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McNabb's late benching subjects Shanahan, Redskins to controversy

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 12:26 AM

DETROIT - With 1 minute 50 seconds remaining Sunday, the Washington Redskins trailed the Detroit Lions by six points. In the offseason, they acquired a quarterback specifically for such predicaments - time ticking away, no timeouts remaining, and a smooth, sustained touchdown drive the only antidote for a crushing loss.

And Sunday afternoon, Coach Mike Shanahan decided that quarterback was Rex Grossman - the backup who hadn't taken a snap this season - not Donovan McNabb, the six-time Pro Bowler.

"I thought that was the best scenario for us to have a chance to win," Shanahan said.

And with that one move, and that one statement, the Redskins' bye week - and the rest of their season - may have taken on a completely different tenor.

Grossman came in and, on his very first play for the Redskins, fumbled as he was sacked. The loose ball was recovered and returned by Detroit rookie Ndamukong Suh for a touchdown that was merely the final humiliation in the Lions' 37-25 victory over the Redskins. The aftermath was dominated not by the fact that the Redskins lost a winnable game against a 1-5 team. It was dominated by Shanahan's decision to replace McNabb with Grossman with the game in the balance.

"At the end of the game with Donovan, with a minute left and Rex knowing how to run that two-minute offense, I felt with the time and no timeouts he gave us the best chance to win in that scenario," Shanahan said. "Just knowing the terminology of what we've done, how we've run it, it puts a lot of pressure on a quarterback that hasn't been used to that terminology."

Grossman knows the system because he spent last season with Houston, where the offensive coordinator was Kyle Shanahan - Mike's son, now the Redskins' offensive coordinator. But Grossman was then, too, a backup, and he played in just one game, throwing nine passes and completing just three. He never ran the two-minute offense for the Texans.

But at the midway point of the Redskins' season - the first in Washington for both Shanahan and McNabb - Shanahan chose Grossman over McNabb.

"What you have to do sometimes is you understand everything is sped up," Shanahan said. "When you don't have timeouts, it's got to come automatic. You've got to call a couple plays at the line, a few plays at the line. When you go through this during the week [in practice], and you take a look at this type of atmosphere [in a game], I thought it was the best scenario to put him in there in that situation."

McNabb has been inconsistent all season, and his quarterback rating coming into the game was the worst of his career as a starter after the season's first seven games. He addressed the decision afterward in his typically ruffle-no-feathers style - "I'm a professional, and I try to handle it in a professional manner," he said - but he clearly would have preferred to play.

"If you're asking, would I want to be in there? Yes," McNabb said. "I think any quarterback wants to be in there. That's something that you get measured by: two-minute drives, being able to drive down and win the game. So a decision was made. Obviously as a player you want to be in there, but [I] went along with it and now we all have to learn from it and move on."

McNabb might never have been in such a situation if not for his own performance. With 4:40 remaining, the Redskins had both a 25-20 lead and the ball. On second and 10, McNabb looked to wideout Anthony Armstrong.

"I thought if I could put it out there in front of him, because the linebacker had his back to me, that we could pick up some big yards," McNabb said.

But McNabb's hand was hit on the play, and he couldn't properly follow through. Detroit cornerback Alphonso Smith stepped in for an interception, and seven plays later, the Lions scored the go-ahead touchdown. The Redskins' next drive, during which they trailed 28-25, ended when McNabb was sacked on fourth and 10 - the sixth sack he took on the day. That set up Shanahan's final decision.

Grossman left the visiting locker room quickly, without speaking to reporters.

"He seemed fine," Armstrong said of Grossman. "He seemed just like Rex at any other time. He wasn't flustered or anything like that. He's a pro. He's been in the league for a while now."

But he is now in the middle of what could be a controversy. Afterward, Shanahan said McNabb remains his starter. It's unclear, though, who is the finisher.

"He understands," Shanahan said. "He understands that it's got to be automatic, and you're calling two plays at a time, and all of a sudden you're speeding things up. He understood why I did it. I believe he did. I don't think any quarterback likes it, but I got to make those tough decisions."

On Nov. 23, 2008, when he was still the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, McNabb was yanked at halftime of what became a 36-7 loss at Baltimore, the only other benching of his career.

"When you get benched, you get benched, no matter how you look at it," McNabb said. "You just have to learn from it and move on. I did that then, and I'll do that now."

Four days after that game, McNabb threw four touchdowns in a victory, one he played from start to finish. Whether he repeats that performance following this, his latest crossroads, remains to be seen.

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