Shanahan, McNabb are helping the Redskins recapture their past

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 2:07 AM

Amid fireworks, a color guard and torrents of cheers, 62 former Redskins were introduced on Sunday night at FedEx Field, from Carl Kammerer, who played in 1963, to Darnerien McCants, who retired in 2004. There were Super Bowl stars, from round Ron McDole of the George Allen era to Hogs and Smurfs.

For tens of thousands of fans, this "homecoming" scene was like watching their lives, and the histories of their families, pass before their eyes, each with their own unique connection to the team. Even the corny final words of "Hail to the Redskins" ("Fight for old D.C.") had fans standing and pumping their fists in the air.

Then, the new Redskins of Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb, of Ryan Torain (100 yards rushing) and LaRon Landry, went out and showed everything positive in the Redskins' present that makes many of those fans believe, finally, that there may, before long, be a comparably entertaining future.

Oh, the Redskins lost, 27-24, to Indianapolis. But some defeats are fractional wins, at least in the long view of a rebuilding team.

You remember the Colts, horseshoes on their helmets, went 14-2 last year and lost the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning had all his usual skill-position weapons and amassed 469 yards of offense. Nonetheless, with 2 minutes 13 seconds left to play, it was the Redskins, the 4-12 laughingstock of last season, who had the ball at their own 38-yard line and had the game on their racket.

They didn't win, but with one long drive, the kind that McNabb has pulled off 23 times in his career to win games, they certainly could have. "We had a chance, without a doubt," McNabb said.

But his fourth-down pass, deep over the middle to Anthony Armstrong, fell incomplete. When the Redskins got the ball back with only 32 seconds left at their own 20-yard line, a desperate McNabb heave was intercepted.

"It was a good sign for us today," said McNabb of the 24 points, including touchdown drives of 89 and 92 yards. "You see a team that continues to fight. . . . But this was a tough loss. We've had chances to win all these [close] games. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, but we're 3-3."

For the Redskins, who were stuck on nada-nil-zilch a year ago, woulda-coulda-shoulda against Indy looks like lots of progress.

In fact, this game might have been decided before those last minutes if the Redskins hadn't, in the words of London Fletcher, "dropped about four interceptions." Two were positive gifts by Manning, directly to Carlos Rogers (all groan). Rogers's hands are so bad it's amazing he can feed himself.

Sometimes it's not only the final score that matters but the entire feeling of the fight, the sense of whether progress is being made. The Redskins stood as tall as their 62 predecessors until the final two minutes, when they finally failed.

Perhaps, after beating the Eagles on the road then knocking off the Packers in overtime in the last two weeks, it was too much to expect the Redskins to be like Peyton's bunch. But, after an eight-yard scoring pass from McNabb to Keiland Williams with 2:51 to play to cut the deficit to 27-24, they sure looked close.

So after this down-to-the-wire loss, where do these Redskins find themselves in this long, intense continuum of burgundy-and-gold mania that infuses a whole region with common memories and which makes many fans tolerate nearly 20 years of frustration?

In other words, is it safe yet?

Are allegiances to the Redskins, the sense among many fans that the team is worth endless attention and deep affection, back in play in the same broad sense that they were from the '60s until some point in the '90s, when so much began to seem ambiguous?

No need to revisit all the details. If you're from this area and, when far from home, mentioned the Redskins, you've probably seen that expression which says, "Sorry about your team." Not the won-lost record, necessarily. Just the tone of the operation, what the franchise stands for or fails to embody.

Has the arrival of GM Bruce Allen, as well as Shanahan, McNabb and an influx of new, hungry players like Torain made a significant change in the culture?

Their gritty performance Sunday night put me, like almost anyone else, firmly in the camp that says the Redskins have turned a crucial corner early in the Shanahan era and, especially at home, are a force against almost any team. At 3-3, they may stand a game behind the Giants and Eagles in the NFC East, but you can bet that nobody wants to play them.

Perhaps Torain, spinning and twisting, breaking tackles and risking his limbs, is one symbol of the change. "Long time waiting," he said of his first NFL start. When introduced, he ran on the field with a huge smile. Then he made the Colts frown. "YAC - yards after contact - that's what it's all about."

However, this night of Redskins enthusiasm, even in defeat, comes with one huge asterisk. The Redskins have a barely hidden problem that was evident in this game. They are dead last in the NFL in yardage allowed, an almost certain prescription for a lousy season. And those 469 yards that the Colts just piled up will make them the worst in the NFL by a larger margin.

So far, the only way they have compensated for it is by holding their own turnovers to a scant minimum - just six in six games - while getting 11 takeaways, including three on fumble recoveries against the Colts. To be blunt, if the Redskins were committing turnovers at anywhere near the league average of 1.8-per-game, they wouldn't be 3-3 and there'd be no enthusiasm over any defeat

True, the Redskins are no longer the undisciplined, internally divided catastrophe in cleats of last season. But when you pass on 'em, there's usually one wide receiver so wide open it looks like somebody has erased one of the X's from Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense.

Can this trend of abnormally low Redskins turnovers continue?

To a degree, yes, because McNabb's greatest strength, which he proved for 10 years in Philadelphia, is that he protects the ball as well, and maybe even better, than any quarterback in the NFL. He ranks No. 1 in history in lowest interception percentage and in fumbles-lost-per-game is similar to Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who protect the ball adequately.

However, the Redskins are unlikely to stay close to a 16-turnover pace. Even in Philly, McNabb never had an Eagles team with less than 22 turnovers in a season. (And the Redskins' record low is 17.)

The league norm, as well as the Redskins' average over the last 20 years, is 28 turnovers a season. So, more fumbles and interceptions are probably out there waiting. So, brace yourself.

However, almost every other trend is up. Shanahan has brought discipline and respect for his coaching staff. McNabb has allowed the Redskins to feel that they aren't overmatched when they meet top tier quarterbacks. Already this season they've faced Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers and Manning. And owner Daniel Snyder, to his credit, has stepped back and let everybody breathe more freely at last.

So, the opening scene at midfield on this homecoming night was appropriate. Only six weeks into this Shanahan-McNabb period, the feeling has begun to grow that such fine memories can be created again in the future. Not immediately. Not with a team that still depends on small turnover totals while allowing astronomical amounts of yardage.

But a new foundation, like the ones that were built by so many other Redskins in previous decades, is once again being laid.

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