- Donovan McNabb was benched in the final minute and 50 seconds of the Redskins' 37-25 loss to the Detroit Lions because Mike Shanahan didn't believe he had a good enough understanding of the two-minute offense to lead the team to victory.
Donovan McNabb over the course of his 11-year career in the NFL has 15 fourth-quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives under his belt. Yet, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan believed that backup quarterback Rex Grossman, who last appeared in a game on Dec. 6, 2009 and was 3-for-9 with an interception in that outing, gave the Redskins a better chance to rally from a six-point fourth-quarter deficit and defeat the then-1-5 Detroit Lions.
“At the end of the game, with Donovan, with Rex knowing the offense, I felt with the time and no timeouts, he gave us the best chance to win in that scenario. Just knowing the terminology, what we want, how it’s run, it puts a lot of pressure on a quarterback that isn’t used to the terminology. I thought that was the best scenario for us to have a chance to win the game."
The better familiarity that Grossman had, according to Shanahan, came from the quarterback serving as a backup in Houston last season under Kyle Shanahan, who is now Washington’s offensive coordinator. And with the game on the line, Grossman’s number was called.
The Redskins had blown a 25-20 lead and allowed the Lions to score on a 10-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. A successful two-point conversion put Detroit ahead by three points with 3:06 left to play. McNabb missed back-to-back passes on the following possession and was sacked for a sixth time on fourth-and-10 from the Washington 28.
Immediately after that failed drive, Grossman started warming up on the sideline and went over plays with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Meanwhile McNabb wore a baseball cap and was nowhere near his fellow quarterback and coordinator.
After the Lions turned the short field into a field goal to extend their lead to 31-25, Grossman trotted out, but was promptly sacked on a blind-side hit from defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. The ball went flying out of Grossman’s hand and Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh scooped it up at the Washington 17-yard line and danced into the end zone.
On the next possession, Grossman again took the field with McNabb helplessly watching. Grossman went 4-for-7 for 44 yards and the Redskins fell to 4-4 as they enter the bye week.
Even after the loss, Shanahan said he had no remorse about yanking McNabb, who had completed 17 of 30 passes for 210 yards for a touchdown and also had an interception and two fumbles (both of which he recovered) on the day.
“You’ve got to understand,” the coach said. “It gave us the best chance to win. What you have to do some times is you have to understand that everything is sped up. No timeouts, you have to call a couple plays at the line at a time. When you go through this during the week and then you take a look at this atmosphere, I thought it was best to put [Grossman] in that situation.
“You’ve got to be there,” Shanahan continued, elaborating on the message he hoped it sent to McNabb. “You’ve got to understand that you can’t think, you’ve got to react. The scenarios that we’re in, in those two minutes, you make a decision and you go with it. He understands that it’s got to be automatic and you’ve got to call two plays at a time. He understood why I did it, I think he did. I don’t think any quarterback likes it, but he understands.”
Although McNabb has struggled this year like few other seasons in his career, and although the Redskins' offense ranks 30th in the NFL in third-down conversions, Shanahan said that McNabb remains the team’s starting quarterback. The coach also said, “it means nothing,” when asked about the implications that McNabb -- a five-time Pro Bowl quarterback -- now eight weeks into the season still doesn’t have a good grasp of the offense. He also said that he didn’t believe he undercut his quarterback or with the move had caused the other Redskins to lose confidence in McNabb.
“Not at all. I’m not concerned with that,” he said. “You have to take a look at the situation, and I think I explained myself why, with the formations you have to put in given their pass rush and the distance we had to go.”
McNabb himself tried his best not to let his frustrations come through in the post-game press conference.
“He’s the head coach. He made a decision, I can only roll with it and cheer on my team,” McNabb said. “If you’re asking, would I want to be in there? Yes. Any quarterback wants to be in there. That’s what you’re measured by: two minute offense and drives to win the game. The decision was made and obviously as a player you want to be in there.”
Grossman spoke only briefly after the game, and said he was just told, “Get ready, you’re going in.”
McNabb said that he made a case to remain in the game.
“I’ve been playing this game for a long time,” he said. “I’m not just going to sit there and say all right. But it’s not an argument session. We’re trying to win a game.”
But the quarterback without hesitation shot down the notion that he doesn’t have a good feel for the two minute offense. He said obviously this year had been a learning process for him as he has worked to unlearn everything he did in Philadelphia for 11 seasons and learn the Shanahans’ very different version of the West Coast offense. But as a veteran who has been in many different situations, McNabb believes that he has the knowledge and savvy to be able to direct a two-minute drive in this system.
Despite Shanahan’s dismissive nature on his decision, which he described as “a gut-move,” the fact that Shanahan didn’t have the confidence to go to McNabb with the game on the line doesn’t reflect well on the quarterback, who is playing in the last year of his contract and whom Washington gave up a second-round pick this year and what is expected to be a fourth-rounder next year to land.
Shanahan was asked if this was a one-time move, or if he would continue to evaluate both quarterbacks going forward, but he refused to elaborate.
“I think I just explained myself very well,” the coach said. “I thought it gave us the best chance to win because Rex is very familiar with the two minute terminology. Also, related to Rex, I thought he did a good job of handling putting us in various formations in that attack.”
Whether spooked, or uncaring, McNabb’s teammates did their best not to weigh in on the matter. Center Casey Rabach said he was told on the sideline Grossman would take over. Wide receiver Anthony Armstrong and left tackle Trent Williams hadn’t heard, but wouldn’t say if they were surprised to see Grossman in the huddle, or express their feelings on the move.
“I just wanted to win the game, man,” Williams said. “I don’t know nothing about that.”
Said Armstrong, who caught three passes from McNabb for 92 yards: “You’ve got to go do your job. I don’t make those decisions, you do your job. I thought we were moving the ball. I can’t say, I just run my routes and do my job.”
Shanahan said that the Redskins, with McNabb as their starter, will head into this week, address some things and then head into the bye week and then focus on Philadelphia on Monday, Nov. 15.
McNabb said he’ll just take the situation, try to learn from it, and improve. He pointed to the last time he was benched, which was Nov. 23, 2008, in Philadelphia, when Kevin Kolb relieved him in the third quarter of a 36-7 loss to Baltimore. McNabb started the next game -- and the four others after that -- closing out the season on a 4-1 run.
“I’ve been through a situation like this before. But I just continue to focus as if I’m the starter,” McNabb said. “[Shanahan] said I’m the starter, and I’ll keep working, get ready to come off the bye week against Philadelphia on Monday night. … When you get benched, you get benched, no matter how you look at it. I learned from it then and used it to get better and I will now.
“You’ve got to be a professional in everything you do,” he added. “There’s a long season ahead of us. There are ways to handle things and I’m not one to blurt out or voice my frustration by any means. I’m a professional and I try to handle it in a professional manner.”