Donovan McNabb to second-string. Then to third-string. Then no guarantee that he'll be back next season.
Maybe he's no John Elway after all.
The ever-dramatic Washington Redskins upset the NFL apple cart once again Friday when coach Mike Shanahan announced Rex Grossman as his starter for the rest of the season, beginning with Sunday's game at Dallas.
McNabb will be the No. 2 quarterback against the Cowboys, then drop to No. 3 behind Grossman and John Beck for the final two games of the season.
And after that?
"I also told him," Shanahan said, "that I cannot guarantee him that he will be back next year."
That's how far the 34-year-old, six-time Pro Bowl quarterback has fallen. The player acquired with such fanfare in an April trade — the quarterback who would do for Shanahan in Washington what Elway did for him in Denver — is benched in a season in which he has been woefully inconsistent, throwing a career-high 15 interceptions and ranking 25th in the NFL with a 77.1 rating.
Asked if getting McNabb was a mistake, Shanahan said: "I think there's a lot of mistakes that you make. You really don't know if you made a mistake, but if you do make one, you make it and you go on. What I want to do is evaluate where we're at the end of the season, then I will tell you if we erred or not."
McNabb's performance has the coach leaving all options open at the team's most important position for 2011. Shanahan said he had been planning to make the move after the Redskins (5-8) were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, which happened last weekend after a 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay.
"I've got to find where Rex Grossman is, where John Beck is. I want a chance to evaluate these guys," Shanahan said. "I told Donovan that there's nothing he could do in the three games that would influence me over what he's done over the last 13 games. I said, 'I'm not sure what I'm going to do in the college draft, if we're able to get the top quarterback in the draft, if there was a young Donovan McNabb or maybe a Sam Bradford, someone like that.' There's a lot of possibilities."
McNabb did not comment Friday, saying "No! No! No!" to reporters as he entered Redskins Park after practice.
McNabb's wife abruptly canceled a scheduled interview with The Associated Press in which she planned to promote a charity event involving NFL wives.
Grossman did speak, however, and he's aware that fans and pundits nationwide are ridiculing his promotion. He wants to shut his critics up.
"I think everybody has doubters," said Grossman, who led Chicago to a Super Bowl during the 2006 season but has thrown 33 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions in 31 career starts. "And any situation, until you prove yourself on a consistent basis, you're always going to have doubters, no matter what profession you're in. It's motivation. I'm human. How could you not be motivated to show everybody who's mocking this, or talking on the radio or TV thinking they're smart?
"I'm totally motivated to go out and prove not only to them but myself and my teammates that I'm a bona fide starter in this league and can lead this team to a championship one day."
McNabb was benched only once in 11 years with Philadelphia, and he's already doubled that total with the Redskins in less than one season. Shanahan infamously yanked McNabb for Grossman in the final two minutes against Detroit in October with the game on the line, a stunning decision made even more bizarre by Shanahan's mangled explanations that followed.
The coach first said he felt Grossman had a better grasp of the team's two-minute offense, then said McNabb lacked the "cardiovascular endurance" to run a fast-paced drill because of nagging hamstring injuries. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the coach's son, said McNabb had been tipped in advance that the team might go with Grossman; McNabb said he hadn't.
Before the next game, the Redskins gave a McNabb a five-year contract extension nominally worth $78 million — but the only thing it guaranteed was that the quarterback would receive an extra $3.5 million this season. The deal contains a clause that allows the Redskins to cut McNabb before next season with no further financial obligation.
This week, the situation began to take more strange turns.
Mike Shanahan on Wednesday refused to say who would start Sunday, saying he didn't want to tip off the Cowboys.
McNabb said his communication with the coaching staff had improved since the benching; neither of the Shanahans would agree with that. McNabb said he would expect to know by Wednesday if he weren't starting, calling it a matter of "professionalism."
On Thursday, Kyle Shanahan seemed to go out of his way to avoid praising McNabb while meeting with reporters, but he implied McNabb was still the starter.
Grossman said Friday he had "hints" that something like this was coming, mostly from the way he was being used in practice. Mike Shanahan said he informed McNabb and Grossman of the move Thursday afternoon, and that even Kyle Shanahan didn't know it was coming.
"I knew this was going to be a circus once I talked about this," Mike Shanahan said. "I wanted two good days (of practice), not having a lot of distractions."
The players were told Friday morning. Some said they were surprised by the move, but then realized they shouldn't have been, considering all the turmoil the Redskins constantly generate.
"It's always something new here," tight end Chris Cooley said.
Even the players who have been vocally supportive of McNabb admit the team's losing record doesn't give the veteran quarterback much to stand on.
"As sad as it is, this league is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "He hasn't won a whole lot of games with us. Coach felt like it was time to figure out if Rex is going to be the guy we keep around here next year."
The Redskins gave up two draft picks — a second-round choice this year and a third- or fourth-rounder next year — to Philadelphia for McNabb on Easter Sunday. It seemed curious the Eagles would trade a quarterback to a division rival unless they felt his best days were behind him, but the Redskins couldn't stop gushing, with Mike Shanahan leading the way with comments such as: "People were saying John Elway should retire until he won the Super Bowl."
Grossman was signed this year because he was familiar with the team's new offense and would be able to help teach it to McNabb. Grossman was a backup last year in Houston, where Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator.
In his only appearance this year — relieving McNabb in the loss to Detroit — Grossman fumbled while being sacked on his first play, and the ball was returned for a touchdown. He finished the game, going 4 for 7 for 44 yards.
Now he gets another shot.
"I'm throwing him into the briar patch," Shanahan said. "We'll see how he performs."