Phil Sheridan: Race-card distraction in D.C. plays into Eagles' hands

A critic of Donovan McNabb's benching says Redskins coach Mike Shanahan used racial code words to explain the move.
A critic of Donovan McNabb's benching says Redskins coach Mike Shanahan used racial code words to explain the move.
Posted: November 10, 2010

There are a couple of ways to look at the latest twist in the Great Donovan McNabb Benching Controversy.

The timing couldn't be better for the Eagles, who will play McNabb and his new team Monday night in Landover, Md. There's nothing like catching an opponent in this kind of spectacular public disarray.

And Philadelphians can take some comfort in the fact that this is not happening here. Now that the third-rail issue of race has entered the conversation, there's no way this can end well. We had enough of that inflicted on us when McNabb was here - by Terrell Owens, by Rush Limbaugh, by J. Whyatt Mondesire. Most of us just flinch when a sports conversation takes an unnecessary detour down that particular road.

Sports provide an escape, for the most part, from having to deal with real-world problems. And while issues such as racism, sexism (looking at you, New York Jets), and homophobia certainly affect sports and athletes, they are unwelcome intruders.

Shanahan said immediately after the game that McNabb didn't know the two-minute offense as well as backup Rex Grossman. As absurd as that sounded - especially after Grossman promptly fumbled the ball and the game away - Shanahan made it worse the next day by changing his story.

Now it was about McNabb's "cardiovascular" readiness to lead a two-minute offense. Because of injuries to his hamstrings, McNabb wasn't in the kind of shape he needed to be in. At least that's what Shanahan said a day later.

A week later, someone inside the team complex in Ashburn, Va., told ESPN "insider" Chris Mortensen that Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, had to cut their playbook in half for McNabb.

All of this led John Feinstein, a nationally respected sportswriter and author of several best-selling books, in a TV appearance Tuesday to accuse Shanahan of "racial coding." Feinstein also called for Shanahan to be fired.

Heavy stuff. Again, this isn't some loon with a blog or 10-watt radio show. This is a Washington Post writer of national renown appearing on the Post's equivalent of Comcast SportsNet's Daily News Live program.

Let's start with the obvious in trying to make sense of this. The idea of subtle racism's being a factor when the team involved is called the Washington Redskins is absurd.

But is it possible that race is an issue between McNabb and the Shanahans? Now we're into an interesting area. Some background: Years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with someone who personally knew some of the top offensive-minded head coaches in the NFL. We were discussing Andy Reid's choice of McNabb as the No. 2 pick in the 1999 draft, as his franchise quarterback.

"People don't think that's as big a deal as it really is," the individual said then. "I know for a fact a few of these coaches wouldn't do it. They're just not comfortable with an African American quarterback, even now."

No NFL city is as color-blind when it comes to quarterbacks as Philadelphia, where Michael Vick now succeeds McNabb, Rodney Peete, and Randall Cunningham.

Mike Shanahan has been a coach in the NFL for a long time. He was the offensive coordinator in San Francisco when Steve Young took over for Joe Montana. His QBs during 14 years in Denver were John Elway, Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler. In all, 14 quarterbacks threw passes for Shanahan in Denver. Only one, third-team QB Jarious Jackson, wasn't white.

Does this prove Shanahan is a racist? Hardly. After all, he certainly signed off on the trade that sent McNabb to Washington in the first place.

But this is the first time in 25-plus years in the NFL that he's had an African American in the most important job on his team. Maybe that doesn't affect his judgment. Only Shanahan can know that, and even he may not realize it. But it is very likely that his own lack of experience in these matters leaves him ill-equipped for a situation like this.

The not-so-subtle campaign to scapegoat McNabb looks bad. It probably has more to do with Shanahan's trying to protect his son - a nepotism hire if ever there was one. But the clumsiness of this campaign easily can appear to be racially motivated, if that's what you're looking for.

McNabb, by the way, said on a radio show that the idea he doesn't know the offense is "hilarious." He certainly understood and ran Reid's extremely complex system. McNabb had his flaws here, but no one ever suggested he wasn't intelligent enough.

It really is astonishing that McNabb finds himself in the middle of another ridiculous controversy. The difference this time is that it could wind up helping the Eagles instead of merely distracting them.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan

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