By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; D01
Donovan McNabb spent Wednesday afternoon as he has so many Wednesdays over the past dozen years, tucking his hooded head into a helmet, bracing against the cold and practicing for what will be - all but certainly - a start in an NFL game, the 156th of his career. But as meaningless as December practice might seem, particularly in a season which won't end with a trip to the playoffs, McNabb can't escape the notion that his first season with the Washington Redskins has been less than a success, and that backup Rex Grossman could find himself in the lineup if McNabb stumbles.
"None of this is new to me," McNabb said. "I just focus in on what I need to do in order to get this team to where we need to go."
The team, headed into a game at Dallas Sunday that amounts to a battle to avoid last place in the NFC East, is far from where McNabb needs it to be. In eight of the past 10 years, McNabb's Philadelphia Eagles went to the playoffs. This year, his Redskins won't advance, and McNabb is widely viewed as a prominent item on a long list of reasons why. McNabb's process of mastering Coach Mike Shanahan's offense and running it efficiently every week not only is ongoing, but Wednesday, it led to a series of questions for Shanahan about whether Grossman might start against the Cowboys.
"I don't go through the starting lineups," Shanahan said, a bit in jest. Quite seriously, though, he addressed the development of his offense, which ranks 16th in the NFL in yards per game (338.2) but has scored only 22 touchdowns from scrimmage, more than just three other teams.
"I think [the media] asked me how long it would take to learn the system, and I told you two to three years," Shanahan said. "I was serious when I said two to three years. . . . It does take a while for things to become automatic."
Shanahan has been hesitant to break down McNabb's performances, and when he spoke Wednesday, he answered questions about McNabb largely by addressing the entire offense. Shanahan said he believes the unit has made strides - and, indeed, it has averaged 33 more yards per game over the second half of the season than it did in the first eight games - but that he needs more.
"I'd like us to be more consistent really almost in every area," Shanahan said. "Does that mean I'm disappointed? Yeah, I'm disappointed in a way. I think we've made a lot of strides and we're heading in the right direction, but you still want to play better."
McNabb said he is now completely comfortable in the system. But his numbers remain substandard. Not only is he posting a career-low quarterback rating (77.1) that ranks 25th in the league, he already has set a career high with 15 interceptions. Since he was benched near the end of the Oct. 31 loss against Detroit, he has scarcely improved statistically, throwing seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in five games, with a passer rating (78.7) that is barely better than it was in his first eight games (76.0).
Still, if McNabb continues on his current pace of 259.8 yards per game, he will throw for 4,156 yards on the season - a total that would not only be the highest of his career, but would surpass Jay Schroeder's 1986 team record of 4,109 yards. He believes he is making progress.
"I've been in this league long enough where you can tell when you're not yourself to when you're [feeling] 'Okay, that's something I'm used to doing or I'm comfortable doing,' " McNabb said. "And that's part of the communication that we've gotten better with."
Last week, before McNabb posted a 100.7 rating against Tampa Bay that was his second-best of the season, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan assessed McNabb's season this way: "We're still trying to work on our consistency, but I think it has been up and down."
For many of the Redskins, having McNabb as a teammate has been a learning experience, and that relationship - for now - outweighs his performance on the field.
"I've been so impressed with Donovan's attitude, his leadership, his ability to run this team, his ability to learn a new offense," tight end Chris Cooley said. "I think he's grown a lot."
That is where Mike Shanahan reserves his praise for McNabb - for how he handles himself. Wednesday, McNabb fielded questions about whether Grossman took more reps in practice last week ("It's not an issue," he said) and whether things have been different after his benching in Detroit ("The communication got a lot better," he said) with typical, controversy-averse aplomb.
"We think he definitely has a career in politics when he's done," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
Mike Shanahan added: "He's as classy a guy as you'll ever meet in your whole life. He's just first-class, the way he handles himself."
This year, though, is in many ways lost - unless, of course, it leads to improvement in 2011. That, McNabb said, will come.
"When you've been around and kind of know the mind-set of the coaching staff and kind of the preparation, knowing what they expect as an offense, everyone kind of coming in and being on the same page," McNabb said, "that's a comfort level that I think all players are looking forward to."