By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:03 AM
IRVING, TEX. - With little practice and even less notice, the Redskins have given Rex Grossman the tallest of tasks when he takes the field Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. Starting his first game since 2008, he'll try to show that he can upgrade a quarterback position that had been previously filled by a six-time Pro Bowler, even as coaches count on him to produce improvement at the other 10 offensive positions as well.
"We've been struggling," said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. "We've definitely been struggling to score points, and we got to give someone else an opportunity. I'm excited to see what Rex can do. I have no idea what he'll do. This will be my first game with him as starter."
After only five wins in 13 games, coaches feel they know what they would've gotten out of Donovan McNabb, which is precisely why they've benched him for the remainder of the season. Grossman is an unknown quantity, but those familiar with the controversial decision say coaches felt it was essential to switch quarterbacks for the team to salvage what is left of the season.
Among the explanations Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan gave for benching McNabb on Oct. 31 in Detroit: He felt Grossman gave the Redskins a better chance of winning. Turning to Grossman now, though, isn't as much about winning. Coaches feel Grossman will give them a better opportunity to evaluate all the players around him.
"I think it's pretty obvious what's at stake. I'm very excited about it," Grossman said. "It's an unbelievable opportunity to go down to Dallas in this rivalry game and show what I can do with this offense and this team."
The Redskins certainly want the win, but once the team was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention last weekend, the organizational focus shifted to deciding which pieces to bring back in 2011. McNabb and his limitations apparently made it difficult for the organization's talent evaluators to assess the roster.
For years, McNabb relied on his play-making ability to win games, but for one reason or another - his fading skills or the coaches' refusal to turn him loose? - he hasn't been turning broken plays into highlights this season. In fact, he's only run the ball six times in the past five games. Many of his most impressive plays this year have come on deep passes.
For coaches, the problems with McNabb can't all be measured in statistics. Those familiar with the decision to bench him say the 12-year veteran didn't understand the playbook, didn't work through his progressions, struggled to read coverages and couldn't manage the game, which resulted in costly delay-of-game penalties and bad timeouts.
Those weaknesses have made it difficult for coaches to assess the other players on the field, according to some in the organization. They can't see what pass catchers are capable of because McNabb might not look their way. McNabb has taken some sacks by failing to step up in the pocket, which has forced offensive tackles at times to change their technique. He's dug the team some early holes and the Redskins have had to abandon the running game in the second half, which makes evaluating tailbacks difficult.
"Every quarterback's different," Grossman said. "I can't really speak on what he does, but this is my second year in this system. . . . I feel like it does what I do well: chances to go deep, and then intermediate patterns and then down to the check downs. It gives you an opportunity to make big plays without trying to create your own big plays. I just want to run the offense and not try to do anything special."
Grossman, 30, has little game experience in recent years, but those who've watched the two quarterbacks at practice say Grossman has a better understanding of the offense, if not a better ability to execute. Grossman played under Kyle Shanahan in 2009 in Houston, and though he essentially held a clipboard for 16 games, the Texans ran a nearly identical system.
Grossman earned his spot on the Texans' roster in the final preseason game, in which he was 9-of-16 passing for 197 yards and a pair of touchdowns. During the regular season, he saw action in just one game, completing 3 of 9 passes for 33 yards and an interception against Jacksonville.
With Washington, he only set foot on the field at the tail end of the Detroit game. He was 4 of 7 for 44 yards, but he lost a fumble on a costly sack. The Lions returned the ball for a game-clinching touchdown.
In the preseason with Washington, Grossman exhibited many of the flaws that cost him his job in Chicago: inconsistency, poor decision-making and a propensity for turnovers. In three preseason games, he was 33 of 55 for 446 yards and two touchdowns. But he also had an interception and five fumbles -- two of which were lost -- and took four sacks.
"I've been impressed with Rex since Day 1," Mike Shanahan said Friday. "The way he's been handling our practices, the way he's been running our offense. But until a guy plays in a game, you don't know for sure."
Chicago made Grossman the 22nd overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft, but he didn't start regularly for the Bears until 2006. That was the year Chicago reached the Super Bowl. Though the Bears relied heavily on defense, the 2006 team also scored the second-most points in the NFL. By the end of the next season, Grossman had become the butt of jokes in Chicago and lost his starting job to Kyle Orton.
"I definitely have had some time to reflect . . . on my time in Chicago and what I would do differently and. . . if given the opportunity to be a starter again, how I would go about it," Grossman said Friday. "So I definitely have a game plan. Not only for Dallas but for myself as well."
The circumstances surrounding his return to an NFL huddle are hardly ideal. Because of weather, the Redskins couldn't hold a full-speed outdoor practice last week, and until Friday, McNabb handled the majority of the reps. Regardless, taking over a quarterback job this late in the season is a tall order.
"He's done a good job in practice all year," said Kyle Shanahan. "With Rex's personality, the stage isn't too big for him. I expect him to play well."
Quarterback Jon Kitna similarly hadn't started a game since 2008 but he was thrust into the Cowboys' huddle when Tony Romo broke his clavicle on Oct. 25.
"The speed of the game is always difficult to adjust to," Kitna said. "You feel like you need to play faster, but slowing down a little bit is what you actually need to do. You need to pump your brakes a bit, so to speak."
Though Grossman has taken reps with the starters each week, practice isn't a perfect simulation of the gameday experience, Kitna says.
"What helped me more was practicing on the scout team," he said, "because you're going against the number one defense. So I don't really feel like practice prepares you much for the speed of the game. It's so different."
When Grossman leads the offense onto the field Sunday, coaches, Redskins fans and Grossman himself will learn just how different.
"This is a tough situation," Grossman said, "but it is what it is and I'm excited about it."