Monday October 4th, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe in the end it had to be the strange, mixed-bag sort of day it was Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.

Maybe that's the only way Donovan McNabb's celebrated return to Philadelphia could possibly have unfolded, with some good, some bad, but in the end, a win his team had to have. Kind of a fitting microcosm, if you will, for most of McNabb's 11 years as the Eagles' starting quarterback.

When the game we couldn't wait to see -- McNabb versus Michael Vick, in a showdown for the heart and soul of a city -- was over, it still felt in a way like it had never really materialized to begin with. At least not for long.

Vick got hurt and left the game with a sore chest in the first quarter, replaced by a struggling Kevin Kolb. For their part, McNabb and the Redskins did little offensively after their explosive first quarter, giving the action a plodding quality that certainly never lived up to the level of pregame hype.The 17-12 Washington victory certainly tightened up the NFC East race, but clarity seemed in short supply on all fronts after this one.

We found out McNabb can still win a game in which he doesn't dazzle us, but we didn't see either the expected passing of the torch in Philadelphia, or any dramatic display of vindication and vengeance by a franchise icon once spurned. This was just a low-scoring, fairly uneventful football game that both teams seemed determined to give away at times. It certainly didn't feel like a turning point for either team, unless Vick's injury proves to be more serious and long-lasting than first expected.

"The relief that I got was the fact that this was over,'' said McNabb after the long week of homecoming hype had ended with Washington's second victory in four games. "The whole hoopla of coming back, you couldn't watch TV without people talking about coming back to Philadelphia. One thing I didn't want my teammates to see was the fact that it became a distraction to me. I tried to go through the same regimen.

"I thought today we were a truly focused bunch, and now we can sit down and focus on our next opponent and hopefully feel like this again next week.''

The truth is, the stars of the day were more the Redskins defense that had struggled to adjust to coordinator Jim Haslett's 3-4 formation in the first three games of the season, and the Washington running game that hammered away at the Eagles for 169 yards on 35 carries (4.8 per attempt). The Redskins defense knocked Vick out of the game with a crushing sandwich tackle and then frustrated Kolb for most of the rest of the game.

McNabb certainly did his job, but not a lot more. He finished just 8-of-19 for 125 yards and a touchdown, but most of that damage came very early, when the Redskins ran with authority and grabbed a 14-0 first-quarter lead. He was 6-of-8 for 115 yards in the first half, with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cooley and another completion of 57 yards to receiver Anthony Armstrong. But after intermission, McNabb was just 2-of-11 for 10 yards, although he did contribute a key 18-yard scramble to convert a third down and keep the Redskins bleeding the clock.

I couldn't help but think the Redskins and Eagles might have ended the day feeling something less than overconfident with their quarterback situations. Vick's injury only re-complicates a Philly quarterback depth chart that has already been considerably more complicated than expected, and McNabb clearly didn't play the kind of game that we saw last year from Brett Favre when he went head-to-head with his old teammates in Green Bay. McNabb was solid, but far from spectacular.

Still, he earned himself a game ball from his new teammates on this day, and we got an indication of how much the victory meant when reports surfaced that McNabb had told the locker room afterwards that the Eagles had "made [a mistake]'' when they traded him away.

"We had to come in here and help him get a victory against a team that basically said, 'You're not good enough. This is what we think of you: We'll trade you within the division,''' Redskins inside linebacker London Fletcher said. "So I think today, we got the best of them.''

McNabb refused to gloat in victory, at least publicly. He said the win made it "an exciting time'' for he and his team, but he said the Redskins' 2-0 record within the NFC East was the biggest cause for that excitement. Not the pregame ovation he received from Eagles fans when he was introduced, and not the postgame hug he shared at midfield with his former head coach, Andy Reid.

"I've said all week I wasn't going to let any of the hoopla affect our mindset,'' McNabb said. "Our mindset was to be focused and ready to go and come out here and win the game. I was overwhelmed a little bit with the standing ovation and the reception that I got, but when you're going down there and everything, you have to buckle your chin strap and win the game.''

That part of Sunday's setting was very familiar indeed for McNabb. He won plenty of games in Philadelphia over the last 11 years, and some of them were in less than scintillating fashion, like Sunday's. He knows how to grind out tough, inartistic wins in the NFC East.

"I put on a uniform, and I knew that I was the opponent, but coming over [here] felt like I had just crossed the Walt Whitman [Bridge] and pulled into the players' parking lot,'' McNabb said. "I have been doing it for 11 years, although Mike [Vick] has taken my parking spot up here. But it was still the same feeling, and coming out of the tunnel -- and obviously it was a different tunnel -- but it just felt like I was playing back here in Lincoln Financial Field today.''

Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan downplayed the McNabb angle to this game, but no one in Washington's locker room ignore it.

"Anybody who has ever been fired or let go, everybody understands those emotions,'' he said. "If you ever went back to some place you've been, there's always a special mindset.''

McNabb's performance was uneven in ways -- Washington's second-half possessions were an interception and five punts -- but he was clearly the most effective quarterback in Sunday's game. ("I think all the quarterbacks got booed today,'' McNabb joked after the game).

The Redskins got conservative after grabbing their early 14-0 lead, but Washington's defense was in position to play back and dare Kolb to beat them because McNabb helped stake it to that comfortable margin. Kolb finished a decent 22-of-35 for 201 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but he mostly threw underneath and missed several downfield opportunities.

Vick had once again started the game playing well (5-of-7 for 49 yards, with three rushes for 17 yards), but he left the game late in the first quarter after being caught between Redskins tacklers DeAngelo Hall and Kareem Moore. Vick's status remains uncertain, but the Eagles plan to have him take an MRI on Monday, with Kolb on stand-by alert.

"It was never Vick versus McNabb,'' McNabb said. "I think that was kind of something that everybody started. It was the Eagles versus the Redskins. You never want to see anybody get hurt, especially a friend and a guy who has [been] playing well. I hope nothing but the best for all of those guys. We'll see them again, but as of right now, we're very excited.''

As of right now, the Redskins, Eagles and Giants are tied for first in the so-so NFC East, at 2-2. The 1-2 Cowboys were off this week and occupy the cellar. In other words, absolutely nothing has been settled, and the division might still be just as muddled come Week 10, when McNabb and the Eagles are scheduled to meet again at Washington's FedEx Field.

Maybe McNabb's ultimate revenge on Philly is to be won in stages this season. A dose here and a dose there. Besides, winning games with some mixed-bag results might be McNabb's most familiar move of all.

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