Why did Mike Shanahan bench Donovan McNabb?

To say that Mike Shanahan made a mountain out of a molehill by benching Donovan McNabb(notes) late in the Washington Redskins loss to the Detroit Lions would be inaccurate. Since there was no previous problem with McNabb and no clamoring for the quarterback to be replaced by backup Rex Grossman(notes), there wasn't even a molehill. There was nothing. Shanahan magically conjured a mountain out of thin air. He made something out of nothing.

In doing this, Shanahan created a discussion that will dominate attention in D.C. and throughout the NFL for at least the next two weeks (the Redskins have a bye on Sunday) and likely throughout the rest of the year. Is McNabb still his starter? What happens if he has to run the two-minute drill later in the next game (which happens to be a Monday night affair against McNabb's ex-team, the Philadelphia Eagles)? Will the quarterback be back next year? If not, why did they trade for him? The questions are endless. Worst of all, none of them would have been asked had Shanahan stayed the course with McNabb instead of overreacting by putting in Rex Grossman.

Shanahan said he benched McNabb with 1:45 left in the game and the Redskins down by six points because Grossman was more familiar running the team's two-minute offense. Really? As Dan Steinberg of the DC Sports Bog points out, McNabb has been familiar enough with the two-minute offense to run it all season, including in an almost-identical situation last week against the Indianapolis Colts.

The excuse seemed forced, like it was concocoted on the slow walk to the locker room. Shanahan didn't pull McNabb because Grossman knows the offense better, he pulled him because he thought Grossman gave the team a better chance to win. The excuse was even dumber than the decision, which in itself was absurd. How can Shanahan have thought that a cold Rex Grossman coming into the game and taking a snap behind a shoddy offensive line was better than Donovan McNabb doing the same?

Had Shanahan made the decision early in the fourth quarter, then maybe I could understand. But with 110 seconds left? On a last-ditch effort to win? There's no defense for that.

Not that McNabb is a victim in all of this. He's been a mediocre quarterback this season and was even worse than that in Detroit. McNabb was underthrowing receivers, holding onto the ball for too long and getting intercepted in the fourth quarter on a pass that was carelessly heaved into triple coverage. (It eventually led to the game-winning score.) Every ball felt like it was coming out of his hands a little too late. The timing was completely off.

Even McNabb's big completions came on bad throws. Twice he hit Redskins receivers for gains over 40 yards, but each time the ball was severely mistimed or underthrown. The receivers had to break their route and slow down to get the ball, which turned easy touchdowns into mere big gains. He was playing poorly enough to get pulled. He was also proving that his comfort with the two-minute offense was uneasy, at best.

On the drive before his benching, McNabb and the Redskins faced second and 10 from their own 28-yard line. It was the natural time to run the hurry-up offense. But McNabb called a huddle. If there was any urgency, the quarterback didn't outwardly show it. The first-down play (a 10-yard pass to Santana Moss(notes) that came after a holding call) had come with 3:00 left in the game. The next snap went off with 2:29. Thirty-one seconds to run one play. That suggests Shanahan is right when he says McNabb isn't good with the two-minute offense. He's strolling when he should be sprinting.

That's not exactly breaking news, though. McNabb has never been great with the two-minute drill. Shanahan knew that when he brought him in, knew that when he started the season and knew that every other time he's had McNabb run the two-minute offense this season. So what changed?

My guess is Shanahan's ego got in the way. "My offense is good enough to win, but you're not good enough to execute it correctly. Let's see if someone else can get it done."

We all know what happened next. Before anyone could figure out why Grossman was under center instead of McNabb:

The rest, as they say, is left to history ... and talk radio.

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