ASHBURN, Va. – Every Friday night, before the Washington Redskins play, Donovan McNabb(notes) takes the team's wide receivers and tight ends out for dinner. The setting is never the same, varying with the moods of the men involved. The conversation isn't even about football, but rather about families and friends and life.
They laugh. They tell stories. The dinners can stretch on into the night. All with the hope that come Sunday the bond of a table will bring the players closer together.
It is hardly a new concept. Plenty of quarterbacks have done similar things on other teams. But in Washington the dinners are significant mainly because it's the kind of thing that hasn't happened here in the past.
For all the money the Redskins have spent this past decade, for all of their bluster and proclamations of wanting to win, they have never provided the quarterback who could raise this franchise above mediocrity. They've trotted out players who were average to pretty good, passers like Brad Johnson(notes) and Jeff George and Mark Brunell(notes) and Jason Campbell(notes), but each seemed more like a placeholder, a bridge to something bigger that never came along.
Not until McNabb.
There's a way you can tell when the quarterback has a hold on the team. Does everybody notice when he is in the locker room? The best ones always have a buzz swirling around them, so much so that everyone knows he has arrived even without looking. Brett Favre(notes) has it. So does Tom Brady(notes). The air moves differently around them. The energy changes. They have presence. The team is theirs.
McNabb has brought that. He delivered it the minute he walked in the door with five NFC title games and 32,873 career passing yards. But he also brought something more, something the Redskins have desperately needed: leadership.
Campbell was a nice man, an earnest worker thrown in the impossible position of learning a new offense as a parade of new coaches and coordinators came through the door. But Campbell was as invisible in the locker room as a backup safety. He'd walk to his locker and nobody would notice. He spoke to players not as their mentor but as a young guy trying to make his way through the league. If the Redskins are ever going to win they need someone who can take over a room.
''You can tell he just loves football,'' Kelly said. The other day he asked McNabb hypothetically what if he won $100 million in the lottery. Would the quarterback quit? Save his body?
McNabb shook his head.
''He said: 'I love the game too much.'''
And so how can the Redskins not follow McNabb into this season? He is 33 now and when he was traded back in April he noted that the Philadelphia Eagles, the only team for which he had ever played, had given up on him while he still had good years left. He seemed to hint that would be a motivation for this year.
This week he tried to back away from that thought. The trade was months ago, its sting was wearing away. If only his teammates really believed that. He is motivated, they said. When he was asked the other day if he was going to miss the first game because of a sprained ankle that limited him in the preseason, McNabb scoffed.
It's the first week of the season. The Redskins are playing Dallas – the team he played in his last two games as an Eagle, two games he did not play well – of course he will play on Sunday.
''It doesn't really matter,'' he said. ''This is the regular season. This is what it's all about. It's time to play football.''
And so on Sunday night yet another Redskins quarterback will come running down the FedEx Field tunnel. There are no guarantees this is anything more permanent than the other quarterbacks who have come before him in the Daniel Snyder era. There has been talk of a contract extension for him but it has yet to materialize. There is an assumption he will be here for a few years but no one really knows.
Still he is as permanent as anything has been around the Redskins in some time, a leader they have desperately needed here. Even if for a year it is something more than they have had. A chance. A reason to hope.
And more importantly: legitimacy.