By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 12:41 AM
For 11 years, Donovan McNabb has essentially thrown a football the exact same way, relying on his quick feet and impressive upper-body strength to make passes that other quarterbacks simply can't. Early in his tenure with the Washington Redskins, though, coaches have spotted areas where McNabb's mechanics could use work, and they say they've already noticed improvement.
"Let's face it, he's always been a great passer," said Washington quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur. "It's something that we always thought, if he did it a little more consistently, he'd get even that much better."
Coaches have been trying to improve McNabb's accuracy, and to do that they've focused on his footwork. In studying tape, coaches noticed that when McNabb's stance is more narrow, he strides into his throws and isn't as balanced as they'd like. By widening his stance, they hope a more steady base leads to better throws.
"Quarterbacks in general, when you have a base, there's a lot less moving parts, and it allows you to throw more accurately," LaFleur said.
While young quarterbacks often tinker with mechanics, veterans don't often undergo major overhauls.
Some, such as Chad Pennington, might alter their mechanics following injuries or surgeries. Others, such as Rich Gannon, might continually tinker with their throwing motion, much like a golfer tweaks his swing or a batter fiddles with his stance.
McNabb played down any changes, saying his footwork is "one of many" areas coaches have been trying to improve. "There's people with footwork worse than mine," he said.
Entering Sunday's game at Chicago, McNabb's home town, the bigger question becomes: Can Redskins coaches still teach a veteran quarterback new tricks?
Cris Collinsworth, the NBC analyst who called the Redskins' loss to Indianapolis last Sunday, met with Coach Mike Shanahan in the days before the game and made passing reference to McNabb's footwork during the telecast.
"Does he miss some throws, he does, and I think that has been the frustrating part, what Mike and Kyle [Shanahan, offensive coordinator] have been working on," Collinsworth said in an interview this week. "The thing they've pinpointed it to widening his base."
Collinsworth played at the University of Florida when Shanahan coached there early in his career. He said Shanahan's tinkering is a product of his perfectionism, as much as it is with McNabb's skill-set.
"He's not going to let up on you. Mike's going to demand that you get better, and he'll tell you what he thinks you can improve on," Collinsworth said. "If you're an 11-year vet, been to the Super Bowl, whatever - he doesn't care. He's a pusher. He wants you to be better tomorrow than you are today.
"They're just trying to get rid of that one in 10 throws that sails or hits the dirt. They've studied the film, and they think when he's on balance, he can make every throw."
Collinsworth met with McNabb, too, and said the quarterback has been heeding coaches' teachings and is trying to implement their suggestions. But the adjustment isn't simply a physical one.
"You don't have the kind of career that he's had, and not get a little ruffled when somebody says, 'We need to make changes, we need you to do it this way,'" Collinsworth said. "It's human nature. But Donovan is not one of those guys who's going to say, 'No, I'm not doing that.' He's listening."
McNabb said on Wednesday that he's "open" to "all things," but says it's difficult to make a significant change when he's been throwing the ball one way for most of his career. "It's not going to happen in a day," he said.
"Obviously, sometimes when you've been doing it for a while, you revert back to what you know, to what's gotten you to the point you're at," he said. "Everything is a work in progress."
As he has learned a new offense the past six months, McNabb's performances have been inconsistent through the team's first six outings.
He has a quarterback rating of 78.8 - No. 24 in the league - though his 260 yards per game rank him sixth in the NFL.
LaFleur said the emphasis on McNabb's footwork is something coaches have been discussing with the quarterback for several weeks and that they've already noticed progress.
McNabb's worst statistical outing of the season came Oct. 3 at Philadelphia, where he was 8-of-19 passing. His completion percentage has risen each week since then, from 42.1 percent against the Eagles to 53.1 versus Green Bay and to 64.4 last Sunday against Indianapolis.
"He's definitely come a long way," LaFleur said. "We're just going to keep continuing to work on it all the time."
Perhaps not surprisingly, McNabb is most accurate on short-range passes. He completes 64.2 percent of passes that are 10 yards or fewer and 55.9 percent of those 11-20 yards. But those 20 yards and above, McNabb completes just 27.3 percent of the time.
As with much of the Shanahans' teachings, the key appears to be repetition. The more coaches work on McNabb's footwork and stance, the more, they hope, it'll begin to feel natural.
"It's not easy. It's definitely not easy," LaFleur said. "But this is something that we've been working on since he got here. Just trying to refine it all the time.
"It's just something that we've always believed in, as a coaching staff. You look at a lot of the great throwers in the league. They all have - there's something in common - they all have great base. Donovan does, too. We're just trying to get it better."