ASHBURN, Va. – Never mind the talk about whether Donovan McNabb will be the Washington Redskins quarterback next season. Coach Mike Shanahan won't even say whether McNabb will be the quarterback on Sunday.
"We're not committing to tell you who the starters are at any position," Shanahan said Wednesday, explaining how he hopes to keep the Dallas Cowboys guessing about a possible switch to Rex Grossman. "They've got to get ready for a couple of players. That's good for us."
It's important to note that Shanahan was in a playful mood as he dodged those quarterback questions, and that it's hard to find anyone who really believes there's a chance that Grossman will supplant the six-time Pro Bowl player for the latest edition of the NFC East rivalry.
"Donovan McNabb is one of the marquee players in this league and can beat you in so many different ways," Dallas interim coach Jason Garrett said. "We're certainly preparing for him. And if he happens not to be the quarterback, we'll have to make those adjustments."
And, for the record, if McNabb weren't starting, he made no bones about the fact that Shanahan should have told him by now.
"I would have hoped," McNabb said. "That's professionalism. Communication."
Yet the very fact that McNabb's status is such a topic demonstrates his uncertain status as he winds down his first season in Washington. With the Redskins (5-8) eliminated from the playoff race, Shanahan has made it clear he intends to use the final three games to determine who should be on the roster next year. Many players have also stated they're playing for jobs, even if it that job might be with another team in 2011.
McNabb would seem to fit into that category. He is 34 and is having his worst season since he was a rookie in 1999. He's thrown a career-high 15 interceptions and ranks 25th in the NFL with a 77.1 rating. He's led some good drives, but he's been inconsistent and has bounced far too many passes in front of open receivers. When the Redskins gave him a contract extension last month, it came with a clause that allows the team to cut him at the end of the season with no further financial obligation.
McNabb, however, is not a fan of the play-for-job motivational tactic.
"I look at these three games to get better," McNabb said. "I think when you have a mindset to go out and to try to impress and to do a little bit more than what you're capable of doing, it takes away from being in the framework of the schemes and what we're planning on doing. I think a lot of times you focus too hard on different things, and it takes you away from things that are just easy to you. I think in this situation, obviously with three more games left, we want to do whatever it takes to win and we can't control anything else after that."
Shanahan showed he's not afraid to make a daring, counterintuitive quarterback move when he benched McNabb for Grossman in the final two minutes with the game on the line in a loss at Detroit in October. McNabb wasn't happy, Shanahan couldn't come up with a clear explanation for the decision, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and McNabb were at odds over whether McNabb had been tipped off in advance about the possible switch.
McNabb followed up with a clear-the-air meeting with the Shanahans. Since then, according to McNabb, "the communication got a lot better."
"I think everyone wanted to know if it was going to get better," McNabb said. "And it did."
Mike Shanahan, however, said he hasn't changed the way he deals with his quarterback. He chalked up McNabb's perception of better communication as the "growth as you get to know people."
"Like any relationship, it does take time," Mike Shanahan said.
The Redskins traded two draft picks to Philadelphia to acquire McNabb, and the team has many other deficiencies that will need more desperate attention in the offseason, so it would seem unlikely that McNabb wouldn't be brought back for a second go-round. Shanahan reiterated Wednesday that it can take two to three years to master a new offensive scheme, and McNabb has often cited how the record improved from 5-11 in his first year with Eagles to 11-5 in his second year.
"Things can change here, and it will change here," McNabb said. "There were a lot of things in the beginning of the season that myself as well as maybe Kyle or whatever or the players, we weren't on the same page. And now we are. ... There's definitely been big steps."
There have also been nagging questions over McNabb's health. His sore hamstrings were one reason cited by the coaches for the Detroit benching. Around that same time, McNabb himself said the extra offseason work he undertook to learn the new offense was taking a physical toll over the long season.
McNabb now claims to be fully healthy, although he continues to be listed on the weekly injury report with a hamstring issue. Also, the quarterback who has made a name for himself by making plays with his legs has stopped scrambling: He has only six carries for 16 yards over the last five games.
"Quarterbacks never tell you the truth," Mike Shanahan said. "He hasn't scrambled a lot. I think it's probably hurting him a little bit more than he's indicating. Quarterbacks I've been around, they'll never admit to being hurt, so I can't tell you that for sure."
Notes: Mike Shanahan said punter-holder Hunter Smith was cut because of poor punting, not because of the mishandled extra point snap in Sunday's one-point loss to Tampa Bay. Shanahan said only two of Smith's last 20 punts had the hang time the team wanted. Smith, who was released Tuesday and replaced with Sam Paulescu, ranks 31st in the NFL in net average. "It had nothing to do with the hold," Shanahan said. "I admired the way he stepped up and blamed it on himself." ... Shanahan doesn't like practicing on frozen grass fields, so he's holding practice on the team's rarely-used artificial turf field this week because of the cold weather.