Donovan McNabb returns to Philadelphia. That sentence sounds funny, doesn't it? The notion of him being gone is still something I'm getting used to. Seeing our beloved No. 5 in burgundy just looks weird, but that's life in the NFL. Reggie White finished his career as a Carolina Panther. Randall Cunningham spent a year as a backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Veteran players usually have to move on at some point.
Eagles fans should welcome back McNabb with a lot of cheering prior to Sunday's game. The last decade is a lot different if we're stuck with Tim Couch or Akili Smith instead of him. Donovan McNabb was very good to Eagles fans. Once the game actually starts, he goes from being our former hero to the opposing quarterback. At that point, he's fair game. Give him a hard time, just as you would Tony Romo or Eli Manning.
The media will focus on McNabb and his return, but this game's true importance lies in the fact it is our division opener. Fans talk about winning the Super Bowl, but the first focus every year is trying to win your division, so that you get into the playoffs and have a chance at a Super Bowl. Andy Reid wants to be 1-0 in division games more than he cares about beating McNabb.
The good news about the game is that we're the better team. The bad news is that Washington may be desperate after Sunday's disappointing loss to the Rams. I'm not sure if that game will get them fired up for this week or will erode their confidence and send the team spiraling into a losing streak. The Redskins have been a dysfunctional organization for quite a while. I thought the hiring of Mike Shanahan and the addition of McNabb would help to change that. After the Rams loss, I'm not so sure.
Shanahan was an offensive guru as a coordinator and head coach in the past. He helped the Niners win the Super Bowl in 1994. He led the Broncos to a pair of titles. Denver always had a formidable ground game. So far the Redskins offensive is more offensive than productive or explosive. They only have four touchdowns so far this year. The ground game has struggled mightily. The running backs have combined for 189 yards on 52 carries.
The passing game isn't much better. Receiver Santana Moss is having a big year with 22 catches so far. The other starting receiver is veteran Joey Galloway. He's got three catches. That's not good. Tight end Chris Cooley is still a quality, productive player. He's just not a weapon and that's what the Skins could use. As for McNabb, he's been up and down. He was great against Houston, but pretty mediocre in the other two games. He is currently the 14th-rated passer in the NFL. I don't think that's what Washington fans expected when they heard about the trade last spring.
McNabb is still a talented player. He made a couple of real impressive throws last week. The problem is that he doesn't have high quality skill players around him. He's no longer good enough to carry the offense on his back. Like most players, he needs help. McNabb also is still learning the offense and that hinders his ability to run things as efficiently as you'd like.
The blocking hasn't helped the running game or McNabb. Trent Williams is a very talented player at left tackle, but he's a rookie and that means that he is learning on the job. He missed the Rams game due to an injury and isn't a lock to start against the Eagles. The Skins have shuffled a couple of players at left guard. Old friend Artis Hicks is the right guard. He's still solid as a run blocker, but isn't adept at pass protection. Right tackle Jammal Brown seemed like a steal when they dealt for him this summer. I was very disappointed in him when I watched the Rams game. Injuries may have taken their toll on him. This isn't the same guy we used to face when he was with the Saints.
Washington's defense is a real mess. They are dead last in yards allowed. They are 22nd in points allowed. Jim Haslett was hired to install his attacking 3-4 scheme. The only problem is that the Skins didn't have the kind of personnel to run the 3-4. Rather than make moves, they kept most of their defensive starters from last year and just shifted their roles.
Players like Brian Orakpo and London Fletcher are going to thrive in any system. Andre Carter had 11 sacks as a defensive end last year, but is now a linebacker. He's OK when rushing. Carter is completely lost in coverage. Kedric Golston shifted from defensive tackle to end. He doesn't look as comfortable out there. We've all followed the Albert Haynesworth saga. He was a tough interior presence last year, but is a non-factor right now. Rocky McIntosh moved from outside linebacker to the inside. He's not as good in there, as he has more traffic to battle.
The foundation of the 3-4 is the nose tackle position. Washington brought in Ma'ake Keomeatu to man the middle for them. He's massive at 350 pounds and has been a big-time run stuffer in the past. The problem is that Kemoeatu isn't what he used to be. The Rams consistently drove him off the ball and were able to run up the middle. That kills the 3-4. The Rams had success with Steven Jackson until he got hurt. They turned to Kenneth Darby and even rookie Keith Toston and continued to move the ball.
Washington's secondary is very talented, but is wildly inconsistent. LaRon Landry is one of the most talented safeties in the entire league. He has the size, skills, and athleticism to do it all. One play he will do something great and the next he will miss an easy tackle. Watching him every week would drive me crazy. Cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Carlos Rogers have good size and speed. They are very talented cover guys. That said, last week Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola and Mark Clayton were getting open and moving the chains.
While the Skins defense is struggling, it will be a good test for Michael Vick. He faced a couple of weak secondaries in the last two weeks. Vick had plenty of wide open targets to throw to. That will change this week. As the stats show, you can burn Washington with your passing game, but that doesn't mean it is easy. I think Jason Avant and Brent Celek could have big games. Washington likes man coverage and that could give us advantages in the middle of the field.
I am interested to see how the Skins play Vick. They might try to spy him. Landry could do that or they could use a linebacker. I do think they'll aggressively blitz us. Last week we did a solid job of controlling the blitz. If we can do that again, Vick will be able to deliver some big plays in the air. I do think it is important to try to run the ball. We want to wear down McIntosh and Fletcher. We want Orakpo fighting off blocks rather than running after Vick.
What about our defense against McNabb? Honestly, I don't see him as the key guy to stop. I think Sean McDermott will keep both safeties deep to limit the vertical passing attack, especially to Moss. He is the one guy that makes me nervous. He's faster than either of our cornerbacks.
We need to make Washington beat us by running the ball and throwing short passes. That isn't McNabb's strength anymore. He loves to go downfield. I don't think they can sustain drives and move the ball on us with any consistency. There is one personnel situation to watch. The Skins use one wide receiver sets more than any team in the league. How will McDermott defend that? Will he leave Ellis Hobbs on the field or substitute another defender for him? I'll be interested to see what we do.
I expect Stewart Bradley to have a big game. Clinton Portis is the kind of runner that Bradley matches up well with. I expect our defensive line to get good pressure. Washington does a lot of roll-outs and bootleg passes so that will affect our rushers. We need our defenders to play smart, disciplined football. I don't know how often we'll be able to sack McNabb, but I expect us to hit him plenty of times and make his first return to Philadelphia a memorable one, just not for the right reasons.