By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 12:17 AM
Who were those guys with Donovan McNabb? Were they the Redskins? Will they be back next week? And if they do show up on a fairly regular basis, especially the gentlemen playing defense, would that constitute a glimpse of the future?
When one of the better quarterbacks of his generation plays decently in an emotional return to the town where he was a star, it's heartwarming. Especially seeing Philly fans break from character and give him a standing ovation. But it's hardly a shock.
However, when the Redskins, one year removed from 4-12 and one week after a two-touchdown loss to the Rams, beat the Eagles, previously presumed to be potent, that is fairly stunning.
And when it's the defense, ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed after three awful weeks in a new scheme, which provides the backbone of the 17-12 victory - knocking out quarterback Michael Vick in the first quarter, then frustrating his young replacement, Kevin Kolb - that's a development that can change a season.
"We definitely had Donovan's back, that's for sure," said linebacker London Fletcher. "You always play this game with a chip on your shoulder, but some chips are bigger than others. We all understood how he felt. [The Eagles] basically said: 'Thanks for the memories. But here's the door.' "
Coach Mike Shanahan said, "Anybody who has ever been fired or let go - everybody understands those emotions." Just as Shanahan was let go by Denver after he won two Super Bowls.
McNabb changes the Redskins' whole sense of their team, now and probably for the next several seasons. "You don't just let a quality quarterback get away, especially in the same division," said defensive end Phillip Daniels. "We're going to love having him and they're probably going to hate it."
Every Redskin knows that McNabb elevates the team at the game's most important position. But his arrival will only have its maximum effect if the Redskins make sure that McNabb holds his own against the Eagles. If his old team has his number, then he'll lose some of his aura. So, they rallied around him. This wasn't the game McNabb won; it was the game the Redskins won for him.
The offensive line and running game, so putrid the first three weeks, pounded out 169 yards on 35 carries, led by Ryan Torain, with 70 yards, including a touchdown run. He's quickly establishing himself as a blunt-instrument runner in the red zone and a shifty back in the middle of the field.
"Ryan's obviously got a lot of ability. He didn't surprise me. . . . I think he'll get better and better as time goes on," Shanahan said. Normally, that's coach-speak pabulum. Except when Shanahan gives a little-known back praise, 1,200-yard seasons sometimes arrive fairly soon.
"For the first time we stuck with the running game," said Clinton Portis, who is day-to-day with a groin injury.
That freed McNabb to hit Chris Cooley with a touch pass over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown, then fling a 57-yard perfectly arched bomb up the right sideline to Anthony Armstrong. For the first time since '64, the Redskins scored the first 14 points of a game against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Once the Redskins built a 17-3 lead, McNabb went into an offensive shell, a double-edged aspect of his style and personality. He hates to lose a game that his team already seems to have in hand and, as a result, becomes conservative. McNabb has the fewest interceptions-per-pass of any quarterback (with five years in the league) in NFL history. The drawback is that his defense sometimes needs to close the deal for him because offensive momentum is lost in the second half.
This time, the defense came within a split-second of blowing a game that seemed won. The Eagles' final desperate bomb as time expired went into a jumble of players in the end zone. How could anyone get a clear shot at a catch? Yet 6-foot Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant found himself alone as he leaped. The ball spiraled perfectly into both his hands. And he dropped it.
"I'm going to be dreaming about it for a while," Avant said. "I don't know how I let it jump out of my hands."
Tough catch? Yes. But the Redskins freely acknowledged - almost greedily agreed - that luck had been on their side. In the NFL, when you're in the middle of the pack, flukes and fate are part of what makes a season successful or dismal.
"It felt like deja vu, like the Houston game all over again," said Shanahan, recalling a jump-ball touchdown catch that sent the game into overtime, and an eventual Redskins loss. "Looked like he had it in his hands. It felt pretty fortunate at the time."
Perhaps the play that turned the game most dramatically toward the Redskins was made by a defense that was ultra-violent all day long, dealing out two concussions and other gasp-provoking licks, even though it allowed the Eagles to lead in yardage, 353-293. On a scramble late in the first quarter, Vick was clobbered simultaneously at the 1-yard line by DeAngelo Hall and Kareem Moore.
"We met him at the end zone," said Hall who, with Moore, smashed Vick and drove him from the game with rib and chest injuries. "We must have got him in some sweet spots. I love him to death, but that's football."
In some games, McNabb may pass for more than 400 yards, as he already has. In others, his team may band around him, as they did in this narrow win. But, with many precincts still to report, the early returns on the McNabb trade to Washington are already in. It looks like, with that one deal, an 11-5 Eagles team and a 4-12 Redskins team are now close to converging at 8-8.
"We gave Donovan the game ball. He was able to express to us afterwards that the Eagles made a mistake," said Cooley of a postgame moment you can find almost anywhere on the Internet. "I always want to beat these guys. Every time we're here, our bus gets egged. I see 800 middle fingers. It's good to see him so emotional after a win."
Ironically, one of the biggest knocks on McNabb in Philly was that he never showed enough emotion.
The arrival of Shanahan and McNabb has not yet produced dazzling statistical evidence of improvement. Every game, except a 14-point loss to a team that had dropped 27 of its previous 28 games, has been nip and tuck. But a feeling of seasoned adult leadership - is that another name for "luck" in the NFL? - has now joined the Redskins.
"A year ago, we would have had all these games go against us," Daniels said. "Instead, we're 2-2 and we're back on track."
The Redskins needed luck on the last play. They also needed a five-yard boneheaded delay-of-game penalty in the last seconds of the first half which forced the Eagles to settle for a field goal, rather than try for a fourth-and-one touchdown, as they intended.
This day was supposed to be a Vick-McNabb showdown. Instead, this was a Redskins victory that turned out to be about McNabb's teammates, about players having each other's back.
For the Redskins, that's a big lesson learned. And because of it, they are indeed back on track.