Donovan McNabb helps guide Washington Redskins to strong preseason debut

By Mike Wise
Friday, August 13, 2010; 11:44 PM

Six minutes into the game, and Donovan McNabb went down hard, his head bouncing off the ground. A sight that for 11 years brought instant euphoria to FedEx Field - that No. 5 jersey no longer scampering but slammed to the turf - became cause for hush and momentary concern.

McNabb got up quickly, apparently unfazed, and Buffalo's blitzing linebacker Aaron Maybin was flagged for roughing the quarterback.

First down. Drive stays alive.

The new Washington Redskins quarterback then skittered along the right side for a first down, found Chris Cooley for another and drove his former rivals 80 yards in 11 plays for an efficient touchdown in a preseason opener that meant absolutely nothing.

And everything.

Points in the red zone build confidence, just as cohesion in a new system builds confidence. But everything about the next few weeks before Sept. 12 is really about one thing: keeping the most important player on the roster healthy.

Keeping McNabb upright and mobile enough means all the decisions in the offseason have a chance of being justified.

I keep hearing about throwing motions, the fragility of Stephen Strasburg's right arm in relation to the Nationals' long-term plans. Or how the Wizards would have no buzz if John Wall hurt his knee, and the Capitals would become a lot less breathtaking with a sidelined Alex Ovechkin.

And that's all true and valid.

But of all the franchise players in Washington at the moment, nothing should be treated like fine china and babied more than a quarterback who turns 34 in two months.

McNabb is the key to everything.

Yes, the Albert Haynesworth conditioning saga gave Mike Shanahan a bit more locker-room cred. He has gone about establishing a clear delineation of command, whereby no one leapfrogs the coach to get to the owner.

But Shanahan's legacy as a coach, post-Denver, is hardly furthered by discipline.

For that matter Bruce Allen's legacy as a general manager, post-Tampa Bay, is not solely furthered by his commitment to the Redskins' tradition his late father preserved.

Changing the culture counts only if football games are won. And the Redskins don't win games without a healthy McNabb.

This entire win-now gamble does not pay off if McNabb can't first start and finish the season upright.

Jason Campbell, flaws and all, was the most durable quarterback Washington has had in a decade. He got hit and hit and hit. And kept coming back.

To acquire McNabb, a second- and third-round draft pick were shipped off. Who's to say if Jimmy Clausen amounts to something special, but those are rounds when young quarterbacks are often chosen to develop and groom.

Because Shanahan convinced Dan Snyder his locker room was more ready to reload than rebuild, McNabb became the linchpin for a two- or three-year run toward a dream postseason.

Even Thursday night, leading the Redskins downfield against the Bills, his nimble feet were buying time for a developing offensive line.

His leadership mirrors London Fletcher's on the defensive side. He makes jaded veterans believe in their abilities and instincts again. He makes young kids believe they belong. And - this is important - he makes old football men look awfully contemporary and prescient with their decisions.

Allen's strategy of being fiscally responsible and seeing if he can siphon young magic out of old legs pays off too if McNabb produces and plays almost every down.

The health of No. 5, who looked so at ease in burgundy and gold Friday night, is the only real worry the next month.

So gauge whether Devin Thomas or Justin Tryon are in respective doghouses the next few weeks all you want. Figure out who should be starting at linebacker beside Fletcher in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Monitor Big Al's snaps and how much he's sucking air.

Be happy for Clinton Portis putting his head down and moving the chains for the first time since suffering an ugly concussion in Atlanta last year.

Tell your friends "Cowboys Month" - not "Cowboys Week" - began Friday night on an overcast, mild evening in Prince George's County.

Say complimentary things about the monstrous video scoreboards behind each end zone, which were a welcome part of the new esthetics. (Just like the giant, blown-up Sports Illustrated covers on the walls of the redecorated media room. The one of John Riggins breaking free against Miami under the words "Power And Glory" was especially cool.)

Hey, until the real thing, have all the hope and possibility games that don't count in the standings bring.

Good. Fine.

I'm watching McNabb and the patchwork unit assigned to protect his cartilage and muscle the next few weeks. I don't care if he throws for 20 touchdowns or one.

If he is unharmed and healthy by Sept. 12, the Redskins have a chance.

If McNabb stays healthy until at least January, they have a better chance.

If he and the Redskins come to terms on a new deal that ensures he's here for at least three years, they have a genuine chance at recapturing the mystique, when things were not only good they were glorious.

If not, that monster trade that brought so much hope wasn't worth it.

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