Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

I heard a caller on sports talk station WJFK-FM several weeks ago rage about “David Duke Jr.” He was referring to Kyle Shanahan, son of Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and likely fall guy for the Donovan McNabb debacle.

Yes, with the 2011 NFL draft almost upon us, the racial angle of the 2010 Redskins quarterback’s saga remains a top story among fans. Chad Dukes, co-host of WJFK’s “LaVar and Dukes,” says that he personally sees no racism in the Skins’ handling of the star quarterback. But he hears day after day from an audience that begs to differ.

“If you bench a QB of the caliber of Donovan McNabb for a QB of the caliber of Rex Grossman, you leave yourself open to those charges,” says Dukes. “The move was so baffling. Nobody understands it. And Shanahan’s explanation makes no sense, so [some callers say] he must be a racist.”

That’s the kind of narrative a team’s flacks would want to extinguish quickly. But the league’s labor situation complicates matters. The owners’ lockout leaves the Redskins—like every team—without tools they could ordinarily use to change the subject. Roster moves, for instance, are off-limits, meaning no big-time free-agent signings. Only the annual draft remains. So short of drafting Cam Newton (or, what the hell, Doug Williams), it’s unlikely the Redskins can tame the tumult anytime soon.

“The Redskins were essentially calling Donovan McNabb ‘the Fat Dummy,’” says Mark Gray, who for years hosted The Sports Groove, a WOL-AM talk show with a largely black audience. “You can’t do that here. This isn’t Denver. The Redskins have a [racial] past, and in this community, you start reaching beneath the surface, there’s still a lot of guys thinking about the past. In this market, you’re going to be scrutinized from a race angle. And I’ve got [black] friends who say the public disrespect for Donovan McNabb got them thinking. They tell me they’re not wearing any [Redskins] gear.”

The mess started last April, when the Redskins acquired McNabb from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a couple of draft picks. In July, the team introduced the R You In? campaign, the most elaborate and urban-centric ticket-selling scheme in its history. Ads on Metrobuses and billboards along New York Avenue NE featured McNabb and declared that “the franchise quarterback is in the huddle.”

By Halloween, he was out of the huddle: With 1:45 left in the game and the Redskins trailing the Detroit Lions by six, McNabb was yanked. Grossman, his replacement, fumbled on his first play; the Lions picked it up and scored.

In his post-game press conference, Mike Shanahan said he made the unorthodox QB switcheroo because Grossman knew “how to run the two-minute offense” and understood “the terminology.” Two days later, at his weekly press conference, Shanahan said that McNabb’s “cardiovascular endurance” wasn’t up to snuff. Shanahan went on local radio the same day to add that McNabb had an injured hamstring going into the game. The coach said that Grossman, meanwhile, had done “an excellent job playing as Peyton Manning” in practice a week earlier. Kyle Shanahan then made the mess messier by telling reporters he’d warned McNabb pre-game that Grossman might take his place; McNabb said he was not afforded any such professional courtesy.

A week after the benching, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the Shanahans had “cut their playbook in half” in hopes that McNabb would be able to grasp the offense. The leaks from Redskins Park incited John Feinstein to go on a Comcast Sports Network panel show and call for Shanahan to lose his job.

“I think there’s racial coding going on here, and it’s my belief that that kind of behavior is worth firing a coach for,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein still stands by his righteous rant.

“Shanahan is one of those coaches who is never wrong,” says Feinstein. “So when he does something that’s clearly wrong, he has to give you 20 reasons why he wasn’t wrong. If he said after that Detroit game, ‘My gut told me it was the thing to do,’ it would have been over in a day or two. But we get all this fumbling and mumbling. I wasn’t reacting to the benching; I was reacting to the explanation for the benching. It was racial coding.”

A hugely successful sportswriter, Feinstein isn’t known for going racial. But he’d visited the black QB issue a long time ago, in a 1980 Washington Post profile of Doug Williams, then the NFL’s only black starting quarterback. In the 31-year-old story, Williams complains about the portrayals of black quarterbacks as “just plain dumb.”

Feinstein’s November tirade brought the racial undercurrents of McNabb’s benching right to the surface. But just as McNabb was set to return on Monday Night Football, the team changed the storyline by giving a humongous contract extension to the guy who’d just been described as out-of-shape and not smart. Hours before kickoff, AOL’s David Elfin reported that Redskins Park management “confirmed” that the pact was a five-year deal worth $78 million, “$40 million of which is guaranteed.” The reports made the racial angle a non-starter during the national broadcast.

It didn’t stay that way for long. Days later—after McNabb stank on MNF’s big stage—it emerged that the revised contract actually only guaranteed an extra $3.5 million after the 2010 season. Near the end of the season, after a 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay, McNabb took a permanent seat on the bench. Mortensen, for ESPN, reported a rumor of the benching days before it was officially announced.

McNabb’s agent has reportedly requested that the Redskins release or trade him. It hasn’t happened. The Redskins depth chart on shows McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowler, third in the quarterback rotation. Grossman and John Beck (whose career stats after four years in the NFL include a 0-4 record as a starter, one TD, three INTs, and zero Pro Bowls) are ahead of him. For all his ankle-biting throws, McNabb had been on a pace to break the franchise passing-yards record before he was benched.

Feinstein says that the ugly McNabb soap opera is among many reasons the Redskins are probably lobbying NFL negotiators to get an agreement with the players hammered out by any means necessary. “The Redskins need football,” he says.

Redskins Senior Vice President Tony Wyllie says the team would not be commenting about McNabb’s status. But no matter what takes place from here on, Feinstein thinks McNabb will become a permanent part of the Redskins racial lore.

“Now the Redskins have a completely different ownership, and different staff,” he says, “but there are people who still remember that George Preston Marshall wouldn’t [sign] Ernie Davis, and how the Redskins were the last team in the NFL to integrate, and they remember Shirley Povich writing about how Jim Brown ‘integrated their end zone.’ Twenty years from now, the way Donovan McNabb was treated is part of that story. This stuff sticks with fans. And it’s not like the quarterback issue is anywhere near solved.”

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