Either Mike Shanahan is the most naive man in professional sports or he simply doesn't give a damn. And for now, I'll go with the latter.
The Redskins' head coach learned over the past two weeks that a couple of Super Bowl rings in Denver can provide only so much margin for error. The moment he delivered the words "cardiovascular endurance," his honeymoon in Washington was over. Shanahan had already pulled off the near-impossible trick of making Albert Haynesworth a sympathetic character with his overbearing treatment of the player in training camp and early in the season.
His explanations for pulling McNabb with just under two minutes left in favor of Rex Grossman were so baffling that his son/offensive coordinator, Kyle, attempted to clean up the mess by suggesting that McNabb had sore hamstrings that would've made it tough for him to run a two-minute offense with no timeouts. It was too late by that point. Daddy had already butchered this thing beyond belief by indicating that McNabb hadn't grasped his apparently complex two-minute offense in the six months or so he'd been with the Skins.
With a game hanging in the balance in Detroit, Shanahan decided that Rex Grossman gave Washington a better chance to win. It's a decision that could define the Skins' 2010 season and change the course of the organization. McNabb will start Monday night's game (ESPN, 8:30 ET) against his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, but he wouldn't be human if he weren't looking over his shoulder to see what Shanahan & Son are up to in this game. In what appears to be an admission of their ham-handed treatment of McNabb, the Redskins will resume negotiations with the quarterback on a contract extension Monday in Washington, according a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter on Sunday. This sounds like a public relations move to appease McNabb -- and his teammates. And it may work.
But they've already embarrassed the man once, so I wouldn't rule out an encore. I've been amused by some of the national accounts that point to how McNabb responded positively to his benching by Andy Reid against the Ravens in '08. McNabb led that Eagles team to the NFC title game after it looked like the season was over.
This situation is different on many levels. For one thing, McNabb and Reid had a close relationship, which allowed the quarterback to forgive his head coach eventually. At this point, McNabb has no clue what to expect from Shanahan. The quarterback told me during training camp that he'd called around the league asking players what to expect from the Shanahans. I don't think anyone warned him that he might be undercut by his new head coach before the halfway point in the season.
I figured some of the controversy might fade with the Skins on a bye week, but the opposite occurred. John Feinstein might start a book tour by the end of next week based on some of the opinions the noted author threw down last week. Feinstein used the words "racial coding" to describe Shanahan's treatment of McNabb, and he actually called for the head coach's firing. I've never heard anyone accuse Shanahan of that, so I'd rather simply refer to it as an incredibly dumb decision by a smart football man.
I know how Shanahan's decision played in the media, but I wondered whether his players were also confused by the move. On Friday afternoon, I caught up with Redskins starting outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, one of the most thoughtful players on the roster.
"We were definitely shocked," said Alexander of McNabb's benching. "I figured Donovan had to be injured or something. I've played against him for seven years and he's done so much in this league. Even if he's playing the worst game of his life, I always think he can win a game. I never thought Shanahan would do something like that, and it blew up in his face. But I do think people have made it out to be worse than it really is. We've all moved forward from that decision."
But it doesn't sound like the shock has worn off completely. Alexander's in a weekly Bible study with McNabb, and he's marveled at how unaffected the quarterback has seemed following his benching. There have been reports the Redskins reached out to McNabb when he was home in Arizona during the bye to reassure him of their commitment -- hence the contract negotiations. But something tells me that McNabb will focus more on actions than words in the coming weeks. For now, it appears the Redskins already have buyers' remorse with McNabb.
"I think Donovan's a Hall of Fame quarterback," said Alexander. "I just don't think the team has really helped him a lot this season."
But all that matters at this point is what Mike Shanahan thinks. If you don't believe that, just ask him.