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Picking an impossible fight

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; D09

For years the Redskins have fundamentally misunderstood their place in the football world. It manifests itself in new, bizarre and self-defeating forms that you could never imagine.

But the Redskins topped themselves on Monday night when several of them went out of their way to pick a yelling, shoving match with the Eagles long before kickoff. Eventually both teams were one big scrum on the Eagles' sideline.

By the time the insults, curses and pushes had been broken up by officials, with some Redskins like DeAngelo Hall and Santana Moss still screaming as if they'd driven an enemy off their sacred turf, the Eagles went to their locker room with smoke coming out of their ears.

Like they say in the schoolyard, the Redskins started it, but the Eagles finished it. One play into the second quarter, the Eagles led 35-0.

In football, you can't absolutely prove causality. But that doesn't mean you can't believe in it. When you challenge a rival to a fight as well as a football game before the kickoff, then you better live up to your talk.

In a sense, it's estimable that the Redskins always feel they're on the verge of being vastly better than their actual record. But sometimes it helps to keep at least one foot grounded in reality.

The Redskins are a team that went 4-12 last year and should be trying earnestly to get to the vicinity of 8-8. Almost every win this season has been a last-second trauma for them. Their quarterback, Donovan McNabb, who signed a $78 million contract extension hours before the game, was traded away by the Eagles in April.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were an 11-5 team last season that came within a win of the NFC championship game. Since then, they have unleashed the rejuvenated, almost reborn Michael Vick, the highest-rated passer in the NFL.

In a lifetime of watching the Redskins, I have never seen them taken apart as suddenly and viciously as the Eagles dismantled them when they returned from their locker room to start the game.

The Eagles scored on their first five possessions, amassing 328 yards of offense. The Redskins went three-and-out on their first four possessions and gained 23 yards.

Perhaps more indicative of the Eagles' mind-set - or that of their pugnacious coach, Andy Reid - was the selection of disdainful go-for-the-jugular plays that they called as soon as they could get their hands on Washington.

On the first offensive play of the game, Vick hurled the ball 61 yards in the air for an 88-yard touchdown to DeSean Jackson. On their third play from scrimmage, the Eagles ran a successful double reverse. On the first play of the second quarter, Vick threw a 48-yard touchdown bomb to Jeremy Maclin.

No one can prove that the Redskins insulted the Eagles with that pregame tussle and brought about a tidal wave of retribution, but it would, unfortunately, be in character if they did.

For the Redskins, perhaps the saddest part of this game was the way they rallied, even though the cause was futile, after falling so far behind. In the last two minutes of the first quarter, linebacker London Fletcher called a players-only meeting with the defense. Minutes later, McNabb held a similar revival meeting with the offense.

In the second quarter, McNabb showed why it was a fine idea to sign him to an extension that, in effect, will probably obligate the Redskins to a fairly expensive, but not outlandish, three-season commitment to the quarterback. Twice, he hurled on-target bombs for 76 and 71 yards. Twice, he passed for touchdowns, as the Redskins actually "cut" their deficit to 45-21 in the third period.

However, even a 71-yard completion can reveal things about these Redskins. Trailing 35-0, tight end Fred Davis caught a ball 10 yards behind the Eagles' secondary. Running like he was carrying McNabb's $78 million in a suitcase, he was caught from behind at the 3-yard line. In the end zone, which he'd never actually reached, Davis beat his chest in self-congratulation.

If the Redskins had played a close, tough game with the Eagles, even if they'd lost, the team could have flipped the script from the 15 days of fussing over the McNabb-Shanahan flap.

A solid argument could be made that, in light of larger contract extensions for Tom Brady and Eli Manning this year, McNabb's deal was sane for a team with no chance to find a suitable free agent quarterback to sign for 2011. The McNabb deal buys two or three years of time for the Redskins to rebuild the many parts of their team, especially their offense, that are threadbare.

However, such cheerful thoughts will get little traction in coming days. A drubbing like this brings with it an entirely different set of questions. What damage did the tensions between McNabb and Shanahan, as well as his son Kyle, the offensive coordinator, have on the locker room? With 15 days to brood on the disrespect that was shown to a six-time all-pro, what conclusions have the Redskins players reached about their coach?

"I was shocked. It just didn't make sense to me, either as a friend [of McNabb's] or a football guy," said McNabb's agent, Fletcher Smith, before the game. "The last two minutes is when you make your money" as a quarterback.

"But coaches are paid to make those tough decisions."

"Do you understand the decision now?" Smith was asked of pulling McNabb with a six-point deficit and 1:50 to play against the Lions.

"Do you? So far, I have not seen one person anywhere say, 'I understand that.' "

Instead, the impression has been left that General Manager Bruce Allen called Smith quickly. "They reached out to me, Bruce did . . . Yeah, yeah, we talked immediately after. 'Is Donovan okay?'

"They wanted to make sure he knew they still loved him," said Smith, referring to both Allen and team owner Daniel Snyder.

Shanahan? "No, I didn't talk to Shanahan," he said.

Finally, money healed.

Some problems, however, cannot be fixed by money. In fact, sometimes too much money may be part of the cause. You can't buy good sense. You can't purchase a sensible view of where you fit into the scheme of things.

No amount of money can convince the Redskins of what should be obvious: they aren't ready to go picking fights with the Eagles. That day may come sometime. But not yet. And not close.

There's no standing eight count in the NFL, much less a TKO. So, the final card on this bloody mess of a brawl was 59-28.

They never stop an NFL fight - especially when you start it.

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