By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 11:25 PM
This was the game Donovan McNabb had to play well in. For the Washington Redskins to fully believe in him, for the Philadelphia Eagles to feel his absence, to answer all the lingering questions, he had to come back to the city that rejected him and perform. McNabb did what he had to do - he won, and he got sweet revenge along with the game ball.
Great players thrive on insults. They consume them like fuel, and use the burn to burn others. That's why this game was so important for McNabb, who absorbed his share of insults in Philadelphia, from the hooligans who booed him on draft day back in 1999, to the more subtle slight he received from Coach Andy Reid, who gave up on him at the age of 33 and traded him to a division rival. If there was a rap on McNabb in Philadelphia it was that he didn't burn quite hot enough. He was too calm in victory and too mild in defeat. Make no mistake, every player on both sidelines at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, and a host of others around the league, were watching McNabb carefully, with the understanding that this was one of those occasions when you find out what a guy is made of.
As it turned out McNabb was made of one part warm sentiment and one part cold resolve as he led the Redskins to a 17-12 victory that put them at 2-0 in the NFC East. "That's one I take pride in," McNabb said afterward, exuding a kind of eminent, dignified satisfaction in gray pinstripe suit, paisley tie and rimless spectacles.
McNabb's performance wasn't strictly great - although he had a couple of great moments, including a gorgeous 31-yard scoring pass to Chris Cooley - nor was it awful, though he had a couple of those moments too. In fact, it was an enigmatic outing overall, and perhaps a perfect example of why he was so alternately celebrated and doubted in Philadelphia. He completed 8 of 19 passes for 125 yards with one touchdown and one interception. But the statistics hardly reflected the whole of his play, or his leadership. They certainly didn't reflect how much emotional fortitude McNabb displayed in this stadium, in which many memories and emotions swirled for him.
He was disconcerted by the experience of running through an unfamiliar tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field, the one reserved for the visiting team. "I put on a uniform and knew I was the opponent," he said. "It was a different tunnel."
As McNabb took the field and his name was announced over the public address system, most of the crowd of 69,144 rose in an impromptu standing ovation. It was a touching salute, and a highly unusual one from Philly fans who more habitually spew invective. During McNabb's decade as a starter, the Eagles won more games than any teams except Indianapolis and New England and McNabb appeared in 16 playoff games, yet he had never been so properly appreciated. The tribute caught McNabb unawares, and "overwhelmed" him, he said.
Yet those cheers turned to boos as soon as McNabb began leading the Redskins on scoring drives, three quick strikes in the first half. Afterward, he remarked wryly that boos weren't unexpected from the notoriously over-served and discontented crowds. "You realize that you spent 11 years here and you knew it was coming," he said, smiling. "You didn't expect them to cheer for me the whole game. That just wouldn't be right. I was just happy about the way they gave me a standing ovation early and then we buckled our chinstraps and then the boos came."
That McNabb was able to manage his emotions and get the Redskins off to a marvelous start, was his most impressive feat of the day. In the first half he was all but flawless, as he completed 6 of 8 passes for 115 yards and put the Eagles into a hole they were never able to climb out of. His 31-yard scoring pass to Cooley was a perfectly thrown parobola over the defense that settled into Cooley's outstretched fingers and never interrupted his stride. In addition, he hit Anthony Armstrong on a 57-yard bomb that led to Graham Gano's 26-yard field goal.
Perhaps the sky-high first half left McNabb somewhat flat. For whatever reason, he completed just two passes in the second half and went 1 for 7 with an interception in the third quarter. Some of the throws were remindful that his most voluble critics had labeled him McChoke and McDontovan.
Yet there were plenty of reasons for the Redskins' offensive slowdown that had nothing to do with McNabb. They were playing with two reserve linemen on the field: Stephon Heyer was in place of injured tackle Trent Williams, and Will Montgomery took over for Artis Hicks, who left the field with an undisclosed illness. In addition, Clinton Portis went to the sideline with an injured groin and the Redskins finished the game with two running backs who weren't even on the roster two weeks ago.
But when the Redskins absolutely had to make a play, it was McNabb who made it. Nursing their lead with 4 minutes 14 seconds remaining, it was absolutely mandatory that they pick up a first down and run some time off the clock. McNabb dashed off on a weaving 18-yard run. It was just enough to make it difficult for the Eagles.
It wasn't the greatest game of McNabb's career, but it was an essay in mental toughness and leadership. McNabb kept his head on straight all week, amid continual distractions and in the process he kept the Redskins' collective heads on straight too. That was why Coach Mike Shanahan awarded him the game ball.
"There's a special mind-set," Shanahan said afterward. "If you ever went back some place after you got fired. I think everyone in the room understands those emotions."
The Fox network filmed the scene in the Redskins' locker room as Shanahan held up the game ball, and presented it "to number five" to applause from his teammates.
"Everybody makes mistakes in life - and they made one last year," a beaming McNabb told his teammates, as he held up the ball.