Redskins coaches like Rex Grossman's knowledge of the offense

Rex Grossman (8) will start for the first time since 2008. His backup is John Beck, right. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Rex Grossman (8) will start for the first time since 2008. His backup is John Beck, right. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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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.

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