Rex Grossman might not be a star, but he might be what Mike Shanahan wants

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 9:23 AM

Jake Plummer.

That's what's really interesting about Rex Grossman and the Shanahans. Will Rex become Jake II, the reclamation project, thought to be a bad joke, that confirms and showcases the coach's brilliance?

After Grossman's four-touchdown, three-turnover show in a 33-30 loss to Dallas on Sunday, the Washington Redskins coach said, "I understand this game, and I understand how it works." That got noticed.

This didn't: "When I had Jake Plummer, he had a winning percentage of 36 percent" in six years in Arizona, Shanahan said. "Everybody said we were crazy. He had 90 touchdown passes and 114 interceptions. 'How can you bring a guy to the Denver Broncos that had won 36 percent of his games?'

"And four years later, he'd won 72 percent of his games, which was the best in [the NFL in those] four years."

You can't find two quarterbacks in recent times who were more similar and more mocked as they approached age 30 than Plummer, with a career quarterback rating of 68 when Shanahan got him, and Grossman, with a lifetime mark of 69 when he came here. Few if any think Grossman will be the Redskins quarterback the next few years. I don't. But you can bet it's tantalizing the Shanahans. And sometimes they're right.

It's nice for Mike and his offensive coordinator son Kyle that they get to enjoy the Christmas week crow-feast that's being eaten around the NFL by people who thought that Grossman, even aided by the Shanahan offensive system, could never run the Redskins attack better than Donovan McNabb (I'll have a large drumstick, please).

On his bench-McNabb decision, Shanny got about a 20 percent sanity rating from fans, media and stray dogs. It's cozy being wrong in the middle of a pundit herd, especially because Shanahan, in his de facto GM role, wasted so much time and money, plus draft picks, with his McNabb mistake.

Now, from the remainder bin, we get Grossman. Kyle's makeover may be a beauty.

Many will say, "Not so fast." Grossman next faces two teams in playoff contention, not the Cowboys, who have given up more than 30 points eight times and rank 31st in points allowed. Grossman's QB rating (93.6) was lower than McNabb's a week before (100.7).

The Jaguars and Giants might stampede Grossman. Or not. But it doesn't change what we saw Sunday.

Grossman seems to understand the Redskins' offense better than McNabb, run it more quickly, end up in the right play more often, go through his reads deeper and step up in the pocket as asked. He doesn't have McNabb's arm strength, ability to rip away from rushers to make plays, nor his career-long ability (until this year) to avoid interceptions.

In other words, the current Grossman incarnation, so far, is what the Shanahans want. McNabb is almost the opposite. They want a strict "system quarterback," someone who improvises only as a last resort, not as an agreeable alternative. They want someone who reads the field deep-to-middle-to-short, not short-to-medium-to-deep as McNabb did in Philly. In short, they don't want the kind of quarterback McNabb has been all his life.

So, now the Redskins are evaluating. And, if Grossman does well, he will surely tempt them, even though he entered this season with the second-lowest career quarterback rating of any active passer.

Plummer was worse, and his Arizona record was 30-52. Then Shanahan got him. In Denver, his record as a starter was 9-2, 10-6, 13-3 and 7-4. His first three QB ratings were 91.2, 84.5 and 90.2 - very good, not great.

Successful NFL coaches do what they've done before. Shanahan breaths discipline, demands control, weeds out everyone who isn't totally with his plan (sometimes cruelly) and, when necessary, will take the lesser athlete for the sake of a superior attitude.

There's nobody who is "with the program" more than a once-touted quarterback who has seen the brightest lights, then found himself on the edge of football's darkness. Grossman was taken 22nd overall in his draft in '03; Plummer was 42nd overall in his draft in '97. Both had high-pick talent, but nothing like those No. 1 overall glamour boys.

So, if Grossman grades well against the Jags and Giants - which I doubt, so he's sure got a chance - don't ignore the possibility that Rex may complicate the Redskins' off-season decisions, including how they use their first-round draft pick. All coaches like to look smart, but Shanahan may be particularly susceptible.

On Sunday, he didn't wait to see the tape to glow: Grossman "executed the offense. We have a system. You've got to go through your reads. It's very complicated to tell you what he did. He just executed. There's a lot of different coverage, lots of different blitzes. We have routes called for different coverages. He performed like a veteran performs."

In Denver, Shanahan got three good seasons out of Plummer, one of them a Pro Bowl, before he spotted his quarterback of the future with the 11th pick overall in '06 in Jay Cutler. Eleven games into his rookie season, as Plummer's confidence sank, Cutler took over. Ironically, his record for Shanahan (17-20) never approach Plummer's (39-15).

"Everybody looks at the playoffs when we were 1-3 with the Denver Broncos," Shanahan said Sunday. "You've got to take a look at all the great things Jake did."

Plummer had scrambles longer than a season's worth of Grossman runs. Plummer dragged the anchor of a dismal Cards franchise while Grossman got to start for a defense-first Bears team that took him to the Super Bowl. They're alike in only one way.

Shanahan, the coach who "knows how the game works," saw something in each that would work in his offense. Suddenly, Plummer, a turnover machine in Arizona, just as Grossman was in Chicago, had a 71-47 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Denver.

Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. But the Shanahans may think they can.

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