McNabb still trying to get his groove back

CHICAGO, IL - October 24: Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb (5) during the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, October 24, 2010. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)
CHICAGO, IL - October 24: Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb (5) during the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, October 24, 2010. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post) (Toni L. Sandys)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010

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."

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