ASHBURN, Va. – That he was always hated in Philadelphia for the things he couldn't deliver never made much sense.
Perhaps now, upon his return with a team lacking much firepower beyond his arm and legs, these fans finally will see his true worth.
Five times Donovan McNabb(notes) pulled the Philadelphia Eagles to the brink of the Super Bowl, once they were even there and almost won it. Somehow that's worth more than a monsoon of boos from Eagles fans upon McNabb's first game back Sunday with the Washington Redskins.
McNabb was never perfect in Philly. He could fire passes that zoomed like missiles 50 yards downfield and follow them with simple 5-yard throws that bounced into the ground. Yet the city always focused on the tosses that hopped rather than those that went for scores. And that, along with the Eagles' decision to trade him away this spring, undoubtedly is why he told new teammate Malcolm Kelly(notes) this summer he is "going to be motivated" for Sunday's game.
McNabb always seems to act these days as if he is glad for the fresh start, with a new coach, a new offense, a new blocking scheme. And yet he must wonder what he actually has in these Redskins each time he can't find another open receiver as the pass rush pours in.
Sometimes new beginnings aren't the best.
In losing to the St. Louis Rams last week, the Redskins (1-2) looked old and slow and worn. As the game moved into the third and fourth quarters, the younger, seemingly faster St. Louis players burned across the artificial turf. By the end of the game, it didn't even feel close. When you add this to Washington's fourth-quarter collapse against the Houston Texans, the fraying is obvious. The Redskins don't have enough to get through these games.
McNabb is 33 years old. He still is elusive but does not have the same burst he did in the past, and now he is playing behind his worst offensive line while supported by just two guaranteed playmakers – tight end Chris Cooley(notes) and wide receiver Santana Moss(notes). And neither of those guys are really traditional players at their positions. Cooley is something of a hybrid tight end and fullback while Moss, at 5-foot-10, lacks the height and ability to leap over defenders.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. In the months after McNabb came over, new coach Mike Shanahan installed an offense much like his old one in Denver, based on the Broncos' old blocking scheme, one that would open up a running game. McNabb's best value to the Redskins was going to be as a leader who let the running backs handle the bulk of the work, freeing McNabb to throw only after the defense had been softened.
But that depended on the line being able to handle the new scheme, running back Clinton Portis(notes) looking less like a player who is near the end and the receivers occasionally coming open. None of which has happened enough – and when it has, the defense hasn't been able to hold a lead.
So maybe this is good for those in Philadelphia – the detractors, the doubters, the scorners – to see McNabb as a Redskin on Sunday. They will find him stripped bare, removed of protection and viable playmakers, left exposed as Washington's one great offensive hope and understand just how good they had it in the 12 years he was theirs.
Yes, the Eagles (2-1) are winning right now with Michael Vick(notes), but Vick in many ways is still an unproven entity, playing in the pocket for the first time. Opponents are still trying to decide what he is and how to play him. In time he might continue to prove a dominant protégé of Andy Reid, or perhaps he will fall apart as others adjust to the new Vick. Likewise, McNabb will come to rue his enthusiasm for Washington as the sting of being traded wears off and the reality of just how unequipped his new team is to win in the NFC East.
For years Washington forsook the future to win right away. It did this for owner Daniel Snyder, who was never patient. It did this for general manager Vinny Cerrato, who had to keep trading and signing to cover his repeated mistakes. And it did this for Joe Gibbs(notes), the coach gone for three years now, who only seemed concerned with winning at that moment, future be damned.
So this is what Shanahan has to pull together now that Snyder has retreated into the shadows and Cerrato has gone: a franchise littered with dead drafts and bloated contracts. Albert Haynesworth(notes) still looms around in uniform and occasionally has a brief impact on games. Mostly, though, he's just another grossly overpaid reminder of past sins.
And somehow McNabb has been left to win games by himself, which is of course impossible. That he has thrown for 833 yards and has a passer rating of 89.2 is a miracle given what he has been handed in way of an offense. It might be his best work yet.
Surely Philadelphia will see this on Sunday. Surely it will understand he has inherited nothing in Washington, that the team he has been handed is old and slow and at least a year away from fixing.
Maybe then it will notice what he has done with the Redskins and realize just what it is missing.