By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 12:07 AM
His benching at the end of a game in Detroit is now more than a month old, and Donovan McNabb has since signed a contract extension that will, in all likelihood, keep him as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins at least through the 2011 season. Now, with his old team in the thick of the playoff race and his new one likely needing to win each of its remaining five games to stay alive for the postseason, McNabb is saying he must assert himself, both as a quarterback and a leader, over the final month.
"When you get into that situation in the latter part of the season, this is when you have to play your best football," McNabb said. ". . . This is where you separate yourself going into, hopefully, the playoffs or whatever it may be. This is the time where guys really have to challenge themselves and really make those plays that we haven't been able to make in previous weeks to be successful."
But as McNabb prepares to lead the Redskins' offense into Sunday's game against the New York Giants in the midst of what is, statistically, his worst season as a starter, there are significant questions about the guys the Redskins are asking to make those plays. Not only are the Redskins down to their third- and fourth-string running backs, but McNabb's options, beyond veteran wide receiver Santana Moss and tight end Chris Cooley, are almost non-existent.
In the past three weeks, Redskins defensive coaches have had to draw up game plans designed to contain Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and back LeSean McCoy; Tennessee quarterback Vince Young and running back Chris Johnson; and Minnesota back Adrian Peterson, quarterback Brett Favre and wide receiver Percy Harvin. Those players are widely considered among the most dynamic and productive in the league, and defensive coordinators must be aware of them at all times.
"You try to find out who their best players are," Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "You probably can't stop them, but [you] try to slow them down and eliminate them as much as you can."
Who, though, are those players on the Redskins, the dangerous game-changers Giants Coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell have to focus on this week?
"How many catches does Santana have?" Coach Mike Shanahan said. "How many catches does Cooley have? I think I'd start out there, with double-teaming those two guys."
With the Redskins, it is an easy choice. Moss has 62 catches this season, Cooley 54. No other Redskin has more than the 28 by running back Keiland Williams - the de facto starter after injuries to veteran Clinton Portis and backup Ryan Torain. Williams's catches have hardly been game-changers; he averages 6.5 yards per reception.
But Moss and Cooley are even a bigger part of the Redskins' attack than the number of catches shows. Between them, they have been the target of 179 passes. The nine other players still on the Redskins' active roster who have been thrown to at least once this year have been the target of 165 throws - combined. Only two pass-catching tandems - Cincinnati's Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, with 229 targets, and Denver's Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, with 195 - have been targeted more often than Cooley and Moss.
Game-planning against the Redskins, then, is rather simple.
"That's what my double teams would be," Shanahan said of Cooley and Moss. "I think that that's what you've got to be able to do to have the type of balance that you want to have and be a top-five offensive or defensive team. You've got to get defenses that are going to game-plan you. Can they take your favorite targets away? Can they double-team them?
"And you got to be able to go to somebody else. And when you do go to somebody else, they got to be able to perform, and if you can't, then you're pretty average."
Which is a generous assessment of the Redskins' production thus far. McNabb's passer rating is a pedestrian 76.0, which is the lowest in his 11 years as a starter and ranks 27th in the NFL. The average NFL passer this year carries an 85.4 rating. The Redskins' offense averages 332.7 yards a game, 21st in the league, and has scored 19 touchdowns from scrimmage, more than just four other teams.
Shanahan, though, is used to different results. During his 14 years as the coach of the Denver Broncos, his offenses - based on total yardage - ranked among the top five in the league nine times, the top three seven times. Only twice did they rank lower than the Redskins' offense does now.
So part of the Redskins' charge over the remaining five games is to decide, offensively, who can help not only in what would be an unlikely run to the playoffs - the Redskins haven't won five straight since 2005 - but in 2011 and beyond. One of Shanahan's favorite sayings is that everything - practices, games, walk-throughs, film sessions - is "part of the evaluation process." But that can be difficult with the immediacy of games.
"You always evaluate them," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "But the NFL season, the coaching world, is definitely in the moment. We're thinking about Sunday every week."
Which is, McNabb said, all he can do right now as well. Last month, he signed a contract extension that makes it much more likely that he will quarterback the Redskins in 2011 - despite the fact that he has, for the first time in his career, thrown more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11). Players and coaches are aware that the Redskins don't have a game-breaking back or a stud receiver.
"Who, on our offense, scares anybody?" one veteran defensive player asked last week. But McNabb said he won't concern himself with that line of thinking, even as his former Philadelphia teammates Jackson, McCoy and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin have combined for 23 touchdowns - four more than the Redskins' entire offense has produced.
"I can't afford to, because the guys that we have here, I've been working with all throughout the offseason," McNabb said. "When you watch the film, there are opportunities, no matter who's out there. So all of our guys understand that. I definitely understand that. You can't get caught up in if we had this guy or if we had this or that. That'll come in the years to come. But at this particular point, we have to focus on who's here."
In Philadelphia, where his supporting cast also regularly came under scrutiny, McNabb had some history of performing well late in the season. In 2008, after he was benched at halftime of a game in Baltimore, he returned to lead the Eagles to four victories in their last five games. His passer rating in December, 90.4, is higher than his career rating of 85.7.
Now, in the midst of his first season with a new team - the worst season of his career - he must somehow figure out how to produce that kind of performance, regardless of the caliber of the weapons that surround him.
"There's a lot more I can do," McNabb said. "We all make mistakes. I'm not perfect, haven't been perfect. If I can eliminate mistakes that I've made, take pressure off everybody else, that hopefully will get us going to where we need to go."