Debutiful! The Kid's A Winner In Mcnabb's First Start, Numbers That Matter Are 35-28

Posted: November 15, 1999

The Donovan Era began with a feast of luscious inconsistencies and contradictions.

The defense endured a horrible day, but by forcing six turnovers repeatedly saved the Eagles' hopes against the Redskins. And the most criticized defensive player on the club wound up making the biggest defensive plays.

The special teams again played laughably except for a couple of huge plays that kept the Eagles close to the visitors. Again, the usual special-teams goat was a hero for a day.

And, perhaps most deliciously, rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb foundered in his first start. . .and won. He will get the credit for the win, though the evidence of his influence is more circumstantial than factual.

Really, at the end of yesterday's 35-28 joy ride, that McNabb skipped into the locker room a winner was all that mattered. Glimpses of his greatness supplied hope to the generally hopeless legion of Eagles fans who have spent three seasons' worth of anguish on their team since the middle of the 1996 season.

Surely, there will be second-guessing of first-year head coach Andy Reid and his reluctance to start McNabb over veteran Doug Pederson before the 10th game of the season.

McNabb saw spots of playing time in five of the first nine games.

Reid sheltered him from the dangers of the NFL until the new Eagles offense jelled a bit; until McNabb learned its concepts and methods to counterattack blitzes; and until the Eagles faced a team that was not a defensive stalwart (the Redskins ranked last in the league defensively).

Still, in light of the win and with the perfect vision of hindsight, questioning of Reid's tactics will occur. Neither he nor his boss, owner Jeffrey Lurie, expressed regret. Indeed, Reid's plan, his Big Picture, seemed a beauteous thing as the Birds moved to 3-7.

"Andy did it right," Lurie insisted. "But, it's great to finally get it started."

And what a start it was; a hodgepodge of two-point conversions, fourth-and-whatever gambles, quick strikes and bombs and hard-nosed running peppered with moments of lunacy and inefficiency.

Amid it all, McNabb pranced his way into the hearts of at least the 66,591 at Veterans Stadium.

He did so despite throwing for just 60 yards on 8-for-21 passing. He took three sacks, making his net passing yardage 38.

But he won.

The Eagles overcame a deficit that reached 21-10 in the second quarter, and a 28-27 deficit in the fourth quarter to upset Washington (5-4).

They were helped by much-maligned defensive end Mike Mamula's sack, fumble recovery and pressure that turned into an interception. Mamula's was among four Eagles sacks.

The Eagles' defense also surrendered 28 points and saw Stephen Davis run for 122 yards on 25 carries. It had Brad Johnson go 18-for-33 for 313 yards with touchdowns of 54 and 43 yards, the first to Albert Connell, the second to wideout Michael Westbrook, who caught four passes for 152 yards.

Likewise, an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by schizophrenic kick returner Allen Rossum - the special teams' weekly punching bag - and another big kickoff return of 86 yards provided moments of glee for a unit that otherwise was tough to watch.

On the other hand, Rossum's replacement at punt returner, Charles Johnson, fumbled away the only punt he tried to catch, and kicker Norm Johnson hit four field goals but, inexplicably, missed a 32-yarder.

Another appropriate contradiction: On a day that saw running back Duce Staley further cement his stardom in Philadelphia, his new backup, Eric Bieniemy, provided an 11-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter that proved to be the winner.

But Staley's status as the team's top offensive player is old and unexciting news. His 28 carries for 122 rushing yards, his 20-yard touchdown run through two defenders and his heart are almost assumed entities.

McNabb, however, was the first-round pick this year. He is the franchise quarterback, and he stands to earn at least $40 million over the next seven seasons.

"He was great," said Charles Johnson. "He was great in the huddle, he was great on the field."

Reid grimaced at the thought that McNabb will be celebrated for beating the Redskins, acknowledging that McNabb's day was, at best, non-injurious to the club's effort.

"But you know," Reid said, "he stayed in there and kept fighting. He played his heart out."

And, with his Randall Cunningham-like elusiveness and his rifle arm, McNabb played into the hearts of his fans.

After Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson started the game by driving his club to a touchdown 89 yards in three plays and 92 seconds, mostly over Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor, McNabb took over. He avoided a safety blitz on the Birds' first possession and scampered 27 yards on a third-and-10 play.

He then incurred an intentional-grounding penalty and a 6-yard sack, but the scramble set up a 49-yard field goal that cut the Redskins' lead to 7-3.

Conservative play-calling, drops and inaccuracy pretty much made that scramble the highlight of McNabb's first half. He threw a strike to fullback Kevin Turner at the goal line just before halftime, but Turner dropped it, and McNabb jumped in frustration. That put him at 3-for-11 for 24 yards in the first half.

After the game, McNabb would not look at his passing statistics or his rushing yards (nine runs for 49 yards) to measure his performance.

Instead, he contended that his comfort level with the receivers was more important.

"What I'm concerned about more is feeling a relationship with these guys," McNabb said.

That relationship grew in the second half.

Late in the third quarter, McNabb eluded a trio of defenders in the backfield and hit tight end Jed Weaver for an 11-yard gain. He scrambled for 12 more on the next play. He stepped up in the pocket and found Turner for 6 shortly thereafter, setting up Staley's 20-yard touchdown run that gave the Eagles their first lead, 22-21.

For good measure, McNabb ran a quarterback draw into the end zone for a two-point conversion and a 24-21 margin.

Mike Caldwell's interception of Brad Johnson on the Redskins' first play of their next drive - the second of three picks Johnson would throw - quickly gave the Birds the ball back. McNabb fired a 12-yard shot to Torrance Small, a tough, long pass across his body into decent coverage. It set up another Norm Johnson field goal, from 30 yards, for a 27-21 lead early in the fourth.

The 'Skins charged back and took the lead on a two-play, 91-yard drive - passes of 48 and 43 yards to Westbrook - but McNabb and Co. would not die. Nor would luck, and the lack of discipline by the Redskins, let them.

The Eagles got the ball at the 50 with 5 minutes, 49 seconds to play after Al Harris picked off Johnson again, ripping the ball away from Connell. McNabb's third pass of the drive was intercepted by former Eagle Matt Stevens, but Mark McMillian - another former Eagle - was called for a face-mask penalty, and an offsetting penalty made it third-and-8 again. McNabb threw incomplete, but linebacker Shawn Barber was called for holding, keeping the drive alive.

From there Staley and Bieniemy ran it in; Staley for 13 and 12 yards, then Bieniemy for 7 and, finally, an 11-yard touchdown.

McNabb found Weaver for another two-point conversion.

So, how did the Birds score all of those points if McNabb didn't put up big numbers?

Well, the Birds scored 17 off turnovers and seven from Rossum's kick return. That's 24 of 35 points.

Really, McNabb led the offense to 11 points against the league's worst defense.

"We should have scored more," center Steve Everitt said.

But they won.

Today, for the Eagles, that's enough.

Send e-mail to hayesm@phillynews.com

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