LANDOVER, Md. - DeSean Jackson bounced up and down, equal parts frustration and disgust. He had no business being this open, no business being a good 5 yards ahead of the last Washington defender downfield in the game's waning minutes, his team down by a touchdown.
Donovan McNabb did not see him. He threw a short pass to Reggie Brown that was swatted away.
Given all the drops, the low throws and overthrows of the Eagles' 10-3 loss to the Redskins today, maybe it would not have mattered.
A few minutes later Jackson found himself almost as open down the left sideline, and this time McNabb found him. Jackson fell awkwardly and the ball ricocheted off his shoulder.
This time, McNabb bounced up and down, equal parts frustration and disgust. And when Jackson dropped a perfectly laid end-zone throw inside of the final minute, a throw that would have likely led to overtime, the quarterback clenched his hands together, stuck out his tongue, licked his fingers and looked up to the crossed stars.
"I'm asked to win the game every week," he had argued during the Eagles' resurgence when it was suggested that players like Brian Westbrook and Jackson and Brian Dawkins had become more prominent cogs to the Eagles' fortunes. And while the recent three-game win streak is just the latest refutation of his premise, McNabb's play in those final minutes reinforced another one:
He is often asked to rescue games like today's.
Games in which in which injuries sludged up their high-octane offense, games in which intensity and focus disappeared. Dropped interceptions by Quintin Mikell and Pro Bowl-bound Asante Samuel cost the Eagles at least three points and as many as 10. Five receivers dropped passes. Some, like Jackson, dropped several. After converting 66 percent of their third downs in the three victories that resuscitated their playoff hopes, the Eagles were 3-for-14 (21 percent).
"It cost us an opportunity to get into that rhythm," McNabb said. "You can't win ballgames that way."
Truth is, there were times in the past when he could win ballgames like that anyway, when he found Freddie Mitchell in that playoff game against Green Bay, a game in which he was miserably inaccurate for the entire first half. If we have learned nothing about McNabb over the decade of his unevenly spectacular existence here, it is that he is often the personification of Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. One week, he's a great-tasting caramel. The next week, he's got that pink filling.
He completed 26 of 46 passes against the Redskins, for an average gain of 4.4 yards. Westbrook, the focus of Washington's defense, averaged 3.8 yards in his 12 carries. The Eagles' success rushing the ball in recent weeks, and the absence of Kevin Curtis and Hank Baskett, would have seemed to mandate more than 16 rushing plays, but McNabb's premise held true on this day.
He was asked to win this game.
And there was a time when he undoubtedly would have.
He would have darted from the pocket and picked up the first down. He would have flipped a would-be sacker to the ground like a wrestler and completed the pass, or run over a linebacker or two to gain the yards necessary to move the chains.
Needing 9 yards on a third down late in the game, McNabb scooted from the pocket and stepped out of bounds 4 yards short as Washington's defenders descended upon him. Maybe he would not have reached the first-down marker anyway, but once upon a time he would have lowered a shoulder and tried.
Early in the first quarter, the wind at his back, he overthrew a wide-open Jason Avant down the middle of the field. In the third quarter, he was stripped as he looked interminably for someone to throw to, and Redskins linebacker London Fletcher returned the fumble to the Eagles' 18. It led to the game's only touchdown, the difference in the game.
Was the loss his fault?
Not any more than it was a half-dozen other players' fault.
Was he asked to win it?
Was it too much to ask?
Ah, that's the nagging question that is once again upon us as another unhappy offseason looms. Because, despite all the unevenness and awfulness of the latest loss, McNabb was within a rookie's drop and a Reggie Brown fingertip of rescuing that game, of sending it to overtime, of making this morning more about "Phew" than "P.U."
Would the Eagles really be better without him next year?
Which is really better, the devil you know or the Kevin Kolb that you really don't?
McNabb provided fodder for both arguments against the Redskins. But this much seems true. He shouldn't be asked to win games on his own anymore, shouldn't be required to throw the ball 46 times after 3 wonderful weeks of handing it off.
He might not be the best quarterback out there, but he's certainly better than some of the ones he's lost to this season. And if he ever gets to manage a balanced offense for a full season, here or elsewhere, he will prove that. *
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