The numbers don't lie: Donovan McNabb's play is a liability for the Redskins

The Washington Post's LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg, Rick Maese and Jonathan Forsythe discuss Donovan McNabb's five-year contract extension.
By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:00 AM

Too much consideration is given to the eggshell egos of starting quarterbacks. Nobody wants to say it, but Donovan McNabb is responsible for a lot of what's wrong with the Washington Redskins. That's nothing personal against McNabb, who is one of the game's great gentlemen. It's just honest. Heaven forbid we should offend by pointing out the actual facts of his performance.

It's said that quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame, but there's no denying McNabb's play is a liability for the Redskins at the moment. Certainly, there are other explanations for their two-game slide to a 4-5 record, from injuries, to a thin roster, to coaching decisions. But significant accountability rests with McNabb, who by the latest measurements is performing like one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL.

Overall, McNabb ranks 29th, and he's been outplayed by Chad Henne, Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, among others. Most crucially, he ranks dead last on third-down plays, successful on just 24 of 111 attempts. That's an abysmal rate. Third down is the very heart of a quarterback's responsibility. To be blunt, it's what McNabb gets paid for.

If things continue this way, Mike Shanahan's decision to go to Rex Grossman in the final 1 minute 50 seconds against the Detroit Lions is going to look increasingly pardonable. It was a bad decision, and Redskins management salved McNabb's hurt feelings with a contract extension. But there's a good reason why the new deal is light on guaranteed money, and is structured to give them an out.

McNabb's agent Fletcher Smith says he expects the Redskins to pick up those options, given "Donovan's stature." Stature, schmature. Frankly, if McNabb doesn't perform better over the next seven games, it's hard to see why he should continue to be the starter next year.

Wasn't the idea of trading for McNabb that he would be a significant upgrade at quarterback? McNabb's apologists will say he's dealing with an unstable offensive line, injuries in the backfield, and a dearth of receivers. This is all true. But these are exactly the problems McNabb was brought in to alleviate. He was supposed to help compensate for their roster shortcomings with his ability to make a play.

If anything, McNabb has a better supporting cast than the man he replaced, Jason Campbell. The offensive line continues to be a sieve, but there is more depth at running back in Ryan Torain, Keiland Williams and Darrel Young, and Anthony Armstrong has emerged as a receiving complement to Santana Moss. So the roster woes don't explain the extent of McNabb's third down futility. And it's not lousy play calling, either. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme was hugely productive in Houston with a far less accomplished quarterback running it.

It's hard to finger the exact cause of McNabb's struggles. Some of his drive-stalling ineffectiveness is due to plaguing inaccuracy. He's been imprecise on short and medium range passes. McNabb has huge compensations as a strong-armed slinger of the ball who can extend plays with his legs. But he's been stiff in his movements lately, suffering from sore hamstrings. For all of his deep strike ability, his inability to establish a rhythm so far has made this the worst season of his career statistically.

His protection is unreliable, and it's hard to overstate how that can compromise a quarterback. His sore-leggedness has affected both his ability to evade the rush, and his accuracy. Unfamiliarity with the new system has probably made him a little halting. All of these things are reasonable explanations. Still, it's hard to reconcile the six-time Pro Bowler with such an ineffectual mover of the chains on third down. Surely he shouldn't be struggling this much.

It's early for this conclusion, but you begin to wonder if the 33-year-old's well-used legs can be the foundation the Redskins hoped they would be for years to come.

Unfortunately, in the short term the Redskins have no choice but to hope McNabb finds himself in the Shanahan system, and regains some freshness in his legs. Another benching in favor of Grossman doesn't seem to be a good option. Grossman is comfortable with Kyle Shanahan's system after serving as a backup in Houston, but he's horribly turnover prone, with 37 interceptions and 20 fumbles for his career to 33 touchdown passes. The Shanahans brought him to Washington and gave him the backup job, so there must be something they like about him. But after his catastrophic fumble against the Lions, it's hard to see how they can have more trust in him than McNabb.

But in the longer term, McNabb's "stature" shouldn't prevent the Redskins from making a change if McNabb doesn't start to play considerably better. This isn't to say McNabb has lost his value - just that his value may be as an excellent tutor for some nice young draft pick. McNabb will always be a priceless acquisition for his example of quiet, unselfish professionalism.

Quarterbacks are fragile, vulnerable creatures, over-praised and overcompensated yet also exposed and second-guessed. Replacing one is the trickiest call in the game, especially one as perennially successful as McNabb. Everyone in town surely hoped that he would be a long-term answer, and it's not pleasant to chronicle his struggles.

But the reality is that the Redskins can't afford for him to keep playing this way. It affects the well-being of the entire franchise disproportionately. He bears more responsibility than other players. That's the reality of the profession he chose. The Redskins' commitment to McNabb at this point is a pure leap of faith, based on past performance. But it's no guarantee of the future.

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