Washington Redskins season gets off to a golden start with win over Dallas Cowboys

The scene in and around FedEx Field as Washington hosts archrival Dallas in Coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Donovan McNabb's first game with the Redskins.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 1:09 AM

The new coach's new offense has any number of kinks to work out. The new quarterback was shaky at times, and he couldn't lead even a single touchdown drive. And the result wasn't determined until, on the game's final play, an official called a Dallas offensive lineman named Alex Barron for holding Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo - a penalty that, with no time remaining, wiped out what would have been the decisive score for the hated Cowboys.

What remained: An exasperating 13-7 victory for the Redskins over those Cowboys, the kind of win that has been absent recently at FedEx Field. It wasn't overwhelming, like it might have been during the first stint of former coach Joe Gibbs, back in the 1980s. But for this franchise at this time, it could serve as a soothing balm for the wounds from two wayward seasons that could be characterized, at times, as embarrassing.

"At the end of the day, you got to find a way to win," Coach Mike Shanahan said. "That's what we did today."

The victory was marked not only by that frenetic final minute - when the Cowboys drove from their own 19-yard line to within one penalty of winning the game - but by Washington's stellar defensive effort. More importantly, it opened the Shanahan era with a win over one of the Redskins' fiercest rivals. The significance of that accomplishment: Last year, in six games against the intra-division opponents they need to beat the most, the Redskins lost six times.

The aesthetics left something to be desired, and the fact that Shanahan's offense managed just 250 yards - and didn't produce a touchdown - will be analyzed in the days ahead.

"We weren't as sharp as we'd like," Shanahan said, "but we'll get there."

Even so, Sunday's game, before the Redskins so much as took the field, was the culmination of a massive transformation for a franchise that is desperately seeking a return to heights it hasn't occupied for nearly two decades. Washington's last playoff victory came following the 2005 season, its last division championship after the 1999 season, the last of its three Super Bowl titles following the 1991 campaign- when the team still played in the District.

Shanahan is just one of a slew of visible, meaningful changes meant to alter all that. Twice a Super Bowl winner during his 14-year stint as the head coach of the Denver Broncos, he was hired less than 48 hours after the Redskins completed a dismal 4-12 2009 season under former coach Jim Zorn, who was fired after two seasons in which he failed to lead the team to the playoffs.

Those seasons also brought an end to the reign of Vinny Cerrato, the former executive vice president of football operations who originally advocated Zorn's hiring. Cerrato's replacement, new General Manager Bruce Allen, immediately and inherently provided a link to the team's more glorious past, because he is the son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen, who oversaw the Redskins for seven seasons in the 1970s.

That connection to those better times was apparent at FedEx Field as the teams came out to warm up. The Redskins sported gold pants, the kind they wore during much of the elder Allen's tenure. There were modern touches, too - including two new high-definition video scoreboards blaring images of the players, further inciting a crowd that had been allowed into the parking lots to tailgate at noon - more than eight hours before kickoff, another new, fan-friendly policy.

The crowd arrived, too, to see what it would feel like to root for a player many of them had heckled over the past decade. The most notable aspect of the personnel upheaval started early in the tenure of Allen and Shanahan - 24 of the 53 players on the roster weren't on the team at the beginning of last season - was an Easter Sunday trade for quarterback Donovan McNabb, the former Philadelphia Eagle who has been to the NFL's all-star game, the Pro Bowl, six times but never won a Super Bowl.

McNabb's pursuit of that crown as a 33-year-old in Washington began in earnest Sunday night. When he was introduced - the last offensive player to run out of the tunnel - a crowd that included fans wearing McNabb's burgundy No. 5 jersey embraced him. He finished by completing just 15 of 32 passes for 171 yards - leaving the game to the Redskins' active and opportunistic defense.

After battling the Cowboys nearly to a draw in the first half, the Redskins were poised to take a 3-0 lead to the locker room. But inexplicably, with four seconds left and the ball on its own 36-yard line, Dallas ran one more play. Quarterback Tony Romo flipped the ball to running back Tashard Choice - who was subsequently stripped of it by Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall scooped up the fumble and ran 32 yards for the Redskins' first touchdown of the season - and only touchdown of the night.

This was the kind of play that, for whatever reason, never seemed to happen for Zorn's Redskins, teams that were beset by poor execution, occasionally poor strategy and almost always poor luck. When Hall arrived in the end zone, he flipped in celebration - precisely the kind of delirium that was almost entirely absent from FedEx Field a year ago.

That delirium, though, didn't return until the final gun. On a play that began with three seconds left from the Washington 13, Romo found wide receiver Roy Williams alone in the corner of the end zone - the game-tying touchdown with the extra point to follow. Except it wasn't. Barron, playing because of an injury to a Dallas starter, clearly held the charging Orakpo. The penalty flag fell. No touchdown. Game over. Optimism reigned.

"Very pleased with our team," Shanahan said. "Heck of a job."

For one night, at least. Next week's game against Houston will be another stern test. The offense will have to be better in difficult matchups with Philadelphia, the New York Giants, Minnesota and Green Bay - to name a few - if more victories are to follow.

But for a night, a 4-12 debacle of a season was a memory. The Redskins, their new coach and their new quarterback had a victory, if barely, and smiles - of all things, smiles - spanned the faces of the departing masses.

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