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 will be his starting quarterback for the rest of the season, beginning with Sunday's game at Dallas.
The shocking move didn't sit well with Redskins players.
"The guys are extremely pissed," one player told NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora.
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 during 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 passer rating.
"Disrespectful is probably not strong enough of a word," Fletcher N. Smith, McNabb's representative, told The Washington Post about the benching Friday. "Donovan has handled himself with nothing but class, not just in Washington but as an ambassador for the league. To treat him this way ... it's beyond disrespectful."
Asked if acquiring McNabb in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles 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 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"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 didn't comment Friday, saying "No! No! No!" to reporters as he entered Redskins Park after practice, but he later released a statement through his publicist, saying: "I respect Mike's decision as a head coach, but I strongly disagree with it."
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 met with reporters and acknowledged he's aware that fans and pundits nationwide are ridiculing his promotion. He wants to shut up his critics.
"I think everybody has doubters," said Grossman, who led the Chicago Bears 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 in Philadelphia, but he already has doubled that total in Washington in less than one season. Shanahan infamously yanked McNabb for Grossman during the final two minutes against the Detroit Lions in October with the game on the line, a stunning decision made even more bizarre by the coach's mangled explanations that followed.
Shanahan first said he believed 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."
"I almost don't even know where to begin, but it really started with Detroit and it was just wrong the way Donovan was treated," Smith told The Post. "Just the way Mike handled the whole situation in Detroit, and in almost every instance since that time, and this is, I guess, the culmination of that. I think it's ... again, it's beyond disrespectful."
On Thursday, Kyle Shanahan seemed to go out of his way to avoid praising McNabb while meeting with reporters, but he implied the veteran was still the starter.
La Canfora reported Friday that multiple players said Kyle Shanahan is using McNabb as a scapegoat. The coordinator's credibility has been questioned by players and members of the staff, according to team and league sources.
Grossman played for Kyle Shanahan last year in Houston. Mike Shanahan's son had been seen as a fast-tracked head-coaching prospect in many circles, but failures by the Redskins' offense this season have set that back.
Mike Shanahan said his son, "had no idea I was going to do it -- nobody did."
Grossman said Friday he had "hints" that something like this was coming, mostly from the way he was being used in practice. Shanahan said he informed McNabb and Grossman of the move Thursday afternoon.
"I knew this was going to be a circus once I talked about this," the coach said. "I wanted two good days (of practice), not having a lot of distractions."
The players were told of the decision 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 ground on which to stand.
"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."
Meanwhile, the Cowboys sounded thrilled with the move.
"We'll take Rex over McNabb any day," Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher said, according to The Post. "(McNabb is) hard to contain. He's hard to bring down, and he can make plays with his legs and his arm. Not taking anything away from Rex Grossman, I think he's a good quarterback also."
The Redskins sent two draft picks -- a second-round choice this year and a third- or fourth-rounder next year -- to the Eagles for McNabb on Easter Sunday. It seemed curious the Eagles would trade a quarterback to an NFC East rival unless believed felt his best days were behind him, but the Redskins couldn't stop gushing, with 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-of-7 passing for 44 yards.
Now Grossman has another shot.
"I'm throwing him into the briar patch," Shanahan said. "We'll see how he performs."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.