Shanahans lose a game, but win an argument
It wasn't a ballgame so much as a referendum on who was right. All week there were undercurrents of resentment and blame among the Washington Redskins over the benching of Donovan McNabb. Was he the problem, or was the problem Coach Mike Shanahan and his junior partner Kyle? The Redskins found no easy answers against the Dallas Cowboys. The coaches proved their point, but it wasn't good news.
Shanahan's stated reason for benching McNabb was that he wanted to "evaluate" the offense without him. This is what "evaluating" looks like: a power struggle. For a while, it looked like organizational chaos, when Rex Grossman gave up two turnovers that led directly to touchdowns for the Cowboys, and a 27-7 third-quarter deficit. But in the end, Shanahan's judgment was validated. The truth was that the Redskins were better in McNabb's absence, even in a 33-30 loss.
It wasn't so much that Grossman threw four touchdown passes, the first time a Redskins quarterback has done such a thing since 2005, or that the Redskins put up 30 points for the first time in 16 games. It was that Grossman mounted such sustained drives. The scoring chart looked like this: they went 78 yards, 71 yards, 78 yards, and 56 yards. It was the smoothest and most rhythmic they've looked all season.
"It was boom, boom," Grossman said. "Long pass, couple short passes, a nice run, and it was like, all right. Next drive, we did it again, and we knew we were on fire."
As it turns out, the controversial benching of McNabb was a message from Shanahan to everyone in the organization: If you won't run the offense, we'll find someone who will.
"I understand this game." Shanahan said pointedly afterward. "I understand how it works."
It's now obvious that McNabb was a hang-up for the Redskins, that his inefficiency strangled them. Grossman did what the coaches have apparently been imploring McNabb to do: read coverage and work through a specific, methodical set of progressions. Though Grossman was clearly rusty in making his first start since 2008, he found open spaces in the field and spread the ball to six receivers, completing 25 of 43 passes for 322 yards. Most crucially, they scored on three straight possessions spanning the third and fourth quarters. When is the last time that happened?
"He executed the offense," Shanahan said, again pointedly. "We've got a system."
But it was a sad truth, and a setback for the organization, that McNabb will become Grossman's clipboard holder. And it can't be a source of satisfaction to anyone in the franchise. It's not particularly a vindication of Shanahan that he couldn't make the offense work with the quarterback of his own choosing, a Pro Bowler who was supposed to be a significant upgrade, for whom he gave up two premium draft picks and is paying a salary of $14.7 million this year. Among the things that needs "evaluating" is how such a misjudgment could have happened. Maybe Shanahan should have asked himself some tough questions. How likely was it that McNabb, a 34-year-old veteran, would be flexible enough to learn a new offense, and accept coaching from the 30-year-old coach's kid?
The word from inside Redskins Park was that the Shanahans have been frustrated for weeks by the fact that McNabb either couldn't or wouldn't absorb Kyle Shanahan's offense and make the correct reads, and that he only wanted to do the things that made him comfortable. His inflexibility limited the play-calling options, and his inconsistency too often put them in difficult long-yardage situations. Hence, he never improved in 13 games. Those judgments now seem correct.
The word from the McNabb side is that the Shanahans didn't do enough to accommodate his improvisational talents, that Kyle Shanahan still has a lot to learn that he didn't do enough to make the freelance-happy McNabb more effective, and also protect him from sacks behind a vulnerable line. Perhaps a valid point, given that Grossman was sacked five times.
There was likely some truth in both arguments. Maybe it was just a bad fit. Maybe it came down to this: pride on both sides, a Pro Bowl quarterback and a Super Bowl coach, each of whom thought they knew better.
As far as McNabb's future in Washington, it's early to draw a definite conclusion, but we've likely seen the end of his brief era in burgundy and gold. It's hard to see how he can come back given the strong words from his agent, Fletcher Smith, that the Shanahans "disrespected" him. Shanahan was outwardly unwilling to draw any sweeping conclusions, and pointed out that McNabb had his share of big performances this season, particularly a 400-plus yard outing against Houston, and an upset of the Philadelphia Eagles. "It's one game," Shanahan said. The bottom line was that they have yet to put together four good offensive quarters, and Grossman remains turnover prone. And they still lost.
"You'd like to get a victory," Grossman said. "Then the answer's obvious."
But one issue is settled: Shanahan is in firm command of the organization, and knows his players better than anybody. There have been moments this week when you had to wonder about his judgment; he's not always the smoothest operator, or public speaker. His dealings with McNabb have been hedging, and when he waited until late in the week to make his decision to start Grossman public, it unsettled his team. "Having that quick change at the end of the week throws you off mentally," Anthony Armstrong said. It also led to some ugly back channel rumors that the locker room was upset and divided.
But the performance against the Cowboys put the writing clearly on the wall: Shanahan is going to blow up the roster until he gets the right players for his system in house. There's not a single player whose return is assured, now that Shanahan has shown himself willing to chuck the highest-profile star on the team. He's tearing up his own script and starting over. And he clearly doesn't care if the locker room is divided - half of them might not be back next year anyway.
"We're going to learn how to win," Shanahan said. "It's going to take some time."