Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan are leading Redskins to believe

Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 1:28 AM

Late in Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, television cameras showed Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Donovan McNabb engaged in an impromptu strategy session on the sideline.

Players and coaches also watched Shanahan and McNabb as they briefly discussed Washington's situation during the 16-13 overtime victory at FedEx Field, focusing on the two men who many in the organization believe are chiefly responsible for the team's improbably strong start. The Super Bowl-winning coach and the veteran Pro Bowl quarterback are effecting positive change in an organization more accustomed to failure over the two past decades, and the Redskins are following their lead.

"Both of those guys are very successful guys who have made a lot of great decisions and a lot of big plays in their careers," outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "It's just a product of who they are and what they've done over that span. They've been there and done it, and believe me, everyone around here knows."

The Redskins' two biggest acquisitions since the end of the 2009 regular season, Shanahan and McNabb have brought confidence to an offense previously characterized by uncertainty under the direction of former head coach Jim Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell. Although well liked, Zorn and Campbell did not inspire like the people who now hold their jobs.

Players believe Shanahan will prepare them for any situation and that McNabb, regardless of his performance at some points of games, has the ability to make timely plays down the stretch that can be the difference between victory and defeat.

"Nobody disliked Zorn or disliked Jason," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "But I just think as a whole, just the whole complete packages of the people we're talking about, the ones we had and the ones we got now, it's definitely an upgrade. And when you upgrade anything it's gonna be better. That's just the reality of it. I mean, just look at where we are right now and where we were."

At 3-2, the Redskins are tied at the top of the NFC East with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. For the first time since the 2008 season (Zorn's first of two with Washington), the Redskins have won consecutive games, defeating the Eagles and Packers in Weeks 4 and 5. The successful start has occurred with 30 players who were on the 53-man active roster the past two seasons, when Washington went 12-20, including 4-12 last season.

The Redskins held on for a 17-12 victory at Lincoln Financial Field for the first time since McNabb - who spent his first 11 seasons with the Eagles - returned to Philadelphia after he was traded within the division on Easter Sunday. Although McNabb struggled in the second half, he made big plays early to help Washington sprint to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter.

Against Green Bay, the six-time Pro Bowler was at his best after halftime. His 48-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth to Anthony Armstrong provided a lift for the Redskins, who were badly outplayed in the first two quarters. McNabb continued to make precise throws to help put place kicker Graham Gano in position to tie the score with a 45-yard field goal in regulation and complete Washington's rally with a 33-yarder in overtime.

During previous seasons when the Redskins trailed late in games, "I think it was a different feel in that situation," center Casey Rabach said after the game. "Now, with Donovan, with Mike, the confidence level is always there, no matter where we are in that game. We know Donovan can change the game with one throw, which he did today, hitting Anthony on that huge bomb. That's a great feeling to have."

Of course, Campbell made plays, too. Before the Redskins' offensive line deteriorated because of age and injuries in 2008, Campbell had passer ratings of at least 104.1 for three consecutive weeks. Washington started 6-2 - including four straight victories - with Zorn as a rookie head coach and offensive play-caller.

Some in the organization acknowledge Zorn and Campbell probably would have had a better chance if they enjoyed the type of support - and lack of interference from others in management - that Shanahan and McNabb have in Ashburn. The offensive line was in disrepair for years, but management did not substantively address the situation until Shanahan, who runs the football operation, selected rookie left tackle Trent Williams with the fourth overall pick in the draft.

Shanahan does not have to explain his plans each week over lunch with anyone and is not required, as Zorn was, to review the early part of his playbook script the night before games with a high-ranking team official.

Shanahan and McNabb have bodies of work that Zorn and Campbell did not. The NFL is all about accomplishment, and Shanahan and McNabb have long lists beneath their names.

"It's just different, man," strong safety LaRon Landry said recently. "With Coach Shanahan, you're talking about one of the best coaches in the game. You can't really compare it [with Zorn], you know? And Donovan, he's one of those guys been making plays for a long time. So it's just a totally different situation."

Things are especially different in practice in the Shanahan-McNabb era, many players said. Under Shanahan, players are exposed to more potential in-game situations because of the way the week is divided.

Offensive players work on red-zone packages Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Zorn unveiled his red-zone offense on Friday. Defensively, the Redskins install first-, second- and third-down packages all three days as well. During the previous two seasons, the Redskins focused on first and second downs on Wednesday, and Friday was dedicated to third downs.

"It's just completely different," Alexander said. "They just break it down a lot better and cleaner. You're put in a situation more than just on a specific day, so it helps you get used to it. I wouldn't say we're more prepared, but we prepare differently."

Players said they have pushed themselves to excel more under Shanahan.

"He just changed everything, as far as the culture and everything we do, from the first day," Hall said. "With Coach Shanahan, he demands perfection. And when you're playing for a guy like that, that's what you shoot for."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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