Picking Splinters: D.C. Debacle

Wonders never cease with the Washington Redskins. Seriously, could you have thought of a more perfect way to convince the football world that any notion of this franchise ever succeeding was completely faulty? Can you think of a scenario in which the Skins could have assured their fans that, despite acquiring a top-tier coach and a hall-of-fame-caliber QB, they were still a joke?

Just when things seemed like they may actually be improving after era upon era of bungled, well, everything, the Washington Redskins blow a late lead to lose to the Detroit Lions … AND bench their much-lauded starting quarterback with the game on the line.

Nothing to see here folks, just the same old Skins toying with your hopes before they’re crushed under Washington’s stumbling spiked heel. Move along. Move along.

But it’s impossible not to dwell on last Sunday’s debacle, particularly since this weekend brings the Skins’ bye week.

I’m not going to bother discussing what went wrong for Washington. It takes a truly amazing franchise, gifted in the art of soul-crushing losses to fall to the Lions, so stats are moot. I’m sure it actually extends back to some old hex or biblical plague placed upon the team following Dan Snyder’s takeover.

Instead, it’s worthwhile to dwell on the single dumbest coaching decision I’ve ever witnessed in the NFL.

With Washington needing a touchdown on its final possession, Skins head coach Mike Shanahan yanked starting QB Donovan McNabb from the game and inserted Walking Turnover. (Turns out Rex Grossman’s name was legally changed for him following a potent petition from disgruntled Chicago Bears fans.)

Well, surprise, surprise, but Grossman immediately fumbles the ball to Detroit defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh for another Lions touchdown to seal Washington’s fate. Meanwhile, McNabb, he the source of much early-season optimism (and ticket sales campaigns), stood on the sidelines, despite a career that’s included 23 game-winning drives.

Shanahan’s rationale for the stunning switch? Grossman was more proficient with the team’s two-minute drill and provided the best chance for the team to put points on the board. Oh, points were put on the board alright.

Shanahan revisited his statement a short time later, saying it was McNabb’s lack of cardio fitness that prompted the move. Because showing strong cardio is, of course, the most essential quality a quarterback can have. Not poise under pressure. Not decision-making. Not a strong arm to heave the ball downfield. Not a career touchdown to interception ratio of better than 2-to-1 compared to Grossman’s 33 TDs to 36 picks.

I guess I missed the part where McNabb needed to run a 12,000 meter race to win the game, because I can’t seem to find any merit in Shanahan’s decision.

And the worst part is that the damage isn’t limited to (another) game-killing Grossman turnover. It’s going to linger for the better part of two weeks until Washington takes the field again. In that time fans, and McNabb, are going to wonder if this could happen again. Through Tuesday at least, Shanahan hasn’t publically said it was a bad decision. So what does that mean going forward?

This is the sort of dark cloud that’s rained on the Redskins for years. Even when things seem to be getting better (a 4-3 record, second in the NFC East), a bad turn washes out all optimism.

Now, instead of sitting at 5-3 and wondering how the Skins could surge out of their bye week, fans are pondering an uncertain future for a franchise that just bagged its best quarterback in a decade and lost to the Lions.

Now fans think McNabb’s incapable in crunch time. Now fans think Shanahan has no faith in his starting QB. Now everyone believes the Skins to be incapable of scoring under two minutes.

It may have seemed a simple, if bold, decision to Shanahan when he yanked McNabb from Sunday’s game. But it has clearly cost his team and his franchise much more than he thought it could.

Maybe, by the time the Skins see the field again, he’ll have figured a way to fix this mess. But those who have followed this team year after bungled year probably won’t be holding their breath.