Running Games; Why Donovan McNabb Has Struggled In Mike Shanahan's Offense

KC ClyburnCorrespondent IIOctober 21, 2010

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 17: Quarterback Donovan McNabb #5 of the Washington Redskins is sacked by Clint Session #55 and Pat Angerer #51 of the Indianapolis Colts in first quarter action at FedExField on October 17, 2010 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

It's been a weird few weeks watching franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb play for the Washington Redskins.

At times, Donovan looks exactly like the quarterback we need — accurate, a rocket arm, able to move around in the pocket and avoid contact, able to throw with accuracy without setting his feet, seemingly able to launch a 70-yard bomb with a flick of the wrist and a little bit of prayer. He can spread the ball to all his receivers and drives the team down the field to win while looking every bit the leader the organization thought he'd be when they traded him.

At other times, Donovan looks awful. He sends balls into the turf rather than his receivers hands. Goes for the big play instead of the play that'll get him a new set of downs. Interceptions are thrown that make ya go "Okay, who was he planning on throwing the ball to there?"

This is not an article to bash Donovan. I still think he is the best quarterback the Redskins can ask for. I think the murmurs talking about letting him go at the end of the season or lowballing him on a contract are insane, as their are no quarterbacks who will be available in free agency or through the draft that can do what he can do. I still find him to be a phenomenal and underrated quarterback in the NFL, and I do think he deserves the tag of being an "elite" level guy. How people can be ready to deem a Matt Schaub or Aaron Rodgers an elite quarterback but ignore Donovan in the discussion is beyond me.

That being said, watching Donovan at the helm of the offense has at times being astounding, and at other times has been incredibly frustrating. I'm wary of saying I understand how Philadelphia Eagles fans felt, but I can see how years of this kind of thing would get a wee bit annoying.

Perhaps some of this is to be expected. Donovan McNabb spent 11-years playing in one offense with one coach and one style of play.

And it's not like Donovan hasn't still won us games—I believe his performance against the Packers put us back in the game and was the definition of being a clutch quarterback. His performance versus the Texans was brilliant--there was still a chance to win that game, and McNabb was driving the team down the field late in the game to potentially ice it, had it not been for a couple boneheaded penalties.

So what's the deal with Donovan?

As I went back and tried to put things together, I've tried to figure out what is the difference between Mike Shanahan's West Coast Offense and Andy Reid's West Coast Offense. Upon thinking that, I realized there are several hundred differences between the two and that it was a dumb question to ask in the first place if I didn't want to end up with a headache for the rest of the day.

But there is one major difference that will stick out to anyone who has followed the NFL.

Mike Shanahan's offense is a run first, pass second team. In Shanahan's offense, establishing a solid run game is crucial, as it sets up play action passes, bootlegs, and roll outs, getting Donovan out of the pocket to either make big plays down field and make a play for a first down with his legs.

Watching America's Game for the 1997 Denver Broncos, it was clear that not only did it help a guy like Terrell Davis have an explosive season, but it also took all the pressure off John Elway to get the job done with his arm alone. With a running game to help him, John Elway could still make all the plays that made him a Hall of Fame quarterback, but no longer did it solely rest on him to win games on his own.

Andy Reid's offense, however, was a pass first, run second (if we run it at all) offense. It's no secret that the Eagles of the last decade have been a passing team. While they've certainly had running backs that could get it done when need be, Donovan's arm was more important than ever. Over the course of elevenyears, Reid molded Donovan into more a pocket passer than the guy who could make plays with his legs. Brian Westbrook was a great running back, but the Eagles seemed content to use him as a checkdown receiver, using their short passing game almost like a running game of it's own.

This is not to say the Eagles never run the ball—with running backs like Westbrook and LeSean McCoy it'd be dumb not to—but clearly, it fell more on Donovan's shoulders to get it done.

What does this have to do with anything?

I think years of being on a pass first offense doesn't completely gel with an offense that clearly wants to establish the run first. Donovan has been at his best (and on fire, really) when Mike Shanahan decides to let McNabb establish a rhythm and start passing the ball. In the loss against the Rams, the running game was working well (Clinton Portis and Ryan Torain combined for a total of 80 yards on the ground), but Donovan wasn't on his game, clicking on 19-of-32 pass attempts.

The next week against the Eagles, Donovan made more plays with his legs than he did with his arm. Once again, the running game was working well. Early in the game the offense seemed to be firing on all cylinders, but in the second half, the passing offense wasn't quite as good at converting third downs to keep the Eagles off the field and out of the game. McNabb fell into more of a game manager mode—he didn't have to throw much, to be honest, but when he did, they weren't the most accurate or best of throws, which gave the Eagles a chance to get back into the game.

Against the Packers, it felt much the same way. In the first half, it felt as though the Redskins couldn't do much of anything on offense. The run game wasn't working the best, but they were still trying to establish it. The relentless pass rush of the Green Bay Packers, led by Clay Mathews, didn't help the passing game much. But when Mathews left the game due to a hamstring injury, Donovan had more time to throw.

He started getting into a rhythm, and led a drive down the field. He then connected on a huge 46-yard touchdown to Anthony Armstrong that kept the team in the game leading another drive down the field that allowed us to get into field goal range.

The seemingly weird trend continued in the Colts game. Dirt balls, inaccuracy, not to mention his receivers getting a case of the deadly stone hands that seem to affect Carlos Rodgers. All while the run game was firing on all cylinders and Ryan Torain rushed for 100 yards and two TD's.

Late in the fourth quarter, it was on Donovan's shoulders to get the team into the end zone again. And that's what he did. They stopped running the ball and let Donovan throw, and he led a methodical (though it was probably too slow) drive towards the end zone, ending with a touchdown thrown to Keiland Williams. Then confusing Donovan showed up again as he tried to make the big play to Anthony Armstrong, who was well covered, on top of pushing the bar out to far for him.

Still, the Redskins had a chance to win it. 'Skins fans can woulda/shoulda/coulda with the best of them, but one has to believe that if that pass hadn't been intercepted, Joey Galloway could've caught it, and there was no one in front of him. Not a bad play, just an unfortunate one.

Maybe I'm reading to much into it. That's entirely possible. But as a harmless, armchair fan, it appears that perhaps it's the run game that's screwing up McNabb.

I know that sounds crazy. What Hall of Fame quarterback can't deal with having a run game? In fact, there's several quarterbacks in the league who would kill for a running game that's been as consistent as the Redskins (and that's saying something, since it hasn't been that consistent).

But old habits die hard, and being in an offense that relies on your arm so much for eleven years gets you into a certain rhythm. Breaking that rhythm is a hard thing to do; learning a new one is even harder.

Donovan McNabb will be the quarterback of the Washington Redskins for the foreseeable future. Next year I don't think it'll be a problem, as a year to mature in the offense will make everyone on the team better.

That being said, for this season, I think we bring a tiny bit of Andy Reid's philosophy to the Redskins.

(I think I just heard hundreds of Redskins fans screaming at their computer screens in horror and anger.)

Hear me out. Everyone knows that a Mike Shanahan offense goes through the running game. It seems this season that every team has been prepared for this and are ready to stop the run.

So why not stretch defenses out a little bit? McNabb clearly loves to pass. If everyone is already anticipating the run, play action passes and the like may not be out of the question. He also has the ability to spread the ball around to all his receivers; in the game versus the Texans, everyone on the roster who didn't have the initials "D.T." ended the day with a catch or two.

This would force defenses to be honest--no longer could they load the box and wait for the run. Despite all the talk Redskins having the worst receiving core in the league (I do believe the Panthers and Bills would like to have a discussion with you about that), it appears that defenses are finally starting to ease up on Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, as they are realizing Anthony Armstrong is a solid deep treat.

Even Brandon Banks almost came down with a deep pass on Sunday. While the Skins don't always have to go for the big play, Donovan is able to move the chains with just about anyone at wide receiver--can you name another receiver not named Terrell Owens that played for the Eagles during their Super Bowl run?

With opposing defenses playing back to stop the pass, that could open up more holes for the run game and the Zone Blocking Scheme. The Redskins still have to be balanced—we can't expect Donovan to throw it 45 times in every game-- but maybe the "run first, pass second" nature of the offense is hurting McNabb, and allowing him to work into that rhythm early in the game would help the team in the long run, using the pass to get the Skins ahead about a touchdown or two, and using the running game to close out games.

It's entirely possible that everything I've said is insane, and that it holds no water, and if you feel that way, please feel free to call me on my BS, as I'm still relatively new to being a football fan and don't know all the intricacies of the game.

But I've seen bits and pieces and flashes of brilliance in this offense. And Donovan McNabb is currently the Redskins best chance of returning to Super Bowl glory. Perhaps doing a little something that Donovan is more comfortable with would get us there sooner rather than later.


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