IT'S GOOD for a leader to show confidence in his troops, but Donovan McNabb's assertions about the Eagles being better than teams that keep beating them rang really hollow on Sunday.

McNabb didn't come off as fiery or even defiantly optimistic - just clueless, especially when McNabb, challenged to support his view, could provide no real evidence.

It was a little like McNabb's forlorn cry last year, when he declared that the road to the NFC East title still ran through Philadelphia, at a point when the Birds were well on their way to finishing last in the division. Nobody got inspired.

I have defended McNabb in many venues over the years, and I still believe he has taken a ton of undeserved vitriol. I even made a little fun of critics blaming him for the loss in Chicago last week.

But it seems to me we are at yet another crossroads here, with the Eagles 2-3 heading to San Francisco without much hope of having a reasonably healthy Brian Westbrook, who fractured two ribs against the Redskins, Andy Reid revealed yesterday. This edition of the team, that Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie described as a "pedal to the metal" attempt to win a championship, already is leaking oil and falling way off the pace.

If McNabb really wants to stay here for years to come, as he often insists he does, the quarterback needs to drop the air of the detached, weary bureaucrat that has become so agonizingly familiar. He needs to take ownership of this mess and fix it.

No, McNabb can't heal Westbrook, block for himself, or call less clunky plays. But when everything is falling apart around him, McNabb can take charge.

That ridiculous kerfluffle down at the Redskins' 2 Sunday just can't happen. You saw the whole thing, but here it is again: Third-and-1 from the 2, McNabb breaks the huddle and sees the play clock about to run out. He signals for a timeout, but Westbrook immediately grabs him and points back to the play clock, which has reset. McNabb returns to calling signals. He notices that tight end L.J. Smith is on the left, instead of the right. This isn't ideal, for a run designed to the right.

So McNabb tries to check out to a left-side run. Either he calls the audible incorrectly, or some of the players just don't hear him. Westbrook is swarmed by Redskins as soon as he gets the ball. He loses 3 yards and the Birds settle for a field goal.

McNabb - whose postgame analysis of the play was absolute unintelligible gibberish - needed to call the timeout there, when he saw the misalignment. Or he needed to grab Smith and send him over to the proper spot. Or maybe, before all that, he needed to make it clear to Reid that sore chest or no, he was ready and willing to run a quarterback sneak to pick up the first down.

That would have been leadership, much more effective than asserting how good your team is after an embarrassing loss.

Developing story lines

* Since DeSean Jackson broke off his route and Donovan McNabb threw that pick in Chicago, McNabb doesn't seem to "see" Jackson as well as he did previously, and the Birds' offense is much poorer for it.

* If the strength of your offensive line is supposed to be its size and muscle, why does nearly every running play have to be an end-around or a fake end-around? Just wondering.

* The Eagles' goal-line failure in Chicago had something to do with Matt Schobel and Brent Celek both missing blocks. There was considerable thought that had L.J. Smith been there, things would have been different. Except on Sunday, down at the goal line against the Redskins, Smith lined up on the wrong side and then blocked the guy Tra Thomas seemed to be trying to block, letting defensive end Andre Carter come in free against a surprised Dan Klecko, stacking up Brian Westbrook behind Klecko. Klecko was looking for his assigned blocking target, which seemed to be London Fletcher, when Carter blew him up. So, tight-end play is not the Birds' strong suit so far this season. See the "Obscure Stat" for more on that.

Who knew?

That when Brian Westbrook scored the Eagles' final TD of a 41-37 loss at Dallas Sept. 15, early in the fourth quarter, he would be scoring the last Eagles second-half touchdown for at least 3 weeks? Nothing but four field goals and a safety in three second halves since.

Obscure stat

Through five games, I have Eagles tight ends catching 15 passes for 130 yards. That's an average of three passes for 26 yards per game. I have opposing tight ends catching 33 passes for 428 yards, against the Birds. That's an average of 6.6 passes for 85.6 yards per game. Ouch.

Extra point

Andy Reid is having a challenging time with the challenge flag this season.

There were several calls in the first four games that observers thought could have been challenged, but weren't. Then, on Sunday, Reid challenged whether Antwaan Randle El was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the go-ahead touchdown pass. To the naked eye, this seemed possible, since Randle El definitely ended up over the line, after throwing on the run. And the first replay by oblivious Fox, which apparently was the only one available to the Birds before Reid had to throw the flag to stop the extra point from being kicked, was from behind Randle El. It shed no light.

Of course, as soon as Reid threw the flag, Fox showed a much better angle, which demonstrated clearly that Randle El had not crossed the line. The Eagles never would have challenged, and wasted a timeout they could have used at the end, had they seen that replay in time.

Of more import was an unchallenged mistake earlier in the game. Late in the first quarter, leading 14-0, the Eagles had first down at the Redskins' 42. Correll Buckhalter ran right for 5 yards, and Washington was called for having 12 men on the field. The Eagles accepted the penalty and should have then gotten a first-and-5 at the 37. Instead, they were given first-and-10 at the 37. They gained 5 yards on two runs, then threw an incomplete pass, before David Akers came on for a 50-yard field-goal attempt that he missed.

But had it been correctly marked first-and-5, the Eagles would have gotten the first down and had a chance to move closer for the field goal, or even score another touchdown. It's kind of amazing that nobody on the officiating crew noticed this, but it's even more amazing that Eagles players and coaches didn't notice, or that somebody from the Eagles sitting upstairs didn't call down to the field to alert Reid.