Please, no! Donovan McNabb(notes) thought to himself on the Washington Redskins' sidelines as Philadelphia Eagles wideout Jason Avant(notes) reached up for the football while falling backward. He's got his hands on it …
A last-second Hail Mary, game-winning touchdown thrown by Kolb, his on-again, off-again successor, would have been too cruel a homecoming punishment for McNabb to bear. In a game that meant more to him – and to his head coach, Mike Shanahan – than either man would let on to the outside world, McNabb needed to see that ball hit the Lincoln Financial Field turf.
What he saw next was even sweeter: 'Skins cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes) popped up with the football in hand, having ended the Eagles' last hope with an interception to secure a 17-12 victory. On an emotional day in the City of Brotherly Love – for the quarterback who guided Philly to five NFC championship game appearances and for the classy fans who gave him a standing ovation during pregame introductions – McNabb's teammates seized the moment and ensured he'd go home a winner.
Make no mistake: This was more than a rivalry game, more than a chance for the 'Skins (2-2) to break a two-game losing streak and move into a tie with the Eagles and New York Giants for first place in the NFC East. It was a day to rally around Washington's new leader as he returned to the city where he ran the show for 11 years – and faced the former head coach, Andy Reid, who deemed him expendable.
The stakes had been laid out by Shanahan last Monday in a brief but powerful team meeting. Shanahan, back in football after sitting out the 2009 season, kicked things off by asking his players, "How many of you have ever been fired?"
A slew of hands went up, including Shanahan's – he'd been dismissed by Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen in December 2008 after a 14-season run that included a pair of Super Bowl triumphs.
"How many of you have never been fired?" Shanahan asked.
This time, only a few hands were raised.
"Well," Shanahan said, "that means most of you can understand how big a game this is for Donovan. The emotions you felt when you were fired, he's going to be experiencing those this week, and he needs all of us to back him up."
And that, sports fans, is how McNabb was able to submit a statistically benign effort (8 of 19 completions, 125 yards, one touchdown, one interception) that featured only three significant plays and still walk off a smiling, fully supported victor.
It was clear from the start that the 'Skins weren't messing around. The first sign came on the game's opening drive when defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes), the incredible shrinking $100-million man, blew up the Philly line and forced quarterback Michael Vick(notes) into a third-and-3 scramble and throwaway. Three plays after a 53-yard punt return by Redskins rookie Brandon Banks(notes), halfback Ryan Torain(notes) literally ran over Eagles safety Quintin Mikell(notes) on a 12-yard touchdown run, giving McNabb a 7-0 lead before he'd thrown a pass.
As I'd suspected coming in, Shanahan was the man with the plan, at least in the game's early stages. Washington had reached the Philly 31-yard line on its next drive when, facing a third-and-5, Shanahan called for "Smack H Texas," a play designed to exploit the Eagles' vulnerability to seam routes.
Sure enough, Philly came with a corner blitz – "The first three games they practically didn't blitz at all," tight end Chris Cooley(notes) said, "but we thought they'd blitz the [expletive] out of us, and they did" – and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley(notes) bit momentarily on an underneath route before chasing Cooley upfield. McNabb, who'd misfired to wide-open tight end Fred Davis(notes) six plays earlier, got it right this time, lofting a gorgeous ball that Cooley caught in stride for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
When McNabb got the ball back, after David Akers'(notes) 49-yard field goal put Philly on the board, the game had taken a dramatic turn: Vick, the former star who'd replaced the injured Kolb midway through the Eagles' opening game and gone on to capture Reid's surprising endorsement as the permanent starter and NFC offensive player of the month honors, made a sharp run toward the end zone on a third-and-6 play from the 24 that would ultimately be nullified by a holding call. Hall and safety Kareem Moore(notes) sandwiched him hard at the 1, and Vick left the game with rib and chest injuries, throwing yet another layer of intrigue in Reid's ongoing post-McNabb quarterback saga.
Kolb, whose first appearance at The Linc as McNabb's successor was an unmitigated disaster, looked to be walking into another quicksand pit. When McNabb, on third-and-15 from his own 27, dropped back and calmly uncorked a sublime spiral to wideout Anthony Armstrong(notes) for a 57-yard completion down the right sidelines, it looked like McNabb was in the midst of an emphatic, Brett Favre(notes) Returns To Lambeau kind of redemptive day.
Then, strangely, the game slowed down and degenerated into a test of wills and focus. The 'Skins went up 17-3 on Graham Gano's(notes) 26-yard field goal and stopped scoring, or even looking like they were particularly interested in scoring, allowing Torain (18 carries, 70 yards) and Clinton Portis(notes) (11 carries, 55 yards) to eat up yards and clock to the best of their ability.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, flashing back to the Redskins' blown 17-point lead in a home defeat to the Houston Texans two weeks earlier, resisted every aggressive impulse in his body and heeded his father's call to go conservative. "It was really tough for me to do that, the hardest it's ever been," the younger Shanahan said. "The main thing you've got to learn is you're not calling the game for numbers – you're trying to win the game, period. Our defense was playing so well, and we didn't want to do anything to screw them."
The strategy worked, because the Eagles didn't have 14 points in them. On a positive note Kolb didn't look overwhelmed, as he had in the season-opening loss to Green Bay Packers. He did, however, look underneath with alarming regularity, delivering 15 of his 22 passes to backs LeSean McCoy(notes) and Owen Schmitt(notes), and not completing a throw longer than 18 yards.
Oh, and all you Eagles fans who thought McNabb was the reason for the team's penchant for clock mismanagement over the past decade? That was No. 5 on the opposite sideline late in the first half smiling broadly as Philly – following a long replay review and a Philly timeout – somehow managed to incur a delay of game penalty on fourth-and-goal from the Washington 1. That meant Reid had to settle for Akers' 23-yard field goal, and he and his team left the field to boos at intermission.
When Kolb finally connected with Brent Celek(notes) on a five-yard touchdown pass with 4:10 remaining, the 69,144 fans were roaring for a comeback. They were yelling even louder 17 seconds later as the 'Skins faced third-and-4 on their own 22. McNabb silenced them by going old school, fleeing the pocket after seeing no one open and bolting down the right sidelines for an 18-yard gain, though he erred by going out of bounds and stopping the clock with 3:45 remaining.
That was one of many gaffes (a false-start penalty on left tackle Stephon Heyer(notes), a shanked punt by Josh Bidwell(notes), a dropped interception by cornerback Carlos Rogers(notes)) that kept the Redskins from closing out the game, allowing Kolb one chance at spoiling McNabb's moment, on a final snap from the Washington 32 with four seconds remaining.
As Kolb's pass headed toward the right corner of the end zone, with both Avant and Celek in the area, McNabb's stomach tightened. The football gods couldn't be this cruel, could they?
"Hey," McNabb said later, "things happen."
Hall made sure the nightmarish ending didn't occur. McNabb absolutely appreciated that gesture and all the others that preceded it courtesy of his new teammates.
"We were able to do it as a team [Sunday] – a total team," he said afterward. "Offensively, defensively, special teams, all of us. I thought together, we played well."
Reid and McNabb after Sunday's game.
(Eric Hartline/US Presswire)
After a week in which he'd done well to conceal his emotions from his teammates, McNabb was entitled to a tiny bit of gloating, which he chose to do in a private setting. While not technically fired by his former coach – "I wanted to tell [my dad] that Donovan wasn't fired, he was traded," Kyle Shanahan said – the quarterback whom Reid didn't want walked off the field in much better spirits than the two who stuck around to replace him.
When he got to the locker room, McNabb received the game ball from his new head coach, and screams of "Speech!" erupted. He finally spoke, holding up the football and saying, "This right here defines team. … And this was something we can feed off of going into the rest of the season. We are No. 1 in the NFC East and we're gonna stay up there."
Then the quarterback told his new teammates, "Everyone makes mistakes in their lifetime, but they made one last year – so, thank you."
At that moment, the man who'd tossed him the game ball had the biggest smile of all.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• That was an enormous moment for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) in Pittsburgh, freezing Steelers defensive back Bryant McFadden(notes) with a stone-cold pump fake and hitting T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) on a game-winning, 18-yard TD pass with 32 seconds remaining. And perhaps it was a sign that the frustrated Houshmandzadeh will join fellow newcomer Anquan Boldin(notes) as a significant part of Baltimore's offense. "I truly hope that is the case," Houshmandzadeh wrote via text Sunday night. "It's been rough." Rough is having to face the 3-1 Ravens, who may be the best team in football right now.
• There were whispers before Sunday that Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio could be fired if his team lost to the Indianapolis Colts and fell to 1-3. If so, the little dude with a big heart (Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) ran for 105 yards and scored two TDs despite hurting his right ankle during the fourth quarter) and the spiky-hair dude with the big foot (Josh Scobee(notes), who nailed a 59-yard field goal – the eighth-longest kick in NFL history – on the final play) picked a hell of a time to be heroes in the Jags' 31-28 victory. As a result Del Rio, along with fellow winners Tom Coughlin and Eric Mangini, pulled squarely behind Mike Singletary and Tom Cable in the first-to-be-fired sweepstakes.
• Hi, we're the Giants' defensive line, and we take out our frustrations on quarterbacks of previously undefeated teams. Sorry about those nine first-half sacks, Jay Cutler(notes), and we hope you recover from that concussion soon. Matt Schaub(notes), you've got next. Try not to break out in cold sweats when you watch us on film. Thank you. Now prepare to assume the fetal position.
• Is the start of something special happening in St. Louis, where the Rams (2-2) rolled to a 20-3 victory over the Seahawks to move into a three-way tie for first place (with Seattle and Arizona) in the NFC West? "I truly believe so," halfback Steven Jackson wrote via text after his courageous performance (124 combined rushing/receiving yards despite an extremely sore groin) that moved him past the great Marshall Faulk into second place on the franchise's all-time rushing list. Know this: With the Arizona Cardinals seemingly lacking a quarterback who can get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald(notes), Jackson is the most dangerous offensive player in the division.
• I'm not certain whether LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) saw my column on Wednesday proclaiming that he is back, but I'm pretty sure his wife, LaTorsha, who reads everything, knows that I was ahead of the curve following L.T.'s 133-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort in the Jets' 38-14 thrashing of the Bills in Buffalo.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That the United crew on my flight to Chicago on Saturday decided to pull the plug on the in-flight movie "Cyrus" because of perceived inappropriate content – 70 minutes into the film. They then began a new movie, "Dinner for Schmucks," and had to turn it off in-progress for landing. Bravo.
The Chargers had Anderson in their grasp all game long.
(Denis Poroy/AP Photo)
2. Why the Cardinals had such a shaky succession plan following Kurt Warner's(notes) retirement. It's not like Warner's decision to walk away after last season was a shocker – it was more telegraphed than, say, a Derek Anderson(notes) pass to the flat – yet the Cards, in retrospect, seem to have been utterly unprepared. Coach Ken Whisenhunt gave up on former first-round pick Matt Leinart(notes) during the preseason, and free-agent-signee Anderson, a surprise Pro Bowl selection for the Browns in 2007 coming off two miserable seasons, may be done as a starter after Sunday's 41-10 defeat to the Chargers. It looks like the Cards, who still have a slew of talented players remaining from their 2008 Super Bowl team, may ride with undrafted rookie Max Hall(notes) at QB. In other words: So much for that window of contention. In addition to making the franchise's lame treatment of Warner when he hit free agency immediately after the Super Bowl (and visited the NFC West rival 49ers before the Cards stopped low-balling him) all the more inconceivable, Hall's apparent ascent makes me wonder why Arizona didn't go hard after the best available passer on the market this past spring. You know, the guy who has an offseason home in Chandler, Ariz., whose gritty second-half performance in the '08 NFC championship game nearly kept the Cards from reaching their first Super Bowl, and who now wears No. 5 for the team that won in Philly on Sunday.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
As a long-suffering Cal fan who, before Jeff Tedford arrived in 2002, was accustomed to blown timeouts and other clock-management atrocities on a regular basis, I'm a bit hypersensitive to such fiascos. Call it post-traumatic stress syndrome, or simply 4:19 a.m. logic (that's literally what time it is as I write this), but Andy Reid, WHAT THE HELL WAS GOING ON AT THE END OF THE FIRST HALF???? Did this really happen: Trailing 17-3 and facing a third-and-goal from the 2, McCoy took an inside handoff and powered toward the goal line before seemingly being stopped inches short. The upstairs official called for a replay review, which lasted an inordinately long time – certainly more than five minutes. During that delay, according to one Eagles player, Reid decided that Kolb would run a quarterback sneak on fourth down (barring a ruling that McCoy had scored). After the referee announced that the ruling on the field would stand, Reid called timeout with 23 seconds remaining, only to learn that the ball had been moved back to the 1-yard line based on the replay review. He proceeded to argue the ball's placement, or at least seek an explanation for it, as the play clock began to tick down. By the time he gave Kolb a new play (reasoning that it was too far for a sneak), less than 15 seconds remained on the play-clock, and the Eagles didn't get it off in time. So, to review: Protracted replay timeout, Philly timeout, delay of game penalty. Fabulous sequence, Eagles, who ended up settling for Akers' field goal instead of a potential TD. They didn't miss those four points much, did they? Oh, wait, you mean Philly (theoretically) could have tied the game with an extra point following Kolb's TD pass to Celek with 4:10 remaining? Terrible, awful, horrible, abominable.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I'm gonna unfollow you until cal gets its stupid sports back … lol"
– Text Thursday from Y! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, referencing my latest crusade and the degree to which I proliferated it on Twitter
"David Hasselhoff (@DavidHasselhoff) is now following your tweets (@RealMikeSilver) on Twitter …"
– Email Friday from Twitter (Of course he is.)
"This Giants team has got the pitching and those ugly beards to go all the way"
– Text Sunday evening from my brother-in-law, Paul Goyette, after San Francisco clinched its first NL West title since 2003