Donovan McNabb, Trent Williams will face tests in Washington Redskins' opener against Dallas Cowboys

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 2:19 AM

Back in April, the rookie lineman and the veteran quarterback both needed directions just to find their way around Redskins Park. Trent Williams was in awe simply spotting Donovan McNabb across the locker room.

"That only lasted a week or two," the rookie left tackle said.

And only five months after first rolling into town, McNabb is just a few days away from starting his first regular season game wearing Redskins' colors. But, he says, "I feel like I've been here."

On Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, McNabb and Williams will wear burgundy and gold for the first time in a game that counts, their respective spots in the starting lineup among the most anticipated offensive debuts the Redskins have seen in recent years. As high as expectations might seem - McNabb is a six-time Pro Bowler and Williams was the fourth overall pick in April's NFL draft - there's a bit of uncertainty hanging over both players as the season begins.

McNabb was sidelined for the final two weeks of the preseason after suffering an ankle sprain against Baltimore on Aug. 21. McNabb is back taking snaps with the starters in practice this week.

"He's ready to go," Coach Mike Shanahan said. "He's had two good days under his belt. I think he feels a lot better getting those two days in."

McNabb skipped the final two preseason games - though he wouldn't have played in the preseason finale regardless of the ankle sprain - but also missed two weeks' worth of practices. Asked what he missed during that time, McNabb said, "a lot of sweating." But the truth is, while he's still grasping a new and complex offense, every missed live-action snap is a missed opportunity to get more comfortable with the system.

"You wish you could've been out there and just worked on your timing and chemistry a little bit," said McNabb, who concedes that there are few similarities between the Eagles' West Coast system he ran for 11 years and the Redskins' version of the West Coast offense.

Among Shanahan's calling cards as a head coach has been adjusting his schemes to match his personnel, taking full advantage when he added a strong tailback, athletic wide receiver or sharp tight end. But offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said the team didn't need to tweak its offense much when it added McNabb, and the quarterback said after 11 years in the league, his style isn't changing much either.

"I'm just going to be myself," McNabb said. "When you get into trying to change who you are and trying to please others, then that takes you away mentally from what you set out to do."

So the challenge coaches have faced these past five months is fitting McNabb into an offense that will feature plenty of passing.

A year ago, Kyle Shanahan ran a similar offense in Houston and turned in the league's top-ranked passing attack. Though he says he feels increasingly comfortable in the system, thus far McNabb has earned mixed reviews inside Redskins Park.

"I knew it would be a challenge," McNabb concedes.

It'll be Williams's job to make sure McNabb stays healthy, no easy task considering who will be lined up across from him on Sunday. Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware is averaging more than 14 sacks a season since 2006. Williams might not face a better pass rusher this season than the one he's charged with handling in his debut. Williams says drawing Ware in Week 1 "ain't a cupcake starting off."

"It would be easier to start off with someone not as good," he said. "But it sets the stage."

While coaches and teammates have raved about Williams's progress, he turned in mixed results in his biggest test of the preseason. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs didn't seem to mind lining up across from a rookie in the second preseason game, managing a sack in limited snaps against Williams.

"I think that was a good test to help prepare him, very similar guys," Kyle Shanahan said. "It'll be similar issues this week."

Williams knows Ware and Suggs share a similar style - a bull-rush attack that features plenty of speed and the ability to get under a lineman's pads quickly - and Williams feels he held his own against Suggs, even if evidence suggests the Raven scored his share of points, too. "After film study, I feel like I did good," Williams said. "I had him where I wanted him. Even on the sack, he was where I wanted him to be, just me and the quarterback was on a different page, as far as stepping up and playing in the pocket. But I felt like I did okay."

Okay might not suffice against Ware and the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. While Ware will surely have his moments, McNabb will likely have to rely on his mobility Sunday, which hasn't always been the best fallback plan in recent years. In three games against the Cowboys last year, in fact, McNabb was sacked 11 times. And Sunday, he'll be taking the field with a right ankle that he says still isn't 100 percent.

Asked to peg an exact percentage on his ankle's health, McNabb said: "Does it really matter, at this point? This is the regular season. This is what it's all about. It's time to play football."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company