McNabb has improved Redskins, but his play remains unevolved

It's been a hair over six months since the shocking trade of Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins, in what was the NFL's version of trading Chipper Jones to the Mets, or Kobe Bryant to the Kings. A franchise quarterback being traded within his own division -- while still on the outskirts of his prime -- just doesn't happen.

One of the central tenets of this trade was just how much prime McNabb had left. It was also at least part of the reason the Eagles only received a second- and conditional third-round draft choice for one of the winningest quarterbacks in NFL history.

The two factors at play for the Redskins at the time of the trade were:

» a) Is McNabb good enough to lift the fourth-most talented team in NFC East to the playoffs?

» b) Could McNabb stay effective for enough seasons until Mike Shanahan rights the ship?

The NFL has made being mediocre popular again, so, in theory, Shanahan might only need McNabb to be decent this season to get the 'Skins back in the playoffs. The club could be stocked enough by 2011 and 2012 that all regular-season success won't fall on the quarterback's shoulders. In some ways, McNabb's arrival has already been a success ... dare we say some aspects of his performance have been good. But there's also some bad and ugly from the veteran's brief tenure in Washington.

The good ...

Jason Campbell wasn't scaring anyone, most notably defensive coordinators. Whether it was his inability to throw downfield, his unwillingness to pull the trigger, or a constantly changing offensive system, the Redskins had little explosiveness or vertical presence the past few seasons. Without question, McNabb's arrival has changed all that.

Washington has aired it out vertically more than any team in the League, attempting nearly six deep passes per game (see chart). That's saying something, considering they're trotting Anthony Armstrong and 38-year-old Joey Galloway out there at wide receiver. Shanahan trusts McNabb to throw deep -- damn the consequences. Heck, it seems like Armstrong is getting at least two shots a game.

There's no question Shanahan would not have had the same confidence in Campbell. That's important, because going vertical loosens up the defense, setting up the underneath stuff for tight end Chris Cooley as well as the running game.

Beyond throwing the deep ball is McNabb's ability to get the ball deep in the first place. His arm looks as strong -- or stronger -- than ever. He overthrew Galloway earlier this season after the ball traveled 68 yards in the air -- in the fourth quarter no less. That's precisely the point in the game when you'd expect a quarterback to be tired.

That could be the most noticeable, and most impressive side, of McNabb's game this season. He looks to be in better shape than he's been in years. He moves better too. Did anyone see the backward jump-step he put on the Colts' Robert Mathis last Sunday? Wicked. After appearing a little out of shape in Philly, he looks 15 pounds lighter, and he's moving like it.

The bad ...

All is not well that ends well. The Redskins have won a couple of games late this season, but not necessarily because of McNabb. While winning is the most important thing, in this case, it's not the only thing.

McNabb's passer rating in the Redskins' losses is nearly 20 points higher than it is in the victories (87.9 to 68.5). Fans can thank Alex Barron for the opening-night win vs. the Cowboys, while the defense stepped up big in the triumph over the Packers. The Redskins' offense only put up six and 16 points, respectively, in each game (seven were scored by the defense against Dallas).

And while McNabb did get a win in his Philadelphia homecoming, he missed several open receivers -- including a wide-open Fred Davis on a play that could easily have gone for a touchdown early in the game. In fact, McNabb went just 8-for-19, highlighting a facet of his game that's been an issue most of his career: accuracy.

While the Eagles did cruise to four straight NFC Championship games with No. 5 at the helm, he never reminded people of Joe Montana or Troy Aikman. McNabb's game was predicated on making throws on the run, improvising with his legs, and making some good deep throws from the pocket. He was never the high-percentage-throw guy. He didn't perfectly hit receivers in stride or fit the ball in small windows.

But as a 12-year veteran, he doesn't rely on those legs as much as he used to. And, as a long-time starter, he's much better at reading defenses than he was in 2001. Thus, being accurate is more important than ever.

"Does he miss some throws, he does, and I think that has been the frustrating part, what Mike and Kyle (Shanahan, offensive coordinator) have been working on," NBC Analyst Chris Collinsworth said. "The thing they've pinpointed it to is widening his base."

McNabb has had a tendency to overstride or get off-balance before releasing the ballbecause he sets up too narrowly. By widening his base, he won't have to jet his front foot out too far in his throwing motion, which often leads to low throws, or balls in the dirt.

If Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFluer can lift his completion percentage, the Redskins might be able to pull out some of the close games they've traditionally lost in recent history. Especially considering how much the Washington pass defense has struggled (31st overall). You win track meets with a highly efficient and productive passing attack, something Washington doesn't have just yet.

The ugly ...

The ugly here refers to an ugly truth: McNabb is still who we thought he was. He's a mobile, inaccurate quarterback who doesn't turn the ball over much, and often plays well enough to get you beat against really good teams. That's the guy Reid traded. And it's precisely why the Eagles (and their fans) were comfortable letting him go.

Despite appearing to be in better shape, it's difficult for McNabb to reinvent himself at 33. Not that he has to; his resume has more gold stars than most guys. Yet, while he may be the straw that stirs the drink, the Redskins are still more jack and coke than champagne these days.

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