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Washington Redskins get off to a fine start under Mike Shanahan

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 1:36 AM

Now that's exactly how a new Redskins era should begin.

As midnight approaches, the despised Cowboys should think they've beaten Washington, 14-13, at FedEx Field with no time remaining on the clock on a desperate, scrambling 13-yard touchdown pass from Tony Romo to wide receiver Roy Williams.

Then, before the 'Boys even have a chance to jump for joy, the words of justice - or at least the NFL equivalent in a zebra suit - should destroy their moment of glory.

"Holding, No. 71" -- tackle Alex Barron.

Negate that touchdown. Game Over. Redskins win, 13-7.

No, you're not allowed to tackle Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo as he's about to hit Romo on the deciding play of the game, even if you play for America's Self-Appointed Team.

For the Redskins and their fans, this was not just an opening night but an evening that had the feeling of a new beginning. For much of the last 18 years, a span in which only four NFL teams have worse records than the Redskins, close games have cursed them, poor decisions have haunted their defeats and luck has been their enemy.

This very game, had they lost on that last play, would have been blamed on a decision by the Redskins to take three of their own points off the board in the third quarter. The Redskins accepted a penalty, declined a 36-yard field goal, took a first down at the Dallas 13-yard line, then botched the snap on a chip-shot 23-yard field goal. And got no points.

Is it possible that their luck has begun to change? If so, then that shift in Redskins affairs certainly picked a symbolic night to make its appearance.

Few events excite Washington more than the arrival of a new Redskins coach who is already a famous football name. Unless perhaps it's the anointing of a new quarterback who is already a star.

This town has buzzed for the debuts of coaches from Vince Lombardi to George Allen to the NFL unveiling of Steve Spurrier to the return of Joe Gibbs. And the city has been atwitter for every new passing messiah that came to town, whether he ended up taking the team to a Super Bowl or bombed out utterly.

But the Redskins have never had a celebrity coach and an exciting quarterback come to town together and have their debuts in the same game. Until Sunday night, that is, when Coach Mike Shanahan, with his Super Bowl rings, and Donovan McNabb, with five NFC championship games on his resume, arrived together.

On such an auspicious night, surely a tense battle against the bitterest of rivals should end with a narrow Redskins win. And, for Shanahan, McNabb and, perhaps most of all, the team's suffering fans, that's just what Washington produced.

"I saw [the flag] right away. I didn't even look at how the play ended," said Shanahan about the last play of the game, in his first words as a winning Redskins coach. "We got a good four-man rush on them on that play."

If the view of the penalty was clear to the Redskins on the sideline, it wasn't to the defenders themselves. "It was kind of hard to cheer when you thought you'd lost," safety Reed Doughty said.

McNabb, who completed 15 of 32 passes for 171 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions, had his moments. His scramble set up one first-half field goal. And a time-eating 46-yard, 10-play drive engineered by McNabb set up a clutch 49-yard field goal by Graham Gano for the final Redskins points with 1 minutes 56 seconds to play.

But it was an almost insanely rash decision by the Cowboys -- throwing a flat pass from their own 36-yard line with four seconds left in the first half -- that defined and decided the game. Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall stripped running back Tashard Choice in the right flat, picked up the fumble on a convenient hop and ran uncontested into the Dallas end zone.

Stupid doesn't live here anymore. He's moved to Dallas. A monopoly on football dumb left Washington, where it seemed to reside for much of the last two seasons, and started hitchhiking toward Texas.

"I've done it myself," said Shanahan, probably trying to let the Dallas staff off the hook. "You always second-guess yourself. . . . You like to take back plays like that."

But the Cowboys can't take it back, and for both the Redskins and McNabb, especially after last year, that's doubly sweet.

Dallas beat the Redskins twice last year and allowed Washington a total of only six points in the two games. And those same Cowboys snuffed out the hopes of McNabb and his Eagles three times last year, including a lopsided beating in the first round of the playoffs.

From the tailgate-filled parking lots to the 90,670 sold-out seats of FedEx Field, the mood of Redskin fans Sunday evening was, "Is it safe yet? Is the nightmare over? Can we have fun again?

Talk of winning seasons and playoffs will perhaps come in time - knowing Redskins fans, probably well ahead of time. Especially after the way Game One ended.

But for now, simple competence is what a whole football-crazy town desires and, after the buffooneries of the past season-and-a-half, practically demands. It looks like that time may arrive soon.

From the moment new General Manager Bruce Allen and Shanahan arrived, hope has grown that the Redskins would once again be a team that showed a normal sense of football discipline. Oh, nothing special. Just eliminate the utterly gruesome, the unfathomable mental mistake on the goal line or the pivotal coaching blunder.

At the least, it should give the Redskins confidence that they were not the most foolish or mistake-prone team on the field.

If there's one firm lesson to be drawn from the long history of debuts by new Redskins coaches it is this: Don't draw any conclusions. Not yet. And not even after the first five games or so.

Sometimes success is simply a prelude to more success. Vince Lombardi, in his only season here, started 4-1-1 and finished 7-5-2. George Allen, father of the current GM, won his first five games, stood the town on its ear, went 9-4-1 and began a great Redskins era. So, feel free to celebrate. But not too much.

Jack Pardee started 6-0. Zorn began 6-2. Neither was a good omen. Conversely, Gibbs began his tours 0-5 and 1-4; both were successful, though to different degrees.

So, relish the Redskins' improved competence - and their totally reversed luck with the game on the line - in their first night under Shanahan. It was desperately needed. But, in the NFL, such heart-stopping dispensations only last one week.

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