By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 12:10 AM
Countless times in an NFL career that now spans 12 seasons and 156 games, Donovan McNabb has taken the field with his team trailing, the clock winding down, the game in the balance, ready to perform a two-minute drill. He said he felt prepared for those spots when he was a Philadelphia Eagle. He feels prepared now, he said, ready to lead the Washington Redskins into a Monday night game against those Eagles.
"The two-minute drill is an exciting time, because no one knows what to expect, and kind of the unknown happens," McNabb said Thursday. "I've been a part of it for years."
He has never, though, been a part of it in the situation he now faces. McNabb was benched once in his 11 years in Philadelphia, but that was at halftime of a blowout loss. His benching on Oct. 31 as a Redskin raised a litany of questions that get at the core of how quarterbacks are judged: It came at a time and in a situation - with 1 minute 50 seconds left in a six-point game - in which the best players excel and the also-rans fail.
In the dozen days since Coach Mike Shanahan yanked McNabb from what became a loss to Detroit, questions - some of them raised by Shanahan himself - have surfaced concerning McNabb's grasp of the Redskins' offense, his work habits, his health and his physical conditioning. But the central issue remains that, in the circumstances that help define the legacy of quarterbacks, Shanahan felt more comfortable with Rex Grossman at the controls than he did with McNabb.
The thought of John Elway or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady taking a seat in such a spot seems preposterous. Yet for all of McNabb's accolades, the evidence - statistical and anecdotal - suggests he doesn't belong in that same type of two-minute quarterback club.
"I think if you look at the history of Donovan, he's been inconsistent in that period of time," said former Philadelphia quarterback Ron Jaworski, who has studied McNabb throughout his career and will call Monday's game on ESPN. "There have been times where he's run the two-minute offense brilliantly, and there have been times when he's been sketchy."
McNabb has faced a fourth-quarter deficit of between one and eight points - one score - and pulled out a win 15 times in his professional career, including the playoffs, according to research by Scott Kacsmar of the Web site pro-football-reference.com. He led his team from behind to tie once. And 31 times, he has faced such a deficit and lost.
Compare that to other contemporary quarterbacks: According to Kacsmar's research, Manning has 35 comeback wins and 39 losses; Brady has 22 wins and 15 losses; Ben Roethlisberger 18 wins and 19 losses.
The struggles are even more acute this season. Fourteen times in his tenure with the Redskins, McNabb has taken the ball with five minutes or less in a half in a situation in which Washington was pushing to score - thus discarding fourth-quarter possessions that begin when the Redskins had the lead and were trying to salt a game away. The Redskins have scored four field goals and only one touchdown on those possessions.
McNabb's numbers - 28 for 44 with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 65.2 - would indicate that he has been mediocre when trying to push the offense quickly. Yet they are situations to which he looks forward.
"I enjoy that part, especially when you've gotten things going and you're in that rhythm and everybody's getting involved," McNabb said. "Everyone feels they're contributing. You're spreading the ball around, you're picking up first downs, you get yourself in the red area where you feel like good things can happen."
Yet for a variety of reasons - circumstances, a suspect offensive line, a thin receiving corps and his own poor play among them - McNabb hasn't yet found that success in Washington. As Jaworski said, "You have to look at the whole body of this offense right now. They have some issues."
"It's somewhat self-fulfilling," said Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who played in San Francisco when Shanahan served as the offensive coordinator there. "When you have confidence, the team knows you've done it before, you've been pretty good at it that year, it becomes part of what you do. Guys get in the huddle and say, 'We're good at this. Let's go.' . . .
"It's pretty simple. Bad offenses are usually bad at the two-minute, and good offenses are good at the two-minute."
In the minutes after Shanahan replaced McNabb with Grossman against Detroit, the coach said a significant part of the reasoning was because Grossman had a better understanding of the Redskins' offense, a system Grossman ran last year as a backup in Houston. Former quarterbacks agree that a fundamental, almost second-nature knowledge of a system is essential in executing in a two-minute situation, in which the quarterback is often calling his own plays, including formations, pass routes and protection schemes.
"First and foremost, from a mental standpoint, to be able to execute efficiently in a two-minute offense, the quarterback has to have a real good command of the offense," said former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein, an analyst at CBS who played under Shanahan with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988-89. "He has to be able to fluently, quickly and clearly communicate to the rest of the team what's going on, what play he's calling, everything from the formation to the protection to the routes. Everybody's got to be very clear."
That gets to the core of what Shanahan said immediately after the Detroit game: that McNabb was unable to perform those tasks because he isn't yet completely conversant in the offense. But not everyone believes that struggle would transfer into the two-minute drill, when the playbook can be pared back and the quarterback can focus on plays with which he is comfortable.
"I got to believe that what Andy's doing and what Mike's doing are similar," Young said, referring to Shanahan, McNabb's current coach, and the quarterback's former coach, Andy Reid of the Eagles. "They both took everything from Bill [Walsh]. People tweak things, but you can't tell me that Mike's doing something way, way different from what Andy did before."
Since his benching, McNabb has dismissed suggestions that he is not sufficiently familiar with Shanahan's offense to run it in a two-minute situation, even calling the notion "hilarious" during his weekly radio show on ESPN 980. Redskins center Casey Rabach said he watches game film with McNabb after practice every Wednesday and Thursday.
"He knows the offense," Rabach said. "He knows the ins and outs of everywhere."
There are, though, the physical issues Shanahan brought up the day after he pulled McNabb - ailing hamstrings that have prevented McNabb from practicing the two-minute offense for more than a month, and subsequently hindered his conditioning.
"People don't give quarterbacks any credit for what it takes to play the position from a cardiovascular standpoint," Beuerlein said. "In the two-minute, if you're making yards, you're running up to the line of scrimmage, you're listening to the coach, plus breathing heavier because you're in the flow of it. If you're not in shape, you're not in condition, it's not going to come out smooth and easy. It's going to come out kind of choppy."
McNabb said Thursday that his hamstrings are feeling better, and Shanahan added that, if McNabb's hamstrings continue to progress, the Redskins will practice the two-minute offense on Saturday. But Shanahan also tried to shift the focus from McNabb's struggles.
"It's a team," Shanahan said. "It's not just a quarterback. It's your offense in general."
That offense, once again, will have McNabb at the helm to start the game against the Eagles. But if there are two minutes remaining, and the Redskins are down six, will McNabb have mastered the system well enough to get the chance to win the game?
"It's complicated," McNabb said. "But yet, still, you want it to happen now. You're willing to do whatever it takes so that it will happen now."