Thursday, November 11, 2010

My thoughts on McNabb and the Shanahan explanations

The incident began, as the police like to say, when ESPN came out with one of its patented, ‘sources say,’ reports last Sunday. This one came from Chris Mortensen, someone I’ve known for years and someone who has absolute credibility when it comes to reporting what he’s been told. Mortensen reported that sources had told him that Mike and Kyle Shanahan had been forced to cut their playbook in half for Donovan McNabb.

That’s when I really got angry.

This came one week after the Shanahans had benched McNabb with 1:45 left in the Redskins game at Detroit with Washington trailing 31-25. They brought Rex Grossman into the game in McNabb’s place. Grossman hadn’t taken a single snap from center all season and isn’t exactly known for his mobility. In fact, McNabb had been dodging Lions all day because the Redskins STILL haven’t fixed their problems on the offensive line.

On his first snap, Grossman got sacked, fumbled and the Lions picked the ball up and ran into the end zone to end any chance the Redskins had to win the game.

Once it became clear that McNabb wasn’t hurt, that the Shanahans had simply decided to bench him, it was just as clear they had made a mistake. Check the results.

But that’s really not that big a deal. Coaches make mistakes all the time, just like players, officials and writers make mistakes. Here’s what you do when you make a mistake: You say, “I made a mistake,” and you move on. If Mike Shanahan had done that it would have been a one-day story.

But football coaches have more trouble saying the words “I made a mistake,” than any group of humans on earth this side of the BCS Presidents. So, instead of coming in after the game and saying, “Hey, I got mad at Donovan for a poor decision on an interception and played a hunch with Rex and it didn’t work,” Shanahan came in with some sort of hooey (a kind word) about McNabb not knowing the ‘two minute terminology.’ As if two minute terminology appears in the playbook in Swahili. I’ve read NFL playbooks. They are NOT that complicated in spite of what coaches try to tell you.

No one bought that story. So, the next day Shanahan tried something different. This time he said he was worried because McNabb had been hurt going into the game—he was the Redskins leading rusher in the game and had a 36-yard run at one point—and (I love this one) he was worried about his ‘cardiovascular,’ because he might have to call two plays in the huddle at once.

My first thought at that moment was that Shanahan must think the average IQ of people in Washington is about 12.

But okay, I wrote it off to Shanahan being one of those God-like football coaches who will do anything to avoid admitting a mistake. He’s like Fonzi in ‘Happy Days,’ when he used to try to say, ‘I’m ssssssssssssssssssssssorry.’

Then I saw Mortensen’s ‘report.’ That’s when I went on Washington Post Live and accused Shanahan of racial coding because I believe if he was Mortensen’s source that is absolutely what he was doing. In the last few days people have suggested to me that there are many, many people who could have fed Mort the information on McNabb’s alleged playbook inadequacies. In theory, I guess that’s true. I don’t buy it. Shanahan (Mike) has a direct pipeline to ESPN through Adam Schefter, who WROTE HIS BOOK. He negotiated with the Redskins through Schefter all of last fall: “ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports Buffalo Bills will offer him ONE BILLION DOLLARS.’ That sort of thing. Drive up the price, make it look as if everyone is after you. If someone told Schefter, ‘exclusively,’ that the moon was made of swiss cheese, he’d report it. Maybe that’s why the Shanahans didn’t go to Schefter this time. Mort certainly has far more credibility in general and especially in a Shanahan-related story. So, someone whispered to Mort that McNabb couldn’t learn the playbook.

I don’t think it was a player and I don’t think it was another assistant—unless he was acting under orders. I believe it was someone named Shanahan.

And if it was, Shanahan is a despicable human being and, yes, I think he’s using racial coding and yes I think he should be fired. If anyone wants to disagree with me about that; fine, just don’t give me the Steve Czaban (WTEM) copout that I’ve, ‘lost my mind.’

Really? Remember this was a week later. It wasn’t postgame frustration or even trying to cover yourself the next day. Shanahan had time to think about it and he decided that rather than continue to listen to people rip him not so much for making the move (everyone agrees he had an absolute right to bench his quarterback if saw fit) but for his ridiculous explanations as to why he made the move. So, somehow, someway, he got word to Mortensen that McNabb couldn’t learn the playbook. If someone was going under the bus it was going to be McNabb.

Now, I have serious problems with ‘according to sources,’ stories that simply allow one guy to rip another. The only time to use a blind quote as far as I’m concerned is if someone’s safety or job would be endangered by going on the record. Check my history you won’t see a lot of blind quotes. If I had a dollar for every time a coach told me NOT FOR ATTRIBUTION that someone was a cheat, I wouldn’t be writing this blog; I’d be sitting on my estate someplace warm deciding whether to start my day with a swim, a round of golf or by sitting by my pool reading a book.

But the way of the world today is ‘sources say.’ If the Shanahans were NOT the source—which I don’t believe—Mort should have called them to say, ‘true or not true?’ If they denied it, there’s no story. If they ‘no commented,’ and you HAD to go with the story—ESPN puts ridiculous pressure on these guys to produce alleged ‘news,’ all the time—you quote Mike Shanahan as saying ‘no comment.’ And then you call Donovan McNabb for a comment or a no comment. (His comment to the media when he came back after the bye week was that the notion that he couldn’t learn the entire playbook was, ‘hilarious.’)

But this isn’t about Mortensen. He’s a damn good reporter almost all the time. I’d like to have his batting average. This is about Shanahan. And if he did what I think he did it means, after giving it a week of thought, he was willing to have it put out there that his African-American quarterback wasn’t smart enough to learn the playbook. One week after FIRST calling him too dumb to learn the two-minute terminology he goes back to the same well.


And please don’t tell me he could have said the same thing about a white quarterback. He didn’t. Even in 2010 there are people who are going to instantly buy into the ridiculous stereotype. In fact, many of the e-mails I’ve gotten have been saying, ‘well what if he didn’t know the playbook?’ Let me tell you something: Donovan McNabb hasn’t had a borderline Hall of Fame career because he’s stupid. Let me tell you something else: before he traded a second and third round draft pick for McNabb, Mike Shanahan looked at tape of him running the Eagles offense; running their two minute drill and making decisions. He also talked to people about McNabb and what he could or could not do. And THEN he traded for him. So if McNabb is so damn stupid he can’t learn the playbook, how stupid is Shanahan for trading for him?

The funny thing about all this is Redskins fans will forgive Shanahan for this despicable behavior if McNabb performs well the second half of the season and the Redskins make the playoffs. Of course if McNabb DOESN’T perform well people will say Shanahan was right all along. In a sense, Shanahan can’t lose on this one. And I think he knew that even before Mortensen ‘broke,’ his story.

Trust me, I don’t think he's stupid. But I do think he's a very bad guy.


One note: I've been behind reading posts because of baby-duties (Jane, for those who asked was just a name my wife and I liked and I was a big Blythe Danner fan years ago and thought the two names combined were cool) but someone reading my BCS column asked why I don't rip my colleague in the AP for being a part of the BCS conspiracy: Here's the problem: The AP dropped out of the BCS several years ago BECAUSE it didn't want to be part of the system anymore, believing it should not have any influence on the national championship. That said, I DID plead with my colleagues publicly before the final vote last January to vote for Boise State to send a message to the BCS that they don't completely control the sport. I think Boise State got two votes. Ouch.


HenryFTP said...

Sorry, but this is really stupid, even by the exploitative standards of professional football. Humiliating and demeaning your players by leaks to the press may engender some "useful" short-term job insecurity in the locker room, but it ultimately has to have a corrosive effect on the team. Sure, Snyder and the Shanahans will offer somebody enough money to quarterback the team next year, but with this sort of "leadership" the Redskins won't be getting anywhere near the Super Bowl.

Anonymous said...

What if, black or white, McNabb doesn't know or can't learn the entire playbook? Why is it so easy to call Shanahan stupid but not McNabb? I know this blog is just a little left of Chavez, but maybe this has nothing to do with race. I mean, it is not like I want Culter takin' my S.A.T. for me.

JJ said...


Why do these coaches bring quarterbacks in and then throw them under the bus. Andy Reid gets rid of McNabb based on Kolb's performance, then dumps Kolb for Vick. McNabb isn't for sure hall of famer in my mind. He along with Jim Kelly and Dan Marino came up short in Super Bowls, but I rank him a step below those guys. Still, he deserves much more respect than Shannahan showed. Rex Grossman???

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John. Too many people allow this kind of thing to go on without a word. Tony Kornheiser said the Monday after the benching that Shanahan's wording would sound like "code" to a portion of Washington's residents. He was right, an indication his newspaperman's instincts survive under the schtick.
Dylan from Canada

Jeffrey said...

Mr. Feinstein,

As an African-American, I'd like to thank you very much for having the courage to call the slandering of McNabb's capacity to learn the two-minute offense what it is: racial coding. Shanahan, or whomever leaked to Mort on Shanahan's behalf (like you, I find it difficult to believe a control freak like Shanahan would allow people to say such a controversial comment to an ESPN reported without his knowledge), is guilty of a low and petty act. I suspect that he has permanently damaged his credibility with the Redskin players, and wouldn't pass out from shock if you saw the same sort of anonymous quotes from players regarding Shanahan that were attributed to Vikings' players about Childress. I don't always agree with you (I still think you need to get over your Tiger Woods haterism), but I greatly respect and appreciate you coming out and taking this one on head on.

Anonymous said...

I am unsure how this proves to have anything to do with "racial coding". I am well aware that this has to do with a white coach, benching an African American quarterback. This article insinuates that there is no other explanation for Coach Shanahans actions, and that this could be the "only" reason. You my friend could potentially be stirring up problems that aren't even occurring. This article's complete lack of substance and intelligence is atrocious. I find it compelling that you are incriminating Coach Shanahans actions and not fearing any repercussions because of a racism factor at all. I am sure you went through the proper avenues before writing this article, as you have mentioned Mortenson should have. You must have then asked Coach Shanahan if his actions were racially biased, and then again asked Donovan McNabb if he felt the action were based on his race. Then depending on their answers you should have sourced it as such in your article. You are a perfect example of the spineless portion of society that tarnishes an individuals reputation without facts, and ultimately contributes to the disparity in society today.

Thank you and Good Day!!!

Anonymous said...

The more that we blame race for all of the issues that happen in any aspect of life, the longer it will control the way that people feel and react. While this is clearly an issue for the Redskins coaches and players, you took this and accused all white people who voted against the Democratic party of being racist. Just because a white coach benches an African American player doesn't mean that he is a racist. Unless you or anyone else has very clear understandings of the inner workings of the Redskins franchise, you should watch how freely you accuse others.

Thomas said...

Hey - you sound like your buddy Wilbon does on some other issues! Does that mean he's going to flip around and take the normal Feinstein view on this?

Gordon said...


SERIOUSLY......... McNabbs benching is racial? And the lose of the house is also racial?

On the latter first. It was white people who helped elect President Obama, many of them Republicans. His skin color has nothing to do with his popularity poll ratings! Perceived job performance did. Note the word "perceived". But lets not get political!

As for Shanahan he is who he is. An overrated coach who did win two Super Bowls. The reason for same can be stated largely in two words... JOHN ELWAY! And a good defense lead by Steve Atwater and Tom Jackson. Both of whom are black BTW. Mike Shanahan is "The north end of a southbound horse". That doesn't' make him a racist just a jerk.

Shanhan is covering his own backside, PERIOD. He is one in a long line of egomanical coaches who the next time he admits a mistake will be the first time.

It could have easily happened to a white quarterback. When Lovie Smith benches Jay Cutler, which he has, is that racial? What if it were Tavaris Jackson and not Rex Grossman?

Donavan McNabb is a smart, thoughtful good guy. HOF probably not. And he is obviously dignified by his response of "hilarious". He'll be "one and done" in DC and get away from Shanahan and Snyder. He'll go off to the Arizona Cardinals next year where he has a house and live happily ever after.

Racism in 2010 absolutly exsists. But to the call this racism is just plain wrong.

And yes most do think people in Washington DC have a IQ of 12 or under. But the legislative branch is out of town at the moment.

Your better than to play the race card here!

HenryFTP said...

Mr Feinstein has loudly and clearly stated that this issue has nothing to do with McNabb's benching -- he does not question Shanahan's authority as coach to do that. The issue is the report by Chris Mortensen that the Shanahans have had to cut their playbook in half in order for McNabb to learn it, and that he's still having trouble correctly calling plays even with the pared-down playbook. The Shanahans have not denied categorically that report by one of the most respected journalists covering the NFL -- when asked if he'd do things differently, Mike Shanahan answered:

I'm not going to go into that detail. I think we've kind of went down that road enough. If I keep going down it and kind of swerve a different direction, it'll be taken a different way, so I don't want to do that again,
he said with a chuckle.

Chuckle, indeed, as he's thrown under the bus the starting quarterback that he, master strategist Mike Shanahan, traded for. It doesn't matter whether Shanahan "thought his actions were racially biased", what matters is his reckless disregard for how his comments would be received by society at-large (to say nothing of his football team), and his equally cavalier refusal to try to protect the professional reputation of his starting quarterback. Any way you look at it, Shanahan is a lousy leader. He will not bring this team, with its storied history, another championship.

c2 said...

What you don't seem to understand, John, is that within your assertion that Shanahan implying McNabb couldn't learn the playbook was to do with race, is the implication by you that race and intelligence are related. Where was race mentioned at all except by you? And why would you so quickly jump to that play without any precedent? It's quite peculiar. Are you familiar with projection?

Methinks you doth protest too much, John. Methinks you doth.

Anonymous said...

Some of the commenters are missing the point. The benching is not the bigoted action here. John writes that Shanahan as coach has the right to bench his QB.

The two occasions that Shanahan took to basically call McNabb dumb are the bigoted actions. To understand why, one must remember the long, prejudicial history of bias against black QB's in the NFL.

The teams almost always used to take black QB's from colleges and convert them to other positions such as RB, WR, and DB. The justification for this was that they weren't smart enough to handle playing QB in the NFL. Teams usually didn't say this outright. They usually coded the message by saying a QB from a small school, like Grambling for example, would have trouble learning a NFL playbook. There were other excuses given but they all essentially said the same thing: black men are too dumb to play QB.

So when Shanahan (or anyone else) says that a black QB can't learn all of a playbook or can't grasp certain terminology, those kind of comments tap into the long history of discrimination in the NFL.

Rich, Denver.

PS - Gordon: Tom Jackson was long retired before the Broncos won the Super Bowl.

Anonymous said...


I was the commenter that wrote about you not ripping the AP voters -- youre right, I forgot they were replaced by the Harris Poll, sorry about that. Good on the AP.

It's still too bad that the reason they had to drop out due to their dominance of the process is that the process got watered down expressly so that the BCS rankings would more closely match the AP poll so that people didn't get "confused."

Mr. X said...

Is "honoring Native Americans" code for "winners write history and can make fun of whomever they want"?

It's right out of GP Marshall's playbook.

Anonymous said...

Actually calling Shanahan a racist is actually a complement in this case. Short of that there can be no credible explanation for this absolutely disastrous decision. We're talking Rex Grossman here - who is notorious for coughing up the ball. You didn't have to be Nostradamus to predict the outcome of Grossman's first play from scrimmage. No coach in their right mind would bench their starting QB and put in Grossman with 1:45 left trailing by 6 points unless they were purposely trying to tank the game. So if Shanahan isn't a racist then it means that he is a couple of fries short of a happy meal and may explain why he was let go in Denver despite having won two rings.

Gordon from CT said...

Don't look now but Rick Reilly has gone after Junior in his latest on ESPN

Alex said...

If this is how far we have to dig to come up with "racism," then I'm very pleased with the status of race relations in America in 2010.

Are you really serious, John? You've had time to think about this and you haven't backed off your ridiculous, spun from whole cloth "analysis." Because a white coach has differences with a black quarterback, it's racist? There can be no other explanation?

Your level of analysis of this situation is on par with your stellar political insights.

To the liberal, everything is about race. America wasn't racist in 2008 - but in 2010? The KKK must have gone on one hell of a recruiting drive.

And you are an award-winning writer, how exactly?

ruffin said...

Well, at least John's established himself as the anti-Rush, but there are too many mitigating factors in McNabb's benching to play race.

Mitigation 1: As Jaws mentioned about his time in Tampa, only knowing half the playbook in your first half season doesn't mean you're an idiot. Donovan shouldn't know the playbook as well as Rex.

Mitigation 2: OCs love their system men. Saunders had his Collins. Spurrier had his Wuerffel. All three are, as you say, about as big headed as it gets south of those in the BCS. They need their man for their system to work. Shanny wants Elway. Shanny Jr. has Rex. What all three of those guys don't do is tailor their system to talent, which explains part of why Rex gets in over McNabb.

Mitigation 3: I'm writing off the bad conditioning line to McNabb's injury, which did keep him out of practices, and a Freudian slip. There's enough smoke for McNabb's work habits that Shanny might believe it. McNabb was hurt. Shanahan did tell Rex to be ready to go as a back up -- Czarniak got that out of him. They really thought McNabb was only marginally ready to play. Look, Shanahan loves to hide things from the competition and the media. What these sorry excuses say is that he's not as good at covering things up as Belichick.

Look, to be race, you either need a suggestive pattern over a significant period of time or a smoking gun. If Shanahan continues to make decisions like this one, maybe Feinstein's got a point.

But with the evidence we've got, Occam's razor tells us to think that Shanahan's simply not a double-G genius. He got mad, has a big head, is a system-first guy, and pulled his QB. In his attempt to save some face for his QB, he's instead made the hold deeper and deeper.

Maybe Family Shanahan should hire Zorn as a PR guy. That fellow could take any two ideas, Southpark/Family Guy mantee style, and make 'em logically (?) connect.

ruffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gordon said...


Upon further review you were correct. TJ was long retired. I'm sorry my memory failed me and I did not do my research. I regret my error.

I agree that Shanahans benching of McNabb may have not been the "racial" issue but rather the intelligence, or lack thereof was the "racial" issue. But in that case how as calling someone unintelligent racial? Many quarterbacks both white and black have been called that. Most noteabaly Terry Bradshaw who "dumbed" himself to four Super bowls rings. With ALOT of help!

I stand by my assertion that what Shanhan did was not racial just really really STUPID !

Mark said...

Before the BCS, wasn't the top finisher in the AP poll considered the national champion? Or at least have a valid claim if the coaches poll had a different winner? Is it not somewhat disingenuous for the AP to now claim that it does not want to "make" the news? After all, they still have the poll and they still pick a national champ at the end of the season.

Barno said...


It is quite possible, even likely, that John Feinstein has called Mike Shanahan a very bad person and implied he is a racist for planting a story that he actually didn't plant. Mike Shanahan has flatly denied the Mortenson report. Donovan McNabb has flatly laughed at the Mortenson report. Seems to me that someone--not named Shanahan--gave Mort that story. And Feinstein automatcially assumed it was Shanahan when it could have been any coach or player--since Mort protected their anonymity. And even if he did plant the story, which all signs point against, it is no excuse to call him a racist. Playbooks are scaled back for coaches in their first year with a new team all the time, as countless football analysts have pointed out this week. As Jaws said, it is standard.

The premise Feinstein started with is way, way off. It is not okay to publicly accuse or even merely privately suspect someone of using "racial coding" when there is no evidence nor pattern to support this disgusting claim. "Racial coding" is a phrase that implies racism; when you accuse someone of racial coding you are accusing them of racism--you are accusing them of being a racist. And there are few things worse than being accused of racism.

In 2010, it is not perfectly understandable to believe racism played a role, despite the history the Redskins organization. It is not understandable that wounds have been opened. It is not understandable and it is not okay. Let me tell you why. As we all know, there were countless institutions in this country that still exist--including government institutions--that used to discriminate several decades ago. The laws have changed and the civil rights era ushered in a host of new protections against discrimination and a guarantee of equal rights for all. Therefore, in 2010, should a black person who gets disciplined by any government agency assume it's because of their skin color, since 50 years ago that may have been the case? Of course not. It is bologna racial-victim mentality nonsense, it serves no one, and anyone who engages in it should be ashamed. Yet it's been happening a lot this past 10 days because media pundits keep saying it's perfectly understandable. Well, it's not. You are not a victim because your ancestors were discriminated again. I am not a victim because my ancestors were tortured and killed during the Holocaust. And it is not okay to always assume any white supervisor who disciplines a black employee did so because of skin color or vice versa. Not in 2010. We are past that.

We have come so far in this country when it comes to racial issues, yet folks like John Feinstein still do their best to set us back 40-50 years--even if they do it unintentionally.

Anonymous said...


You're close. What Shanahan DID was NOT RACIAL...

His COMMENTS covering up the stupidity of his decision WERE (historically) RACIAL CODING.

John, love the blog. Thanks for writing it.


Anonymous said...

John, you are an complete idiot and this article proves it:

ruffin said...

What scares me here is the number of people claiming that racist moves like the one John attributes to Shanahan couldn't happen today.

No, racist decisions do happen today, all the time, and by people every bit as public as an NFL coach. The Shirley Sherrod incident does a good job painting this from most every side. To pretend we're past racism as a country is to stick your head in the sand.

The issue is that there's no good reason to go on the record that racism is obvious here. I'm not saying Feinstein's wrong; we just have too many mitigating circumstances here for a reasonable, confident reaction to be racism.

* McNabb was hurt (for the alternative, see Exhibit Brunell and Gibbs when we find out after the season that Brunell's hammies were "black and blue").
* Offenses are difficult to learn, regardless of color.
* House Shanahan is especially egotistic, even for the NFL, like Saunders and Spurrier.
* Mike Shanahan is horrible with PR. See one Albert Haynesworth. Shanny's got the secretive motivations of a great coach, like Belichick, and the rhetorical skills of Admiral Stockdale. (That's a good line.)

This doesn't mean racism doesn't happen. It does. Feinstein's right to be on the look out. We just don't have the evidence to know (or claim on the record) that it happened here.

Tim said...

John - as a reader here for a while, I know you read the comments, and I know they are moderated. In saying that, after reading the comments on this topic, I say I am proud that you have allowed comments on this topic, and especially the ones that are very much 'anti-feinstein.' You could very easily have cut off comments for a topic like this, but yet you haven't. There is something to be said for allowing the critics voice for topics, especially one where very different opinions lie and strong discourse exists.

(BTW - don't know if you've read it, but Mike Florio @ profootballtalk had a pretty sensible article on this topic, and your opinion. You should check it out)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but you're a moron. Cut the racial crap. It wasn't a racial issue. It was just a stupid move by Shanahan. Oh by the way they just re-signed him to a 5 yr deal worth up to 88 million dollars with incentives. That's almost as much as Brady's contract. Did race play a part in that too? just admit that you were wrong and move on. Or is your ego as big as Shanahan's?