Dissecting the benching of Donovan McNabb

Posted Nov. 01, 2010 @ 4:01 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

Eagles president Joe Banner, GM Howie Roseman and head coach Andy Reid were widely criticized for dealing QB Donovan McNabb on Easter Sunday. Jump forward six months, and Mike Shanahan — not halfway through the season — is already in the same predicament that the self-described "chubby head coach with two starting quarterbacks" was against Baltimore two years ago when he decided to insert Kevin Kolb into the lineup to spark a stagnant Eagles offense that was trailing 10-7 at halftime, completely catching McNabb off-guard.

Like when Reid saw Baltimore rip off 26 unanswered points in a 36-7 defeat, Shanahan clearly miscalculated by inserting Rex Grossman into the lineup in place of McNabb, as Grossman was blindsided and coughed up the ball right into the hands of Ndamukong Suh, who scooped it up and scored to seal the Redskins' fate. The outcome could not have been any worse.

When McNabb was benched with 1:45 to play after losing a fumble in the same fashion as Grossman ultimately did, the Redskins were down by only six points with the length of the field to drive. McNabb was in tune with the rhythm of the game, more familiar with the Lions' pressure packages and ready to compensate for his last mistake. It could have been an inspiring confidence-builder for the offense. Instead, it could turn out to be the dagger that ends McNabb's tenure in the nation's capital.

When decisions are made in NFL front offices, there is an assumption that they are made in complete agreement, that all key decision makers are on the same page and that they all will collectively support a decision after it is made, even if it is not the decision they desired. The reality is that egos run rampant at the highest levels of authority, conflict is not easy to settle and lingering feelings of resentment often are left over after very difficult decisions, such as deciding who will be the team's franchise quarterback.

Shanahan supported the decision to deal for McNabb, believing it would both weaken a division rival and help him rebuild his offense around an athletic passer who fits his West Coast system. When the Redskins faced the Eagles, however, it was not as much what McNabb did to creatively beat his old team as much as what he did not do, limiting mistakes and not turning over the ball. Shanahan's offense has yet to be fully unleashed with McNabb at the controls, as the coach cannot be as aggressive installing packages and entrusting McNabb as he was with the more savvy John Elway and Jay Cutler. McNabb's benching was a sign of Shanahan's distrust.

After the Eagles embarrassed the veteran Pro Bowl passer by benching him for Kolb in Week 12 of the '08 season, they were left to make a "financial apology" after the season. Very notably, it came without a contract extension and ultimately led to the Eagles dealing the quarterback to a destination of his choice. McNabb has yet to agree on a contract extension and will need to fall in line for the Redskins to have a chance in the second half of the season. If the two stubborn Chicagoans cannot get past Shanahan's decision, it's very possible the Redskins will be looking to draft a quarterback next year.

• Down 10-3 early in the fourth quarter, 49ers QB Troy Smith pulled a Buckeye out of his magic hat and led San Francisco on three impressive scoring drives. It took some time to get acclimated, but once he found his rhythm, he was difficult to stop and showed more promise in one quarter of play than Alex Smith has all season. The litmus test for a quarterback has long been how he performs after three games, when defensive coordinators have been able to crunch the tape and identify his on-field DNA, and Troy Smith's greatest challenge is still down the road. But he passed his first test in London, and could have the second half of the season to continue auditioning for the job if the Niners can continue winning.

• Cowboys owner Jerry Jones created a problem on his coaching staff when he designated offensive coordinator Jason Garrett as the future successor to Wade Phillips and, behind a heavy endorsement from Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman and pursuers from other teams, elevated Garrett's salary in line with head-coaching pay to keep him. Jones should have fought to keep Tony Sparano from Bill Parcells. The performance of the offensive line and the effectiveness of the run game has slipped mightily since Sparano departed. To have one of the most talented, three-headed backfields in the NFL — No. 3 back Tashard Choice could start for some teams — and to be ranked 31st in the league in rushing is inexcusable.  

And it should come as no surprise that Rams/Bills castoff OG Richie Incognito has been playing at a Pro Bowl level for Sparano in Miami. Jones has assembled enough talent to field a very competitive roster, but the execution and leadership of the Cowboys leaves much to be desired, and Jones has no one but himself to blame for the dysfunction on Dallas' staff.

• Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman made another comeback performance for the Cardiac Buccaneers, who have done a very good job with a young roster.

• Buffalo, Detroit, Oakland and St. Louis have been the laughingstock of the NFL for too long. After years of picking at the top of the draft, they all finally appear headed on the right path, even if it may take another draft to get them over the hump and into the playoffs. The decision of the Bills to convert to a 30-front seemed to be driven by the dominant defenses in the division more than its own personnel that had been built for years to accommodate a 40-front. Credit Chan Gailey for realizing that the pieces are not in place and shifting back. The Lions' pass rush is really emerging as a force behind the play of the energetic Kyle Vanden Bosch and powerful Ndamukong Suh. Oakland's offense is beginning to click with Hue Jackson at the helm and may be able to keep consistency this offseason even if Tom Cable departs. The Rams finally have a quarterback to pair with one of the game's most violent running backs, and Steve Spagnuolo's defense is clicking. With another good offseason, all four could be in contention for a division title. Buffalo, in the strongest division, has the most difficult hurdle to overcome.

• The Sunday-night matchup between the Saints and Steelers featured arguably the game's most innovative offensive mind — Sean Payton — and the game's most creative defensive mind — Dick LeBeau. The Saints came away with the win late in the fourth quarter behind the opportunistic performance of Gregg Williams' defense, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see these two teams meet again at the end of the postseason, as difficult as it is to return to the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons.

Brett Favre has been good for the NFL the past few years, but for the Vikings this season, he has been more of a distraction than an attraction and has drained the team with too much needless, ego-driven drama and far too many turnovers. Preserving his iron-man streak is the last sacred measure of his football-playing identity, defining his trademark toughness, and he will not have it any other way but to see it continued. However, a one-legged, half-focused Farve is not as efficient as a fully prepared Tarvaris Jackson, and Brad Childress will be tested to make the tough decision that could leave him remembered most in Minnesota as the coach who broke Favre's streak.