Mike Shanahan is losing his touch
Redskins coach's handling of Donovan McNabb situation is hard to understand
First off, Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb was way too diplomatic on his weekly radio show Tuesday. Along with saying that he felt "disrespected" by the way coach Mike Shanahan benched him this past week, he could've been far more hostile with his opinions. Because McNabb didn't go there, I'll do it for him: Shanahan, from all indications, has a lost a step as a head coach.
Even though Rex Grossman played well as McNabb's replacement in Sunday's 33-30 loss to Dallas, Shanahan's messy handling of this entire affair still should leave observers shaking their heads in wonder. As McNabb revealed, he didn't even learn about his demotion to third string until Shanahan told reporters on Friday.
What had to be just as galling to the quarterback was that this is the second time Shanahan has ambushed him. The first such incident occurred when Shanahan replaced McNabb with Grossman for the final two minutes of a 37-25 loss to Detroit (Shanahan later offered two different explanations for the decision).
You just don't make those kinds of mistakes with players as distinguished as McNabb. Despite his disappointing play this season -- he has thrown 14 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions through 13 starts -- he still deserves the respect of being forewarned about his plight. He has logged 12 NFL seasons and played in six Pro Bowls. It's not as if Shanahan were turning on his back on Heath Shuler.
Yet this is why Shanahan's behavior is so baffling. This is a man who's supposed to be reputed for his ability to work with quarterbacks, and this is how he treats the star the Redskins acquired in a ballyhooed trade in April? Shanahan showed more kindness to lesser talents such as Brian Griese and Jake Plummer during his days in Denver. At the very least, he could've anticipated the embarrassing situation he was creating for a quarterback who has dealt with plenty of awkward moments throughout his career.
In fact, the entire episode creates the impression that there is something more onerous smoldering behind the scenes. As much as McNabb tried to say that his relationship with Shanahan isn't permanently damaged, that comment should be accompanied by its own laugh track. There's no possible way any starting quarterback could trust a coach who: (1) has burned him twice in the span of three months, and (2) has refused to even guarantee him a spot on the roster for next season. At this stage, it's a stretch to think these two could exchange Christmas wishes in a couple of days.
As one league executive told me earlier this season, Shanahan's biggest mistake was not accepting McNabb for what he is. Andy Reid molded his offense in Philadelphia around the fact that McNabb is more skilled as a deep passer and improviser. McNabb was never the quintessential, super-accurate quarterback who thrives in the West Coast system, and that appears to be what Shanahan covets.
"Mike should've just let Donovan be who he is," the executive said. "That's what worked in Philadelphia."
What makes Shanahan's actions just as questionable is that they come in a season when he has basically been at war with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Granted, Haynesworth has done nothing to help his image this year, but Shanahan's handling of him in training camp seemed over the top. By making Haynesworth spend eight days trying to pass a conditioning test, the coach did more to create a distraction than he did to straighten out a problem child. Shanahan's entire message during that time was that he had the power to bring the hammer on anybody and had no problems using it maliciously.
It was the kind of approach that wins points with the public when you're dealing with a headstrong defensive lineman with a checkered past. It's a little different when you're talking about a quarterback who was brought in to lead your team. In treating McNabb like a stooge, Shanahan opened up all sorts of questions about how much trust other players should have in him. The belief in that locker room probably has to be that if the coach can do Donovan like that, he damn sure will embarrass anybody else without thinking twice.
That's not how you run a team when your two Super Bowl titles came on the backs of a Hall of Fame quarterback (John Elway) and a pretty good running back (Terrell Davis). It might make Shanahan look like a tough guy, but intimidation was never his weapon of choice. He won games and his reputation with a sharp intellect. He was the man who could unearth hidden talents such as Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith and turn them into dangerous playmakers in a high-performance offense.
Now Shanahan, who is 5-9 in his first season with the Redskins, is the guy who is trying to see whether Grossman still has a future. Hey, more power to the coach. We've all watched enough football to know that one good game doesn't mean Grossman (who threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys) is going to make people forget the way his career bombed in Chicago or that he spent a year as a backup in Houston before joining Washington. If anything, he'll probably be the next quarterback turned whipping boy in a town surely tired of finding so much disappointment under center.
Shanahan isn't the first coach to think he can work magic with somebody else's trash. He'll just be the latest to discover that too much ego in that job can sometimes lead coaches to places they don't want to go. That's because McNabb probably will be playing elsewhere by this time next season. And at that point, Washington fans might be discovering that the players might not be the only problem with the future of the franchise.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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