Redskins' McNabb: 'I just have to be me'

Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb is still learning how to navigate the offense. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

LANDOVER, Md. -- From the little things to the big moments, the soft opening of Mike Shanahan’s extreme makeover of the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on Friday night had a whole new vibe.

In its preseason debut the new-look offense drubbed the Buffalo Bills, scoring 42 points -- this from a Redskins team that averaged only 16.6 points a game the past two years. During that span, only five teams in the league have been worse.

Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley -- who missed nine games last year with a broken ankle -- was back prowling the soft underbelly of the shallow secondary. And before the game, ageless middle linebacker London Fletcher gathered the whole team -- even the cantankerous Albert Haynesworth -- at midfield. No coaches, no cameras. Just a few words of encouragement, delivered with purpose: This year, let’s be a team.

And there in the middle of it all, anchoring the revitalized offense and attitude was No. 5, Donovan McNabb.

Let’s call it the “Five Vibe.”

"We haven’t had this kind of leadership from the quarterback position around here for a long time," said special teams coach Danny Smith, who is in his seventh season with the Redskins. "Now, if he can still play, we’ll be in great shape."

On Friday night, McNabb showed he can still play. For the first time in 12 years, he stepped onto a football field not wearing an Eagles uniform. As he walked up to the line of scrimmage for the first snap, McNabb hesitated for a moment and took in the whole surreal scene -- a career’s worth of old memories swimming around in his head.

"I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is it, this is real,’” said McNabb, whose first drive featured two passes that landed well off the mark. But he quickly shook off the early anxiousness.

The second possession resulted in a tidy 80-yard touchdown drive, including a 4-yard pass that young wide receiver Anthony Armstrong stretched across the goal line, giving the veteran quarterback his first taste of love from the burgundy and gold crowd -- and from the owner.

"He is special -- his form, his leadership," said Daniel Snyder, who popped up on the local broadcast of the game in the first quarter to add his stamp of approval. "He is the total package."

After a spotty summer performance in training camp by McNabb, perhaps Snyder felt the need to reassure the fan base. McNabb’s adjustment period has lingered longer than many in the Redskins’ organization had anticipated.

In fact, a week before the preseason game, McNabb was quoted as saying: "I would love to say I’m past it," suggesting that he’s not over the fact the Eagles traded him. "These guys have welcomed me as if I’ve been with the team for last couple of years and that’s what made this easier."

But Shanahan, for one, is not babying McNabb. He wants the learning curve to be quick. In the NFL, this whole rebuilding thing used to have a three-year shelf life. Not anymore. You get a year, maybe.

When asked before the game what he told McNabb about how to handle his debut in a Redskins uniform, Shanahan quickly shot back: "I don’t have to tell Donovan McNabb anything. He’s a veteran quarterback. He knows what to do."

Still, McNabb has needed an extensive instruction manual. After 11 years in Andy Reid’s offense, McNabb is trying to learn a new language -- and, early on, it showed. He frequently misfired during the spring and early summer in 11-on-11 drills, but has since become more comfortable.

"You’ve got remember," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, "that all the jargon is different, all the protection calls have new verbiage. He’s got all that swirling around in his head. He’s got to forget and remember at the same time. Not easy to do after you’ve been doing the same thing at this level for nearly a dozen years."

And the rest of the Redskins’ offense is adjusting to a remake of the offensive line, which includes a rookie left tackle -- first-round pick Trent Williams -- and a right tackle -- Jammal Brown -- who has not seen much of the field while he nurses a lingering hip injury.

Add the fact that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (Mike’s son) will be serving two masters. In Houston last year, Shanahan’s offense led the NFL with 4,654 passing yards. "Kyle’s system is different from the conventional West Coast offense," Theismann said. "He’s got the normal three- and five-step drop with that extra wrinkle to go deep."

But in Houston, Shanahan could call the deep ball and attack consistently because he had all-world wide receiver Andre Johnson. The Redskins will have to rely on veterans Joey Galloway and Santana Moss to stretch the field.

McNabb can deliver: 18 of the Eagles' 41 touchdown drives came in four plays or fewer.

But while the offensive coordinator will want to stretch the field, his father is rooted in the running game. Last year, the Redskins ran the ball only 40.3 percent of the time, the lowest in the last 11 years for this franchise. That kind of imbalance is not in Mike Shanahan’s DNA.

In fact, while the first-team offense was on the field Friday night, there were 10 called running plays and nine called passing plays. And McNabb’s favorite target was the tight end Cooley, who caught all three balls thrown his way.

An assistant coach said the last thing Shanahan wants is to put this whole season on the 33-year-old McNabb, who seems to be -- right now, at least -- auditioning for the long-term lead role here in Washington. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, the Redskins and McNabb’s agent have not worked out a contract extension. So, McNabb is playing on a one-year deal.

"Both sides want to get a deal done," one of McNabb’s representatives said Friday.

But the McNabb camp is keeping an eye on the situation in Minnesota, where Brett Favre has one year left on his contract and where McNabb would no doubt love to be reunited with Brad Childress, who served as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia when McNabb had his breakout years with the Eagles. Favre’s departure, whenever that happens, also will drive up McNabb’s price. Why you would want to leave a two-time Super Bowl champion head coach, however, is anybody’s guess.

For now McNabb is healthy and seems very content. He doesn’t have to carry too heavy of a load and doesn’t have to think too far in advance. Just provide the vibe. Set the tone. Navigate the offense. Fletcher will handle the defense. And Shanahan will keep everybody in line (see: Haynesworth, Albert).

"I don’t have to do anything special," said McNabb. "I just have to be me."

For the Redskins in this rebuilding year, that should be enough. After that, who knows?

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. His latest book is “How Football Explains America” (Chicago: Triumph).