don't have now," he said, "which is a good thing.
"This offense is structured in a way where there's an answer for everything. There were times in Chicago where we did have an answer for things, but there were other times where I just felt like I was stuck," he said.
Despite leading the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2007 - following a season in which Chicago had the second-most points in the NFL - Grossman lost his starting job and has been unable to convince other teams he's ready to again start on a regular basis. He's earning this season just a fraction of the $3 million base he received in 2007, as he tries to prove that he can again start in the NFL.
"It really was a tough place later in his career," said Redskins' receiver Bobby Wade, who played with Grossman his first three years in Chicago. "But Rex has always come off to me as a guy who is a playmaker, liked the pressure situations, liked to have the ball in his hand on third and fourth down passing the ball. He's always seemed to excel in those situations."
Wade says Grossman's comfort level with Shanahan's offense is evident every day in practice, and coaches were happy with what the quarterback did in the team's first preseason game. Grossman was in for 32 plays against the Bills - McNabb played 17 - and finished 11-of-18 passing for 140 yards and a quarterback rating of 122.5. He led the offense on two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards. The first was capped by nine-yard pass to tight end Fred Davis in the end zone and the second, a 44-yard strike to receiver Devin Thomas deep and to the middle of the field.
"He went in there and executed the offense well," Coach Mike Shanahan said. "We put him in some tough situations, and I was pleased with the way he stood in there. Like all quarterbacks, they're always looking for a couple plays here and there, but overall I thought he had a good game."
Though the Redskins traded for John Beck earlier this month to bring competition to the quarterback spot, backing up McNabb is Grossman's job to lose. He feels his arm is still strong, and he feels he's finally comfortable in an offense that can help him thrive. But Grossman knows he still has to prove that to coaches.
"I've never taken anything for granted," he said. "I'm in a situation where I've got a lot of confidence in what I can do. I can't take for granted that everyone feels the same way. I have to keep on showing them."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.