Donovan McNabb was at his best in Redskins' loss to Texans

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 12:06 AM

In many seasons, a defeat like the one the Redskins suffered in overtime Sunday to the Texans, 30-27, could be a wrecking ball that damages the foundation of a whole season. How many times can you have a game in your hands and still find a way to lose?

"It's not frustrating that we lost, it's frustrating that we had the game won and then lost," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall of a blown 17-point second-half lead and the complete shredding of the Redskins defense for 497 passing yards by Matt Schaub.

However, because of one player, Donovan McNabb, this game may actually be a building block, both for this season and several more to come. Because of McNabb's 426-yard aerial show, the third-largest total of his 12-year career, this defeat will, in time, be seen as the day when the Redskins realized how much they've improved since last year at the game's most important position.

This defeat was a one-week setback for a 4-12 team that's trying to become respectable. Such embarrassments will happen. The Redskins are far from a polished Mike Shanahan operation. They still clank when they walk. "We had chances to seal it," Shanahan said. "If you don't do it, that's what happens."

If your defense gives up 526 yards of offense at home, if you can't execute a 29-yard field goal with 6 minutes 36 seconds to play to virtually ice the game and if you can't keep the one super-duper-star of the other team from catching a desperation 34-yard fourth-and-10 touchdown pass to tie the score with 2:03 to play, you aren't going to the Super Bowl this year, buddy.

No NFL team wants to admit such realities in September. You want to escape the Texans, beat up the lousy Rams next week in St. Louis and start the season 3-0. Oh, that would be better. The Redskins' reality is that they have a lot of work to do before they are actually a good team. But when and if they actually get there, they have a quarterback worthy of a contender.

McNabb didn't just complete 28 of 38 passes with no interceptions or fumbles. He also heaved a 65-yards-in-the-air bomb that slipped through Joey Galloway's fingers in the end zone for a should-have-been 54-yard touchdown. Mike Sellers could have caught another deep pass up the sideline. Yet another 22-yard completion was called back by a penalty.

In other words, with a bit more help, McNabb could have blown away his previous one-game yardage record of 464 yards and shot into the stratosphere of 500-yard games. With better execution on key field goals, he could have talked about a victory.

As courageous as former Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell was, he never had a day when he looked remotely as good as the spry 33-year-old McNabb in his second game for Shanahan. In fact, Campbell was lifted at halftime by his new team, the Oakland Raiders.

One blown victory matters a lot. But getting this kind of vintage McNabb for a measly second-round draft pick and a third- or fourth-round pick means a lot more.

Oh, that's not how the Redskins feel at the moment. They're miserable. And they should be. They botched what could've been a beautiful shock-the-NFC-East September.

They led 27-10 late in the third period. But they never had an answer for the Texans' two big wide receivers, Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, who combined for an almost ridiculous 23 catches for 302 yards. For years, the Redskins have tried to find just one large, swift outside threat who's about 6 feet 3, 220 pounds. The Texans have a pair of 'em. The Redskins' defensive backs, climbing them like kids on a fence, were helpless.

Worse than the Redskins' pass defense was their blundered blocking on a 29-yard field goal with 6:36 to play that would have given them a 10-point lead. An almost untouched Bernard Pollard coming from the left side and smothered the kick.

The final twist of the knife came in overtime. The Texans passed up a 52-yard field goal attempt and punted instead, fearing they'd give McNabb field position to start a drive at his own 42-yard line. The move looked ultra-cautious. Minutes later, the Redskins had an identical choice and decided to let Graham Gano try a 52-yarder to win the game. He nailed it perfectly - about a millisecond after the Texans had called a timeout.

An iced Gano missed his second attempt - wide right - and the Texans began their final winning drive for a 35-yard field goal from exactly the same fine field position, the 42-yard line, that they didn't want to risk offering the Redskins just minutes earlier.

"This will be a hard one to get past," linebacker London Fletcher said. "We did all kinds of different things against Schaub. We couldn't stop him."

The bigger picture will emerge after the pain of this loss fades. McNabb took the Eagles to five NFC championship games. The Redskins haven't been that far since the 1991 season. Redskins fans, looking out a year or two, might imagine such a thing when they contemplate their new/old star quarterback.

Who was the last Redskins quarterback to look this good this soon after he arrived? It's been a long time: Sonny Jurgensen. The silly Eagles traded him for Norm Snead, who was five years younger, even though Jurgensen had won two NFL passing-yardage titles. In his fifth game, Jurgensen threw five touchdown passes and, from then until he was 37, he led a new Redskins era.

"We left some points out on the field and came away from drives in the red zone twice with [only] field goals. In the second half, that came back to bite us," said a solemn McNabb. "We need to get this thing rolling [next week]. I look forward to leading that."

Those who believed McNabb was past his prime, especially fans in Philadelphia who booed, nagged and gainsaid him for years, have been notified that they were spectacularly incorrect.

Seldom in his superb career has McNabb passed more accurately, moved more quickly in the pocket with veteran decisiveness, or sensed the presence of pass rushers breathing near him as precisely as he did Sunday. It was appropriate that, along the way, he passed Johnny Unitas in career completions.

"In the passing game, we can throw it to just about anybody," said Santana Moss, who caught 10 passes but was just one of a nine receivers to record receptions. "Donovan has a lot of weapons."

That's because McNabb reads defenses, and sees the field so much better - and faster - than any Redskins quarterback in more than 10 years. "I like to get everybody to contribute," he said. "Anytime you can spread the ball around, other teams have to key on everybody."

For years, Eagles fans and critics have complained that McNabb's passing arm was inaccurate, that he bounced balls or overthrew deep passes. There may be days like that in the Redskins' future. But now Washington knows there will be other days, like this one, when almost everything that hums off McNabb's fingers will be caught and when 300 or 400 yards can be amassed.

If the Redskins were, this year, a team with a realistic chance to go deep in the playoffs, then this might be a haunting defeat. In fact, they are a much-improved team but far from a wonderful one. If they ever become excellent, they now have a leader worthy of them. In time, this game will not be remembered for its final score but for the knowledge it passed to everyone.

Donovan McNabb is still as good as he has ever been. And he's a Redskin, now and probably for a long time.

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