By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 12:18 AM
Midway through the first quarter last Sunday, Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb took a snap at the Chicago Bears 32-yard line and dropped back. He looked to his left, the area where tight end Chris Cooley was coming free. Bears lineman Israel Idonije bore down on McNabb, who, for some reason, flung the ball anyway. Idonije easily tipped it in the air, and Bears cornerback D.J. Moore snatched the gift. Fifty-four yards later, Moore had a touchdown.
The play resembled the defining moment of a difficult rookie season for an NFL quarterback. McNabb, though, is in his 12th year in the league. Entering this season, the percentage of his throws that had been intercepted was the lowest of all-time. Typically, he doesn't make such decisions.
"I'm not a guy that throws interceptions like that," McNabb said.
Yet such a play hasn't exactly been an anomaly for the 2010 version of McNabb. As he approaches his 34th birthday next month, McNabb is learning a completely new offensive system, tweaking his mechanics and dealing with an altered set of circumstances that has him approaching the midway point of the year acknowledging that his performance is not up to his own standards.
"When you've played at a level for so long, that's the way that you want to continue to play," McNabb said. "That's what the guys that have seen or competed against me all throughout the years have seen me play - at that level."
Entering Sunday's game at Detroit - the eighth of a nascent career with Washington that may or may not last beyond this season - McNabb is not playing at that level. Through seven games, he is on pace to throw more interceptions and fewer touchdowns than in any season of his career. His completion percentage is flirting with his lowest since his rookie year. In four games, it has been 53.1 percent or lower; since that rookie year, 1999, he has never had more than five such games in a single season. His quarterback rating of 76.0 is the lowest since his first year, ranking him 24th in the league.
"We're a work in progress," was how McNabb addressed the offense's production during the week, but he could have been speaking of himself alone. Before this season, he had played his entire career in one offensive system, that of Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid. Now, he is adjusting to the scheme of Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and to the play-calling of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. "It's like learning a new language," Mike Shanahan said.
"It's not happening as fast, his recognition of things, as when he was in Philadelphia - of course," said veteran defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday, who played against McNabb for years during stops in Green Bay, Kansas City, Miami and Denver. "He's going through the whole growing process."
The lesson the Redskins are learning: For McNabb to become fluent is going to take more than seven classes, seven games. The McNabb playing in Washington is not going to resemble the McNabb who played in Philadelphia - yet. Through seven games, McNabb has thrown seven interceptions, a total he has never exceeded in his first seven games of a season. He has thrown six touchdown passes, a total exceeded by 24 other quarterbacks this year, including such luminaries as Josh Freeman, Chad Henne, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill.
Those stats have the Redskins, both internally and externally, reminding themselves that this process will require patience, whether patience is palatable or not.
"You want it right away as a coach," Kyle Shanahan said. "You want it right away as a player. I don't think him or I are feeling like we can be patient with it. We want it to happen. We want it to happen now. We got to understand that it's not like that. It's life."
Adjustments to be made
When McNabb received the call on Easter Sunday that he had been traded to the Redskins for two draft picks, he knew instantly that not only would he be familiarizing himself with a new city and a new franchise, but a new system. The comfort level he had forged with Reid over a decade evaporated. That realization, McNabb said, "was immediate."
Technically, both the elder Shanahan and Reid run a West Coast offensive system, one that traces its origins to former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh. But Shanahan's scheme is anchored in a running game that relies heavily on an intricate zone-blocking scheme. From 2000 to 2009, the years McNabb was the full-time starter in Reid's West Coast system, only three teams attempted fewer rushes per game than the Eagles.
"Everyone talks about 'West Coast offense,' " McNabb said. "Well, everybody's West Coast offense is different. If it's terminology, if it's concepts, if it's the way a coach may approach things - it's just things you have to get adjusted to, and he has to get a good feel with me, I have to get a good feel with him, and then we have to build that chemistry with the team."
When either of the Shanahans or many of McNabb's teammates talk about the quarterback's play, they tend to come back to that theme: This isn't just about McNabb. Washington's offensive line was in shambles when Shanahan took over as head coach in January, and though the Redskins have replaced four of five starters, they are just like their quarterback: learning the system. McNabb has been sacked 16 times, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, and has used his mobility to avoid several more. McNabb's group of receivers, as former head coach Steve Mariucci said, "aren't the best in the league. He's making due with what he has."
Yet Mariucci said McNabb's long-term fit in Washington shouldn't be judged on the first seven games.
"When you're trying to build something, to change the system and the players and put your stamp on it, it's good to have a guy with thick skin," said Mariucci, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "It's not going to be all roses. One thing Mike knows is that Donovan's going to be able to handle it all well. You go through that with a young quarterback, my goodness, it could be tough."
Some of what the Redskins have seen, too, is typical McNabb. Inordinately athletic, he has never been the most accurate passer. From 1999 to 2009, the NFL's average completion percentage was 59.5. McNabb's, during that same time, was 59.0.
"That's what he is," said one former NFL executive. "He misses some throws. But the trade-off is he can make a big play at any point."
That much he has done in Washington, completing 21 passes of 20 or more yards thus far. "He makes them one of the best big-play teams in the league," Mariucci said.
Still, McNabb's performance has slipped in areas in which he once excelled. His struggles have been particularly acute on third down, when the Redskins have the second-worst conversion rate in the league. Just as with other aspects of the offense's development, there are complex reasons for such a stat: the play of the offensive line, the success of the running backs.
But McNabb's stats are stark in such situations. Prior to this year, he completed 56.3 percent of his passes on third down, had an 81.4 passer rating, and his team picked up a first down on 38.1 percent of his passes. This season, he has completed just 45.6 percent of his third-down throws, has a 62.3 rating, and has gained a first down 23.5 percent of the time.
"I take on all of it," McNabb said. "If it's a run or pass play, I take on all of it because I think it's important that we continue to sustain drives. . . . If it's a miscue, if it's a mistake, if it's a throw - whatever it may be - because being the quarterback and the captain of the team, I think it's important that I set the tone and get the guys in the right position."
Since his offseason arrival, McNabb has done everything he could to set the right tone. Thursday afternoon, under a sunny sky at the Redskins' suburban Virginia practice facility, McNabb watched defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth flop to the ground so a pair of trainers could help him stretch out, yanking at his legs, an awkward and amusing scene. When Haynesworth climbed to his feet, McNabb ran to the same spot, fell to the grass, and began kicking his legs, mocking Haynesworth, eliciting laughs from his teammates.
"He's such a great guy, a guy that is easily likeable," center Casey Rabach said. "He couldn't have fit in better."
The comfort level, in the locker room, isn't an issue. The offense is another matter.
"The longer you're in something, the more consistent you can be," Kyle Shanahan said. "He hasn't been as consistent as he wants to, as we want to. But we also kind of expected that. It takes time."
But how much time is there? The Redskins and McNabb have nine more games together in 2010, and possibly the playoffs, but his contract expires after this season. Mike Shanahan said last week that he would not be involved in extension talks during the season. McNabb, for his part, said, "Things will happen."
As he said that, McNabb wore two bracelets on his left wrist. One had the familiar letters "W.W.J.D" - What Would Jesus Do? The other bore another abbreviation, "P.U.S.H."
"Pray until something happens," McNabb said.
That approach may factor into how McNabb takes on the rest of this season, a season in which Donovan McNabb may not look like Donovan McNabb. The results, he realizes, may not be what he wants. His attitude, though, won't change.
"You have to stay aggressive," McNabb said. "Any time that you begin to get hesitant, that's when sacks or fumbles and things of that nature happen. You have to know what you're seeing, recognize it and go for it. Things will change back to my style."