Theismann ready to dive right in with NFL Network

By Leonard Shapiro
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 4:46 PM

Joe Theismann will make his debut as a game analyst for the NFL Network's Thursday night telecast next week. And almost certainly, he will say on the air that evening what he said out loud this week - that he would not be the least bit surprised to see Rex Grossman starting at quarterback ahead of Donovan McNabb for the Washington Redskins against the Philadelphia Eagles a week from Monday night.

"The only word to describe what's going on [with the Redskins] right now is bizarre," Theismann said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I was listening to a clip of Mike Shanahan on the radio the other day. He was saying that any conversation he had with Donovan he won't share with anyone. Mike accommodates the media because he has to, not because he wants to. He and Bill Belichick will tell you exactly what they want to tell you and how long they want to tell it to you, and then it's over.

"But what I was curious about is what's going to happen when practice starts up again in four or five days. Who will be under center? I've been trying to read between the lines in all these explanations they've been giving and it sounds like he's saying Donovan doesn't understand the offense. If he doesn't grasp it after the minicamps, training camp, four preseason games and eight regular season games, my guess is that Rex will be the starter."

Theismann firmly believes McNabb ought to be the quarterback against his old team at FedEx Field, but admits he's not around Redskins Park all that much to witness what the coaching staff sees every day in practice. As for any notion that the team is now in emotional disarray because Shanahan pulled McNabb in the final minutes of the Lions loss, he doesn't totally buy it.

"The players know what's going on, they see it every day," he said. "Their eyes can tell them what's happening. Everyone tries to be politically correct in these kinds of things. The bottom line for the players is real simple: can the guy win for me? Can you make plays that will win the game for me? I used to have a sign in my locker that was a message just to remind me why I was there. It said 'I never have to be the reason the team wins. I just can't be the reason the team loses.'"

Theismann has never been one to shy away from any subject, one of the reasons the NFL Network approached him earlier in the season and asked him to join analyst Matt Millen and play-by-play man Bob Papa in the Thursday night booth. It will be his first regular NFL gig since ESPN dumped him following the 2006 season when he was replaced in the Monday night lineup by Ron Jaworski. From 1988 to 2005, he did ESPN's Sunday night game, mostly with Mike Patrick and Paul Maguire.

When ESPN replaced him in the first year of his five-year contract, he was asked if he had any interest in doing college games. Theismann turned them down, mainly because he wanted to keep his focus on professional football. For the first two years, he said he continued to visit team practice facilities, watched as many games as he could and continued to speak to coaches, players and team executives around the league. In 2009, he signed on with the NFL Network to do its Playbook show, which he will continue along with his game analyst duties.

Theismann's departure from ESPN was not exactly sunshine and roses. His last year, he was teamed with Tony Kornheiser, and he has often said he felt as if the network veered from its mission of focusing totally on the game in favor of some fluff and too much frivolity in the booth. Kornheiser has since been replaced by former Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, and the network clearly has been taking more of an Xs and Os approach ever since.

"ESPN made a decision that they wanted to change the booth," Theismann said. "That was their prerogative. I have no ill will toward anyone there. I loved the people I worked with. Working with Mike [Patrick] and Paul [Maguire], you couldn't wait for the next game.... Even working with Tony was a worthwhile experience. I honestly enjoyed it. Tony was a fish out of water, but it was fun to work with him. I still talk to him. I stay in contact with a lot of people at ESPN."

Theismann got back in the booth last year during the playoffs, when he worked a Cincinnati-New York Jets playoff game with his former coach, Joe Gibbs, for NBC. A few weeks later, he teamed with Papa to handle the telecast for the international feed of the Super Bowl, and the two meshed so nicely the NFL Network decided in September to add Theismann into the game telecast mix.

Next week, he'll handle the Ravens against the Falcons, and the following week he'll be doing the Bears against the Dolphins on an extremely meaningful evening. On the same date 25 years ago, Theismann's playing career ended following a hit by the Giants' Lawrence Taylor in RFK Stadium that literally snapped his leg. Many still consider it to be among the most gruesome injuries in the history of the NFL.

"I still have vivid memories of that night," Theismann said. "I can still feel the moisture on my back. I can still see the big Longines clock at RFK. I remember the conversations, being put on a gurney and loaded into an ambulance, then watching the game on a TV in my room at the hospital before I had the surgery. I've only seen the play once. I watched it six years ago, and I won't see it again. When I saw "Blindside" and they had the clip of the play at the start of the movie, I closed my eyes and didn't look. Then I listened to the audience groan.

"My leg is fine. I can do everything I want to do, and I'm thankful for that. I know guys who had the same injury I had and still have lingering problems. That was also a pivotal point in my life. I had become this egotistical, miserable person. It was Joe Theismann the superstar. Joe Theismann the Super Bowl MVP, Joe Theismann the Super Bowl champion. I was so wrapped up in me, I'm still surprised I had any family and friends who still talked to me. And then it was all gone. I've tried to rebuild myself as a human being. I try every day to appreciate what I have, and I take nothing for granted. That night was a blessing for me, it really was."

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