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ASHBURN, Va. – When it comes to quarterback, the position he played and loved and has nurtured through his 35 years of coaching, Mike Shanahan is never a patient man.
After Brian Griese(notes) failed to be the acceptable replacement for John Elway in Denver, Shanahan dumped him. As Jake Plummer(notes) proved incapable of running his offense the coach replaced him midseason despite a 7-4 record.
In Shanahan's quest for the next Elway, no player is infallible, no situation too absurd. If a quarterback displeases Shanahan as apparently Donovan McNabb(notes) has done, then he is a candidate for exclusion. Even if fewer than two minutes remain in a winnable game against a team you need to beat.
Shanahan’s late-game benching of McNabb on Sunday against the Detroit Lions still defies logic. And three days of his bungled attempts to explain the decision – claiming first that journeyman Rex Grossman(notes) was better-suited than a future Hall-of-Famer to run the two-minute offense, then changing a day later to claim McNabb wasn’t in the right cardiovascular condition to run the two-minute plays – was uncharacteristic of a coach who burns for perfection.
But this year must be so strange for Shanahan, who came to Washington believing the fierceness of his will could make these lousy Redskins a winner the way he always made his Broncos teams competitive in Denver. Halfway through this season, associates say, he has come to realize the team Vinny Cerrato built and left for him is not very good and no level of coaching – no matter how intense – is going to change that.
Those who have worked with Shanahan say his greatest strength, yet also his biggest weakness, is his certainty that he can improve anybody. In the past he has eschewed the good advice of scouts to watch highlight tapes of prospects, choosing to see only the best plays that player made, confident he can coax them to that level as if to say they hadn’t been coached by him.
When they fail to meet those standards he sours on them. Soon they wither and fade away.
And it appears Shanahan has soured on McNabb.
Upon arriving in Washington, Shanahan knew he needed a better quarterback than Jason Campbell(notes). Anxious to improve upon Campbell, he traded for McNabb despite the glaring warning signs that the Philadelphia Eagles so wanted to be rid of their quarterback they were willing to deal him within the division. And while McNabb has been an upgrade over Campbell, Shanahan has also indicated to people that he seems to realize what Philadelphia knew all along and couldn’t correct – something is missing in McNabb’s makeup that keeps him from being great.
It’s hard to say if this angers Shanahan or frustrates him, but clearly he is unhappy with McNabb, contrary to the string of denials he and his son Kyle, the Redskins offensive coordinator, gave on Tuesday. Reports trailing back as far as training camp said McNabb had trouble picking up Shanahan’s offense. This is understandable given McNabb has played in only one system his whole career: Andy Reid’s West Coast offense which is more of a run-straight-ahead approach. Shanahan’s version of the West Coast relies on a series of intricate plays with many different variations run from a handful of formations. It’s an offense not easily learned.
On Wednesday Kyle Shanahan said McNabb has “been a lot of what I expected,” even as he expressed frustration that Washington’s meager offense loaded with injured running backs and thin on playmakers, has not been what he hoped it would become.
So it’s hard to know exactly what Mike Shanahan feels he isn’t getting from McNabb. On Monday the coach’s comments about McNabb’s “cardiovascular” issues were stretched to say the Shanahans were unhappy with his work ethic and thought his practice tempo was too slow. Both coaches and McNabb denied this on Tuesday. And Kyle Shanahan went to great lengths to say the “cardiovascular endurance” explanation was poorly worded and was meant to only explain that the quarterback’s sore hamstrings kept him from doing the kind of scrambling that was needed in the two-minute offense.
Clearly, though, something is wrong. Too much smoke is flying around Redskins Park. Communication between coaches and quarterback looks broken. An example of this came after Kyle Shanahan, answering a question that came at the prodding of a Redskins official, said the relationship with McNabb is good and as evidence of this offered that McNabb and Grossman went out on Monday night and invited him along. A few minutes later, McNabb, on a weekly radio appearance he makes on a station owned by Redskins owner Dan Snyder, confirmed that he went to dinner with Grossman but said “no” when asked if he asked any coaches to join them.
Mike Shanahan’s desire to win is understandable. He is chasing the Hall of Fame and knows he must have some good seasons, perhaps even a Super Bowl, to get there. He also has probably two years of freedom from Snyder’s meddling before the owner will want to take back his football team. And yet his intolerance of quarterback mistakes and his longing for another John Elway when another Elway will most likely never come, could ruin him here.
The Shanahans might be displeased with McNabb but the players love him. No matter how meager his statistics might be, there is a sense in the locker room that the fact this team has even managed four wins has a lot to do with McNabb. “He is our leader,” defensive end Phillip Daniels(notes) said, placing him at the top of a list of quarterbacks as leaders that he has played with, right near Warren Moon. The players never felt Campbell could be a leader. He was nice, but far too soft-spoken. McNabb, they say, took charge of the locker room the moment he arrived.
Early in his time in Washington, the Redskins offense and defense were pitted in a drill. The winning side would have to run fewer plays in the practice. An offensive player, sizing up the advantage he felt the defense had, jumped sides. And in front of the team, McNabb admonished the player: “I thought we were all on the same side,” he said. The player jumped back over to offense, wisely it turns out because the offense won.
And yet just as the offensive players celebrated their good fortune, McNabb shook his head. The offense was still going to run all the plays, he said. They needed the practice.
“That’s the kind of leadership he brings,” Daniels said.
Tuesday, as Kyle Shanahan talked to the media, quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes), deemed a failure by the Oakland Raiders, was trying out on one of the team’s practice fields. His own “cardiovascular endurance” a real question, Russell looked rotund in his burgundy sweat clothes. It wasn’t clear if this was simply a chance for Mike Shanahan to look at another quarterback with whom he might want to tinker in the coming seasons or if the player with his stomach hanging out was a real threat to McNabb.
Another football drifter, quarterback J.P. Losman(notes), was reportedly at the tryout as well. While it’s not unusual for teams to be working out free agents on the Tuesday of a bye week, it left this unsettling feeling that Mike Shanahan has already decided the best quarterback the Redskins have had in years is not his next Elway.
It is autumn now, the coach is impatient again. A breeze rattled the golden forest behind Redskins Park on Tuesday. And it almost seems as if Donovan McNabb has blown away.