By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 1:22 AM
With his sprained ankle wrapped, Donovan McNabb wore a ballcap turned backward at practice Wednesday afternoon as he watched someone else command the offense he was brought here to guide.
Midway through the preseason schedule, the ankle has sidelined McNabb, who is not expected to appear in another game until the regular season begins.
Concern over the quarterback's injury has little to do with the Washington Redskins' preseason game at the New York Jets on Friday night and everything to do with their regular season opener against Dallas in 2Â½ weeks.
McNabb's progress picking up the new offense has been inconsistent. Sitting out the team's third preseason game means he's missing live-action snaps that could pay dividends when the games begin to count.
"I think it makes it harder for him because he doesn't get that trial run," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "He still works out here every day. He's gonna work at it just as much. He was better last week than the week before."
Rex Grossman will start and play at least the first half against the Jets. Coach Mike Shanahan said chances are "very, very slim" that McNabb will make an appearance in the team's final preseason game next Thursday at Arizona.
McNabb said he wants to play against the Cardinals, but Shanahan doesn't like playing his quarterback in the fourth, and final, preseason game. With McNabb's left ankle already ailing, the team can't risk further injury to him.
"Yes, you would like" to get him more action, Kyle Shanahan said, "but we put him in and play that game and he gets hurt, it's the dumbest decision in the world. You got to be smart about it."
Coaches will try to make the most of the next couple of weeks. Entering his 12th season, McNabb is learning his second offense. He's the first to acknowledge it hasn't always been easy, and the first two preseason games have shown there's still plenty of room for improvement.
The challenge will be to continue McNabb's education without game action.
"Obviously, you want to continue playing with the guys, with the [starters], and continue to work your timing in game situations," McNabb said. "Obviously, due to this injury, there is a minor setback. . . . I don't think it's a [major] setback in any way. Instead of it being a physical thing, you have to make sure mentally you continue to stay involved in what's at stake and what we're doing."
He'll still be plenty engaged. While Grossman, Richard Bartel and John Beck will handle the snaps in practice until trainers feel McNabb's ankle is sound, McNabb will be near the quarterbacks at all times. While one is taking the snaps in practice, the other three will be around quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, reading the script, calling out the play and familiarizing themselves with terminology and formations.
"So he's getting the verbiage reps," Kyle Shanahan said. "He's just not actually getting the physical reps."
Either way, there's plenty of work to be done. The offense failed to score a touchdown against the Ravens last week, and that performance will stand as McNabb's most complete until the Cowboys come to town Sept. 12.
Kyle Shanahan said coaches won't game-plan for Dallas until the preseason schedule is complete. But he said if McNabb doesn't seem to fully grasp the new offense by then - or if the offense simply isn't firing on all cylinders - coaches would consider limiting the playbook.
McNabb had less than four quarters of preseason action before spraining his ankle. With McNabb leading the offense, the Redskins' starters had a total of nine preseason drives, two of which resulted in points: a touchdown against Buffalo and a field goal against the Ravens.
McNabb's unit had 16 first downs with one turnover and gained 307 yards on 56 plays. In two games, McNabb was 16-of-34 passing for 264 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a quarterback rating of 71.2.
Against Baltimore, the first-team offense opened with a strong 78-yard drive but then struggled to maintain any semblance of rhythm.
"It's definitely an offense that we know and we've seen in the past that it works. It's just a matter of us making it work," said fullback Mike Sellers. "That's what preseason is for. It's to get tuned up, ready for the season. There's going to be errors, we just try to minimize the amount of errors that we have."
This week presents the team an even bigger challenge. The Jets boasted the league's top-ranked defense a year ago, and McNabb's absence could affect the entire first-string offense. New York Coach Rex Ryan utilizes a variety of blitz packages. Grossman isn't as mobile as McNabb.
Sellers will miss the game with a sore knee, and Willie Parker, not known for his pass blocking skills, will get the start at running back. It's not the ideal personnel combination for the third game, which is typically the most important of the preseason schedule.
"These are the cards that we're dealt," said center Casey Rabach. "Rex [Grossman] has more experience with this offense than Donovan has. Hopefully that will show Friday night. We can't complain or cry about could've, should've, would've. This is what we're doing and we're going forward with it."
While the offense isn't clicking as well as Kyle Shanahan's version in Houston or Mike Shanahan's version in Denver, coaches feel progress can still be made while McNabb's ankle heals.
"We've installed this offense all spring. We've been here all camp. This is the fourth week of camp that we've been here, so I would hope that we're ready to play football," said tight end Chris Cooley.