Why McNabb benching could be bad news for Eagles

Donovan McNabb was benched late in the Redskins' loss at Detroit on Sunday. (Paul Sancya/AP)

If history is any guide, Donovan McNabb’s unexpected benching late in the fourth quarter of the Redskins’ 37-25 loss to the Lions Sunday isn’t good news for the Eagles, who have to travel to D.C. for a Monday night game against McNabb and the Redskins in 2 weeks.

You may recall the last time a coach told McNabb to take a seat. If you don’t, let me refresh your memory. Nov. 23, 2008. Halftime of a 36-7 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore that dropped the Eagles to 5-5-1 and seemed to effectively kill any hope they had of making the playoffs.

That benching by Eagles coach Andy Reid was warranted. McNabb had been stinking up the place for a while. He’d completed just 8 of 18 passes for 59 yards and had thrown two interceptions in the first half against the Ravens.

That dreadful performance had been preceded by one equally as awful the week before when McNabb managed to complete just 28 of 58 passes and threw three interceptions in a 13-13 tie with the Bengals that will forever be remembered around these parts as the I-didn’t-realize-there-was-only-one-overtime-period bowl.

Anyway, McNabb ended up bouncing back from that ignominious benching to play some of the best football of his career. Four days after the loss to the Ravens, he patched up his bruised ego and led the near-dead Eagles to an impressive 48-20 Thanksgiving night win over the Arizona Cardinals, completing 27 of 39 passes and throwing four touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

In the five games after Big Red sat him down in Baltimore, he completed 64.3 percent of his passes, threw 9 TDs and just one interception, and compiled a 98.7 passer rating as the Eagles won four of those five games, qualified for the playoffs with a 9-6-1 record and made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game before their bubble finally burst.

So, be wary of a wounded Donovan on Nov. 15.

McNabb wasn’t playing quite as bad prior to his Sunday benching as he was in ’08. But he wasn’t playing very well, either. He’s a dreadful 25th in the league in passing right now, with a 75.9 rating. Has a .574 completion percentage and already has thrown eight interceptions in 277 attempts, including one in the fourth quarter Sunday that gift-wrapped the Lions’ go-ahead touchdown. And yes, before you McNabb supporters get all huffy, the Redskins’ offensive cast around the quarterback is pretty bad.

The possession after his interception, he threw back-to-back incompletions, then was sacked for the sixth time in the game on fourth down. When the Redskins got the ball back with 1:45 left in the game and trailing by 6 points, coach Mike Shanahan replaced McNabb with, gulp, Rex Grossman.

Now, if I were a coach and Grossman were my backup quarterback, the only three circumstances under which I would put him in the game are a) my starting quarterback was dead; b) my team was up 56-0; or c) my starting quarterback had two broken legs. And I’d have to think long and hard about C.

Shanahan, though, insists it was a no-brainer. In fact, he said at his Monday news conference that he had decided several days earlier that he would replace McNabb with Grossman if the Redskins found themselves in a 2-minute situation with no timeouts, which, quite frankly, I find a little difficult to believe.

He gave several reasons for the decision, including a couple that were pretty eye-popping. Mentioned that McNabb was hurt, which wasn’t one of the eye-popping ones. Said both of his hamstrings were sore. Said his quad was sore. Said he had a contusion. Didn’t mention anything about scoliosis or diverticulitis or athlete’s foot, but give him a few days. He may add it to Donnie Mac’s list of problems.

Shanahan said he had actually talked to McNabb earlier in the week about not even playing in the game, but McNabb, ever the warrior, convinced him he was fine. Apparently, the interception and that last of 6 sacks convinced him McNabb wasn’t fine.

Then he mentioned the eye-popping reasons. Suggested that because McNabb’s been banged up and hadn’t been able to fully participate in all of the team’s quarterback drills, he wasn’t in good enough shape to run the ‘Skins’ 2-minute offense without the aid of timeouts.

I can just see all of the anti-McNabb conspiracy theorists who still go to sleep at night believing he threw up in the huddle at the Super Bowl, jumping up and down and saying, “See, I told you. I told you.”

“The cardio-vascular endurance that it takes to run a 2-minute drill all the way down (the field) with no timeouts, calling plays,” Shanahan said, “it’s just not easy.

“When you’re dealing with the 2-minute offense, and you don’t have any timeouts, and you haven’t done it in 5 weeks, and you’re calling sometimes two plays that you haven’t called in a 2-minute attack, and you have to hustle to the line, and you’re actually working cardio-vascular endurance at the same time, it’s really hard to do that when you haven’t practiced it and you haven’t really put yourself out in any type of strenuous activity because of your hamstrings. So I thought it would be in our best interest to go in a different direction.”

Then came the real bombshell. Pressed further, Shanahan suggested that another reason he benched McNabb and went to Grossman was that he didn’t feel comfortable enough with the six-time Pro-Bowler’s familiarity with his offense’s 2-minute terminology or his ability to process two play calls in his head at once, which you have to do when you’re running a 2-minute offense.

Keep in mind, McNabb was traded to the Redskins last April, not last Tuesday.

“The thing that’s hard to do sometimes is call two plays in the huddle, get to the line of scrimmage and then you gotta do it in a very quick fashion,” the Redskins coach said. “When you have timeouts, it’s not so bad. But when you don’t and you’ve gotta move pretty close the length of the field, it’s different. It’s different on the quarterback.

“When you’re in a 2-minute situation, you’re calling two plays. You’ve got different protections. Maybe \[one play is\] left formation and \[the other is\] right formation. It’s gotta be automatic and you’ve got to execute those two plays. And you’re coming to the line and you’re getting two more plays in your head set.

“Unless you’ve been doing it for 4-5 weeks, it’s not easy to instantaneously come up with those formations. Especially when you haven’t been running it as much as you should.”

Wow. Wade through all of that and it sure sounds like Shanahan is saying he can’t count on McNabb to remember two lousy plays at once, which is a pretty damning thing to say about a soon-to-be-34-year-old quarterback with more than 5,000 career pass attempts and 223 career touchdown passes.

McNabb has spent his entire career trying to pound into submission that old stereotype that blacks aren’t smart enough to play quarterback. And now, along comes Shanahan suggesting that he doesn’t have faith in McNabb’s ability to remember two plays at once.

I’m guessing that, right about now, Donovan really misses Andy Reid.


To read our report from practice, click here.