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Redskins bench Donovan McNabb, will start Rex Grossman against Cowboys

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 12:17 AM

Coach Mike Shanahan's decision Friday to bench quarterback Donovan McNabb for the remainder of the season stunned many inside and outside Redskins Park, but the move had been discussed for weeks as frustration with McNabb's poor performance mounted.

Shanahan listened to his dissatisfied offensive staff before demoting McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman for Sunday's game at Dallas, multiple people familiar with the situation said. Third-stringer John Beck will move ahead of McNabb and serve as Grossman's primary backup for the season's final two games against Jacksonville and the New York Giants.

McNabb's rapid descent since being acquired in an April trade can be traced to his struggles adjusting to the offense the coach used to win consecutive Super Bowl titles with the Denver Broncos. In 13 games this season, the six-time Pro Bowler failed to deliver what Shanahan expects from the quarterback position.

The team's top football official, Shanahan is eager to evaluate the Redskins' offense with someone other than McNabb at the controls.

"There's a lot of mistakes that you make, you really don't know if you made a mistake" at the time of the move, Shanahan said after practice at Redskins Park. "But if you do make one, you make it and you go on. What I want to do is evaluate where we're at [at quarterback] at the end of the season, and then I will tell you if we erred or not."

Apparently, though, the Redskins have seen enough from McNabb. And in the coaching offices at Redskins Park, the only surprise was that Shanahan stuck with him for as long as he did.

The belief among the coaching staff is that McNabb's play this season has not been good. McNabb is having his worst season statistically - his 15 interceptions are a career high and his passer rating ranks 25th in the NFL - but the problem goes beyond the numbers, according to people in the organization who requested anonymity so they could speak freely about the situation.

Obviously, McNabb is an accomplished player, having led the Eagles to six NFC East titles and a Super Bowl appearance. But since his arrival in Washington, Redskins coaches were disappointed with the player they acquired.

Among themselves in meetings at Redskins Park, coaches often bemoan the fact that McNabb frequently watches the rush, doesn't read coverages well and prefers to attempt to make plays outside the structure of the offense, according to people with knowledge of the situation. McNabb regularly succeeded while free-lancing in Philadelphia. At age 34, however, he no longer possesses the ability to pull that off, the Redskins believe.

His performance in practice was as bad in games, the sources said, and something had to change in an effort to evaluate the offense fairly. The Redskins (5-8) have dropped three straight and five of six. They are eliminated from playoff contention. At this point, the focus is on evaluating for the 2011 season and beyond, and Shanahan informed McNabb on Thursday that he "could not guarantee him that he would be back next year. I said, 'I can't guarantee you that.' But what I can guarantee you [is] that I'll be honest with you. I'll evaluate the situation."

Approached by reporters after practice Friday, McNabb declined to comment. Through his publicist, he issued a statement saying he respects Shanahan's decision, "but I strongly disagree with it."

McNabb's agent, Fletcher Smith, used much stronger language. "Disrespectful is probably not strong enough of a word" to describe Shanahan's treatment of McNabb. "Donovan has handled himself with nothing but class, not just in Washington but as an ambassador for the league. To treat him this way . . . it's beyond disrespectful."

To say the least, Redskins players were "surprised, [because] he's definitely won a lot of games and done a lot of good things in this league," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said of McNabb. "But as sad as it is, this league is a what-have-you-done-lately-for-me league. And he hasn't won a whole lot of games with us, so Coach felt it was kind of time to kinda figure out if Rex is gonna be a guy we keep around here next year or not."

There were signs as early as last week that Shanahan was planning to make a major change at quarterback, people close to McNabb said. McNabb began to feel as if his support in the organization was eroding.

The Chicago Bears selected Grossman in the first round (22nd overall) in the 2003 draft. In 2006, the only season in which he played a full 16-game schedule with the Bears, Grossman helped them reach the Super Bowl. But he was run out of Chicago after the 2008 season and has not started a game since Nov. 9, 2008.

Last season, Grossman worked in a very similar version of Shanahan's system with Houston under then-Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who now runs the Redskins' offense.

The change, though, is less about Grossman and more about what's happening at the other positions on offense. The Redskins coaches believe they are improving, especially along the offensive line and at running back.

To be sure, though, Grossman views the next three games as a chance to revive his career.

"I definitely have had some time to reflect . . . on my time in Chicago," Grossman said. "And what I would do differently and how I would, if given the opportunity to be a starter again, how I would go about it. I definitely have a game plan. Not only for Dallas but for myself as well."

In Week 8 against Detroit, McNabb was benched in the final 1 minute 50 seconds of a 37-25 loss. Afterward, Mike Shanahan cited Grossman's familiarity with the two-minute offense as the primary factor in the move.

On Nov. 15, McNabb signed a contract extension that contained a $3.5 million signing bonus, though nothing is guaranteed beyond this season.

In salary and bonuses this season, McNabb will be paid $14.7 million. The Redskins hold a $10 million contract option they can exercise until the first game of the 2011 season, or they could release McNabb and owe him nothing. If McNabb is on the roster next season, he would earn about $16.25 million, assuming the league and the NFL Players Association reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

Under the circumstances, would McNabb asked the Redskins to be released from his contract?

"At the end of the day, he has to live there [in Washington], he has to play there. And the decision, at the end of the day, is ultimately his," Smith said. "I can't answer that question on his behalf.

"But from my standpoint, I'm certainly not happy with what has transpired. If that is his decision, we're absolutely not happy with Mike's treatment or handling of Donovan. In this situation and in a lot of situations this season."

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