By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 1:44 AM
Donovan McNabb is a beloved guy and all that, but why should his hold on his job be inviolable? The Washington Redskins don't have a quarterback controversy, but what they do have is a star who is playing poorly, and ailing. McNabb has been great at the 50-yard downfield throw, yet he has failed to deliver basic consistency and momentum. It's like watching a guy try to pay all the bills with a trip to Vegas. Maybe the benching and a bye week will heal him, and sharpen him up.
Mike Shanahan's rationale for his stunning decision to play Rex Grossman over McNabb in the final 1 minute 50 seconds against the Detroit Lions is still not entirely clear and his habit of coach-speak has not served him well. But what's plain is this: You go to Grossman because that's the level of your frustration.
Do you think Shanahan wanted to put a fumble-prone Grossman into the game cold? You think he set out to insult McNabb, and to invite withering criticism? It was hardly a master plan, and surely not his first choice. First choice is that your franchise quarterback makes the right reads and moves, gets you out of bad situations and into good ones, and establishes the rhythm that is the motor of an offense. For a variety of reasons, McNabb wasn't doing that.
The takeaway is that Shanahan benched McNabb because he was not running the offense effectively, and he fully expected to take major heat for it. "I knew it would happen," Shanahan said by phone Monday. Every controversy of Shanahan's career has amounted to the fact that he's not afraid to bench a name player. He experienced far worse criticism than this as a coach in Denver, when he sidelined John Elway, who was beaten up and playing poorly, and replaced him with Gary Kubiak.
That was a "Holy cow," Shanahan says. "You find out right away, when a decision is made with a quarterback, there's constant scrutiny and questions about it." As an assistant in San Francisco, he watched Steve Young challenge an aging Joe Montana. "That was an everyday ordeal," he said.
If Shanahan deserves second-guessing for a miscalculation, it's not for the benching but for the timing of it. Why replace McNabb with the game on the line? According to Shanahan, partly because the events were such a series of escalating frustrations. McNabb was so stiff in his hamstrings that Shanahan had seriously considered not starting him at all. In addition to being hobbled, McNabb was pounded senseless, absorbing seven sacks and at least a dozen more hits. The Redskins had punted four straight times in one stretch. On their last two possessions, McNabb delivered up an interception and then was nailed for a loss of eight yards. Shanahan couldn't see throwing good money after bad.
"He had taken a couple of shots there, and I said, 'This is crazy, I'm going with Rex,' " Shanahan said. Grossman was at least fresh and mobile, and had looked good running a hurry-up offense with the scout team a couple of weeks earlier. "I just felt comfortable," Shanahan says of the decision to put him in.
There is no easy way to tell your very glamorous and well-compensated star quarterback, or his fans, that he's not playing well. But the fact is, the benching of McNabb was defensible. As Peter King of Sports Illustrated points out, McNabb has had the ball four times inside the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter this season. Only once has he come through. Against Green Bay, he delivered with a 53-yard drive that led to the game-tying field goal and overtime. On the other three occasions, he threw one interception and couldn't get a first down twice.
The main thing the Redskins complain of is a lack of consistent rhythm. This seems directly a result of McNabb's enigmatic play. He ranks second in the league in plays of 40 yards or more - he's a spectacular big playmaker. Yet he had completed just 23.5 percent of his passes on third down going into the Lions game. And third down was a critical failing against the Lions. "I'm not sure I've ever been in a situation where we had as many third and longs," Shanahan observed.
As an offense, the Redskins perfectly reflect McNabb's strengths and weaknesses: They are ranked second in the NFL in big plays and second to last in third down conversions. "We all know Donovan's a franchise quarterback," Shanahan said. But what the Redskins need is for McNabb to make a few more modest plays, and make them reliably.
McNabb is not the sole culprit, of course. The Redskins were all-around lousy against the Lions, and Shanahan and his staff deserve their equal share of credit and blame for the 4-4 record. But with a week off to consider where they stand, it's clear that their offense very much mirrors McNabb's personal performance, and that it would help if he would become more accurate and cadenced.
"I'm not happy with where we're at offensively," Shanahan said at his weekly news conference Monday. "As I told Donovan, I said, 'Hey, you got a ways to go. Our offensive line has a ways to go. Our receivers - collectively, as a coaching staff - we're not happy with where we're at. . . . We're all accountable, starting with me. Hopefully, we'll get there."