WASHINGTON — At first, I dismissed the comments. I figured Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan was just doing his misdirection thing again recently when he intimated inexperienced quarterback John Beck could be the team's starter next season.
But then people at Redskins Park informed me otherwise. They reminded me how much the Shanahans, Mike and his offensive coordinator son Kyle, believe in Beck, which was part of the reason the Redskins did not draft a quarterback. They told me that although the team hopes to re-sign Rex Grossman, Beck really is the Shanahans' first option at the game's most important position. And unlike last year when they were split on acquiring quarterback Donovan McNabb (Kyle was strongly against it), the Shanahans are united behind Beck, who has started just four NFL regular-season games and none since 2007.
With the Shanahans apparently determined to promote the former third-stringer, one thought comes to mind: For their sake, this had better work.
Mike Shanahan had an awful first year leading the team, which included his disastrous trade for McNabb, and Kyle played a key role in the six-time Pro Bowler feeling betrayed by the organization. If Beck succeeds, Shanahan's gamble will have paid off. If Beck fails, however, owner Dan Snyder should ask himself some difficult questions about the person in charge of the football operation. It would also seem appropriate for Snyder to closely examine the Redskins' father-son coaching dynamic.
Going for it on fourth down is a risky coaching decision. Going with Beck as "The Guy" in Washington could be a career-ender for the elder Shanahan. Kyle's apparent fast-track path to a NFL head coaching position also may be derailed, at least temporarily, if it turns out Beck was the wrong choice.
No matter how much Beck impressed the Shanahans during his productive career at Brigham Young and while directing Washington's scout team offense last season, it's almost unfathomable they would actually name him as the Redskins' starter. In relying on Beck, whom the team acquired last August in a trade with Baltimore, Mike Shanahan would risk his once-strong reputation on someone who has not taken a meaningful snap in three seasons and turns 30 in August.
When I asked him about Beck early in the 2010 season, Kyle gushed, saying he's passionate about football, has a great work ethic, possesses enough arm strength to make all the throws and is a good athlete. None of that, however, means Beck would perform adequately, let alone thrive, inside the fishbowl of being the No. 1 quarterback in these parts.
All that said, the season remains in jeopardy, and the Shanahans' thinking could always change. If they follow through with their plan, though, Beck would immediately become the most scrutinized person in the District not named Barack Obama. Possessing the physical tools to play quarterback is only a small part of the biggest job for the region's most popular sports franchise. I learned that from former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who understood this market and the Redskins' fan base better than most.
Playing quarterback for the Redskins, Gibbs once told me, requires more than smart s and talent. Gibbs created high expectations among fans because of his stellar first stint with the club that included three Super Bowl championships, and he acknowledged there are external challenges inherent in playing quarterback for the Redskins.
Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure how someone would fare until they're in the role, and the Shanahans undoubtedly would have faced similar questions if they drafted a quarterback to start next season as a rookie. What's concerning about their confidence in Beck, however, is that he has been in the league for four full seasons and no other proven football people have evaluated him as highly as the Shanahans.
Bill Parcells had Beck in Miami and released him. Ozzie Newsome traded Beck from Baltimore to Washington for little. Joe Flacco is entrenched as the Ravens' starter, and Beck was fourth-string, but if Beck's potential was so evident, wouldn't Newsome have found a way to keep him?
Denver owner Pat Bowlen did not question Shanahan's coaching ability when he fired him at the end of the 2008 season. Bowlen booted him because Mike Shanahan the general manager simply didn't get it done after John Elway retired in 1999. During the post-Elway period, Shanahan made major mistakes in free agency, had boom-or-bust drafts, couldn't get it figured out on defense and won only one playoff game, missing the postseason his past three seasons.
After Elway led the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl titles, Shanahan figured he could plug in any quarterback into his system. Shanahan thought it was all about him — and he was wrong. The Broncos had varying degrees of success with Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler, but nothing approaching what Elway delivered. Last season in Washington, the McNabb situation was a complete debacle. Now, Shanahan is preparing to shift to the untested Beck.
Over his final 10 years in Denver, Shanahan proved to Bowlen he could not be trusted to assemble a championship-caliber roster unless there was a future Hall of Fame quarterback already in place. With what Snyder has observed so far, he may not need nearly as much time to reach the same conclusion.