Donovan McNabb: Don't Look Back in Anger

Mike LacyContributor IApril 9, 2010

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 09:  Quarterback Donovan McNabb #5 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2010 NFC wild-card playoff game at Cowboys Stadium on January 9, 2010 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Since I graduated from college in 2000—ten years ago—there have been many changes in my life: Employment, owning property, marriage.  But throughout this transitional period of my life, there was always one thing I could count on: Donovan McNabb as the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. For better or worse, I knew that when NFL training camps started up in July, McNabb would be there.

McNabb’s tenure as the Eagles QB did not always go smoothly. In fact, there were problems right from the beginning. 

On draft day 1999, most Eagles fans wanted the team to draft Texas running back Ricky Williams.  At the time, the Eagles were coming off a horrible season and didn’t have many recognizable stars.  Williams was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and projected to be a huge NFL star.  Most Eagles fans figured that he would be a franchise cornerstone.  But all of the rumors said that new Eagles head coach Andy Reid preferred Syracuse QB Donovan McNabb.

Most Eagles fans didn’t know anything about McNabb.  The 1999 draft was considered to be deep with QBs, and many people thought that Kentucky’s Tim Couch or Oregon’s Akili Smith were both better than McNabb.  So why would the Eagles pass up a potential star back in favor of the third best QB in the draft?

To try and influence the team’s decision, a group of Eagles fans went to New York to watch the draft.  They had homemade Ricky Williams jerseys and chanted “Ricky!”  It didn’t matter, as the Eagles drafted McNabb and the fans booed the selection.  Keep in mind the fans weren’t necessarily booing McNabb, but rather the selection.  Still, the clip of McNabb at the podium while the crowd loudly boos has been an image which has stayed with McNabb his entire career.

At this point, Andy Reid’s only prior coaching experience was as the quarterbacks coach at Green Bay.  Of course, Green Bay’s QB was some little known guy named Brett Favre.  Because of this experience he was considered to be a QB guru.  There was talk that, under Reid’s tutoring, McNabb would develop into the next Favre.  During his rookie season McNabb didn’t play too much, and aside from a few flashes, didn’t look very impressive. 

Regardless, he was named the starter heading into the 2000 season.

Coming off a few poor seasons and having an inexperienced QB at the helm expectations weren't very high for the 2000 season.  But the team did surprisingly well, fueled by a breakout year from McNabb who finished second in MVP voting.  He was winning games not only due to his powerful right arm, but because he was able to scramble for yards.  They finished 11-5 and made the playoffs where they won a game before falling to the eventual NFC Champion Giants.

The following year, the team and McNabb continued to develop. 

For the most part, McNabb had a strong season and led the team to a division title.  On the rare occasions where the Eagles offense struggled, it was unclear whether it was due to Reid’s game plans—which sometimes completely abandoned the running game and inexplicably depended on short, precise passes—or McNabb’s poor play. 

The Eagles won two playoff games, and had a chance to defeat the heavily favored Rams in the NFC Championship Game.  McNabb had a chance to lead the team on a winning touchdown drive at the end of the game, but the drive fell short.  (Interestingly, in the Super Bowl, a different young quarterback was able to pull off a last minute game-winning drive against the Rams.  That QB went on to win two more Super Bowls and is now considered one of the greatest players of all time.) 

Despite falling short the future seemed bright, and the Eagles looked to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders the next season.  McNabb was now considered one of the top QBs in the league, and most people assumed it was only a matter of time until he led the Eagles to a title.  In addition, he was becoming a media sensation thanks to his Chunky Soup commercials which he starred in along with his mother—Who became a minor celebrity in her own right.

As the 2003 season progressed the Eagles looked to be headed towards another division title when, in a game against the Cardinals, McNabb took a nasty hit.  He stayed in the game and threw four touchdown passes, but afterwards it was revealed that he had suffered a broken leg and would miss the rest of the season.  Things looked bad for the Eagles as most people assumed at the time that as McNabb went, so went the Eagles.  But led by a strong defense and good backup QB play, the Eagles managed to survive, and thrive, going 5-1 and capturing home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

McNabb returned for the Eagles first playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.  He looked rusty in the beginning, but improved as the game went on and the Eagles won by 14 points. 

The only thing between them and the Super Bowl was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs were notorious for struggling in sub-freezing temperatures—game time temps were projected in the 20s—and, more importantly the Eagles had defeated them in the playoffs the previous two seasons as well as their regular season matchup that year.

It seemed impossible that the Eagles could lose this game. 

When they scored a TD three plays into the game, the Super Bowl seemed like a foregone conclusion.  Except that instead of pressing the advantage, Reid went back to his beloved “dink and dunk” offense, and McNabb and the Eagles could not move the ball. 

It was clear that McNabb needed something to snap him out of it. 

Reid could have tried throwing deep, or tried going with a running attack, but instead he stuck with the ineffective short passing game.  Finally, as the game wore on and the Eagles down by 10, Reid switched to a hurry-up offense.  McNabb looked revived and led the Eagles deep into Bucs territory.  If he could throw a quick TD, the Eagles would be right back in the game. 

But McNabb’s next pass was thrown to Bucs’ cornerback Ronde Barber, who ran it back for a game sealing touchdown.

The Eagles had lost the game that they could not lose. 

The Bucs went on to dismantle the Oakland Raiders and win the Super Bowl that should have been the Eagles'. 

The next season, the Eagles opened their new stadium—Lincoln Financial Field—against the same Bucs.  Somehow, McNabb and the Eagles offense looked even worse than they had in the NFC Championship game, and when McNabb struggled the following week, the team looked like they were headed nowhere fast. 

At this point came the infamous Rush Limbaugh incident where the then-ESPN commentator said that McNabb was never that good and was overrated by the media because they wanted to see a black quarterback succeed.  This didn’t go over well with anyone but, in hindsight, it might have been good for McNabb. 

Everyone suddenly forgot about his poor play and rallied behind him. 

Both the Eagles and McNabb turned things around as the season progressed.  By season’s end the Eagles were again the top seed in the NFC, and McNabb was back to his Pro Bowl form.  Unfortunately, emerging running back Brian Westbrook suffered an injury in the season finale and McNabb would have to go into the playoffs without his best offensive weapon.

Going against a red hot Brett Favre and the Packers in their first playoff game, the Eagles got off to a poor start but with his running and passing, McNabb brought the Eagles back.  Needing a field goal to tie the game in the 4th quarter, the Eagles were left with a 4th-and-26 situation.  McNabb was able to complete a 28 yard pass to WR Freddie Mitchell and lead the team to a game-tying field goal.  In overtime he led the team to another field goal to win the game.

The Eagles were once again one game away from the Super Bow, and would need to defeat the Panthers—who they had beaten in the regular season—at home. 

It appeared that the Eagles’ best hope was to run the ball, but Reid instead went pass-crazy and McNabb and his receivers could not get the job done.  Most of the blame went to WR Todd Pinkston who was pushed around by the Panthers defense and had a few balls bounce off of his hands and chest which resulted in Panthers' interceptions.  McNabb wouldn’t get a chance to lead a comeback, as the Panthers knocked him out of the game with what looked like an illegal hit.

For the third straight year, McNabb had fallen just short of the Super Bowl. 

While there might have been excuses each time the end result was the team and the quarterback were not getting the job done.  It looked like the Eagles wouldn’t be able to get to the Super Bowl if McNabb didn’t have better talent around him. 

Prior to the start of the 2004 season, the Eagles were able to bring in former 49ers receiver Terrell Owens.  Finally McNabb had a star receiver, and the results were amazing. 

In their first game together Owens caught three touchdown passes, and the 2004 Eagles demolished the rest of the NFC.  It looked like it would be an easy cruise to the Super Bowl. 

Then Owens broke his ankle in a late season game. 

The best case scenario had him missing the playoffs and returning in a limited basis for the Super Bowl.  Playing without his top receiver, McNabb was still able to lead the team to victory in the NFC Championship game, and the Eagles were finally headed to the Super Bowl.

Their opponent in the Super Bowl would be the New England Patriots, who were looking for their second straight title and third in four years.  In the Super Bowl McNabb and the Eagles offense had a few great chances, but couldn’t capitalize early.  They did score the game’s first touchdown, but there was a feeling that the Eagles had left a lot of potential points on the field.

Despite Owens playing—and playing well—the Pats led by 10 points late in the game.  McNabb led the Eagles down the field but despite needing two scores to win, the Eagles ran a slow, deliberate drive. 

There has been much speculation as to what happened on this drive. 

Some reports say that McNabb was injured by an earlier hit, and was having trouble moving.  Other reports said that he was so winded that he could barely breathe and even threw up in the huddle.  Regardless, the drive ended with a beautiful 30 yard TD pass, but the Eagles had used up too much time and the Patriots held on for the win. 

It was an odd game for McNabb: He made some great plays, threw for a lot of yardage, and had 3 TD passes.  Yet he also made some key mistakes, including 3 interceptions.

Despite the loss, things still looked bright for the Eagles—until Owens became a problem.  He felt he deserved a new contract, and was going to do anything in his power to get one.  This included verbally ripping McNabb.  Apparently a rift had formed between the two with Owens claiming that McNabb was jealous of Owens’ popularity (somewhat possible) and that McNabb was the “golden boy” of Eagles’ management.  Later in the season Owens said that the Eagles would be undefeated with Brett Favre as their QB, and the Eagles banished him from the team. 

Owens latched on with the Cowboys, only to have similar issues there. 

Since he’s had problems everywhere he’s gone, it has become apparent that the man is a sociopath.  Maybe one day he will look back and realize that if he had just stayed on the Eagles, great things could have happened.

Even aside from the Owens saga, 2005 was disastrous for McNabb and the Eagles. 

During offseason training, McNabb lifted weights too aggressively and suffered a sports hernia.  He still managed to play OK through the early part of the season, but as the year went on he looked slower and slower.  After a particularly disheartening loss to the Cowboys, McNabb was shut down for the season and the Eagles finished 6-10.

In 2006 McNabb was healthy and he got off to a good start, going 4-1, including a much-hyped win over Owens and the Cowboys.  But towards the middle of the season McNabb went into a huge slump, and the team played poorly.  Against the Tennessee Titans McNabb was running down the sideline when his knee gave out; he suffered a torn ACL and would be out for the rest of the season.

Prospects for the team appeared dim, but behind backup QB Jeff Garcia the team rallied to win the division and a playoff game.  At this point, McNabb’s mother claimed that the team’s success was “bittersweet” because it happened without her son.  While I think most mothers might feel this way about their sons it turned a lot of people against McNabb.

To avoid a quarterback controversy, Garcia was not resigned in the offseason.  Instead, the Eagles used their first draft pick to select a quarterback out of Houston: Kevin Kolb.  This was confusing, as all reports had McNabb’s rehab progressing well.  Reid explained the move saying that since McNabb’s season had ended prematurely the past two years, they needed to groom a capable backup.  Plus, it was always good to have a developmental QB in the system.  Regardless of the reasoning, it was the first sign that McNabb’s time with the Eagles was coming to a close.

The 2007 season wasn’t great for the Eagles. 

McNabb looked like a QB coming off major knee surgery, which is to say inconsistent and a step slow.  The pass rushers that he used to avoid were now catching him.  With the team at 5-8, it looked like McNabb might be on the way out of town.  But in the final three games McNabb looked better.  He wasn’t great, but he looked faster and more comfortable.  More importantly, the Eagles won the games to finish 8-8.

Since it often takes athletes a full year after a knee injury to get back to pre-injury form, most people figured McNabb’s improvement would carry over into 2008 and he would have a great season.  He started out well but, once again, had a mid-season lull where both he and the team played poorly.  It got so bad that Reid benched him in the second half of a game against the Ravens in favor of Kolb.  Kolb struggled in the second half, and people weren’t sure if the McNabb era was over.

The next game was on Thanksgiving against the Cardinals, and Reid said McNabb was the starter.  He said McNabb was always going to remain the starter. 

I am skeptical. 

I wonder if Kolb had looked good in that Ravens game if he wouldn’t have been made the new starter.  Regardless, the Eagles then went on an amazing run, earning a playoff spot on the last week of the season, and then winning two playoff games.

Once again, the Eagles were in the NFC Championship game.  They’d have to play at Arizona, whom they had beaten rather easily at home on Thanksgiving.  The entire Eagles team came out flat in the second half, and while he wasn’t doing especially poorly, McNabb wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire.  I had pretty much given up hope when suddenly, the team rallied.  McNabb threw three touchdown passes in the second half, including a memorable long bobbled pass to receiver DeSean Jackson that gave the Eagles the lead.

Would this be McNabb’s shining moment?  The time that he led the Eagles to an amazing comeback and into the Super Bowl?  Sadly not.  The Eagles defense couldn’t hold up and gave up the lead once again.  The Eagles offense had one more drive, but similar to the last drive in his first NFC Championship game, the rally fell short.

Despite the loss, McNabb’s future with the team looked a lot more secure than it had.  There was talk that he would be given a new contract, as he only had two years left on his deal.  Eventually a new contract was worked out, so at first glance, it looked like McNabb’s long term future with the team was set.  Except that the team only restructured it so that he would receive more money.  The length of the deal was not extended, so he would still have only two more years on it.

As the 2009 season progressed, it was clear that this was probably the best set of receivers that McNabb had played with.  Second year man DeSean Jackson was emerging as a star, while Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy, and Brent Celek also looked to have star potential.  Yet, the results were nowhere near the same as when McNabb played with Terrell Owens.  While McNabb had a good season overall, he certainly didn’t look like an elite quarterback.  And once again, he missed a couple of games with an injury.  In his absence, Kolb played well, winning one game, and losing another to the eventual champion Saints.

Entering the last game of the season, the Eagles needed to beat the Cowboys on the road to earn the NFC’s #2 seed and a bye in the playoffs.  But the team played horribly, lost the game, and would have to play at Dallas again the following week.  Would the team be able to do any better the second time around against the Cowboys?  No, once again they were crushed.  McNabb played poorly, although none of his teammates distinguished themselves either.

Both McNabb and Kolb were coming upon the last year of their contracts.  While Reid declared that McNabb was his starting quarterback, there were still rumors that he would be traded so that Kolb could finally take over.  After nothing happened with any trades, it looked like maybe the Eagles really would bring both QBs back on the last year of their deals.  And then suddenly, Reid said the Eagles were “listening to offers” and it became clear that McNabb would soon be shipped out of town.

While the eventual trade was not a surprise, the destination was.  They traded McNabb to the division rival Redskins, who they will have to face twice a year.

So what are the Redskins getting?  They’re getting a good, but not elite QB.  What you’ve seen out of McNabb the past two seasons is probably what they’ll get.  He’s good enough to win double digit games, and a playoff game or two.  With the right system and supporting cast, he is probably even good enough to win a Super Bowl.  But if Redskins fans think they’re getting the guy who singlehandedly tore them up for much of the 2000s, they’re mistaken.  Due to injuries and age, McNabb hasn’t really been that quarterback since 2004.  Without a huge improvement in the Redskins supporting cast, I don’t see him faring much better than their quarterbacks did last year.

More importantly, was this the right move for the Eagles?  Probably.  It had become clear that the Reid-McNabb combo wasn’t going to win a Super Bowl.  They had failed in the first eleven seasons, and now that McNabb is on a slight decline, I don’t think things were going to change much.  Maybe if the offensive system was switched to better suit McNabb they’d have a chance, but I don’t see Reid changing his ways anytime soon.

Is Kolb the answer?  Impossible to say.  While he has looked good in limited action, it’s hard to tell if he’ll be a successful QB in the long term.  The Eagles coaches are high on him, but then again, there have been a lot of QBs that coaches were high on that didn’t pan out.  The team still has holes, and although they might fill in those holes via the upcoming draft, the team probably isn’t a Super Bowl contender this season.

What will be McNabb’s lasting legacy in Philadelphia?  Many will consider him the best QB in team history.  They’ll remember all the playoff wins, all the big plays, and remember that he led the Eagles to their second NFC Championship.

Some will consider him a huge disappointment.  He’ll be just another star Philly athlete who failed to lead the team to a title, like Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Randall Cunningham, and Eric Lindros. 

Personally, I’ll miss him.  While he definitely had some bad moments, and there were times when I became too much of a McNabb apologist, he was the best QB the team has had since I’ve followed them.  I can remember the dark days of QBs like Ty Detmer, and Bobby Hoying.  I’ll remember putting on my #5 jersey every Sunday, and screaming “Go Donovan!” when he took off down the field.  I’ll remember singing “Fly Eagles Fly” after another touchdown pass.

To conclude, (I’m probably missing one or two), I’ll give you my opinion of the ten greatest games played by McNabb:

10. Buccaneers – Wild Card Playoffs – 12/31/2000 – It’s hard to tell just how a QB will look in his first playoff game.  McNabb definitively answered any questions as he continued his strong play into the playoffs and led the Eagles to victory.

9. Cowboys - 10/8/2006 – In the much hyped return of T.O. to Philly, McNabb led the Eagles to a comeback win, topping his arch nemesis in the process.

8. Redskins – 11/26/2000 – Probably McNabb’s breakout performance.  He ran all over FedEx Field, carrying the Eagles to an upset victory over the Redskins.  His juking TD run will be on all the career highlight films.

7. Lions – 9/23/2007 – Coming off of his knee injury, McNabb had looked shaky in the early going.  But wearing a throwback jersey, McNabb looked refreshed as he torched the Lions secondary again and again.  His best statistical day of his career.  I still wonder why they never wore the throwback jerseys again.

6. Giants – 9/12/2004 – McNabb had played well in his early career, despite never playing with a star receiver.  Everyone wondered how he’d fare with a star level receiver.  He quickly answered those questions by throwing three touchdown passes to T.O.  It could have been one of the greatest QB-WR combos ever.  Sigh…

5. Cardinals - 11/17/2002 – Despite playing with a broken leg, McNabb still threw four touchdown passes.   That will probably never happen again.

4. Falcons – NFC Championship Game – 1/23/2005 – McNabb and the Eagles finally get over the hump, winning the NFC Championship game. His late touchdown to Chad Lewis sealed it.

3. Packers - 12/5/2004 – The Eagles offense has never looked better.  They seemingly scored at will against the Packers.  McNabb set the NFL record for most consecutive completions in this game.

2. Bears – Divisional Playoffs – 1/19/2002 – Playing in his hometown, McNabb had an amazing performance in leading the Eagles in an upset and into his first NFC Championship game.  After this game, it looked like McNabb would be the biggest star in football.

1. Packers – Divisonal Playoffs – 1/11/2003 – McNabb pretty much carried his team to victory.  He ran for a ton of yards, he made big passes, he completed a pass on 4th and 26, and led the Eagles on a comeback.  I really thought the Eagles would make the Super Bowl this year, because the way he played, I didn’t think he would allow them to lose.

I guess that’s it.  McNabb’s a Redskin now, and therefore, the enemy.  I’ll be retiring my #5 jersey, and have to go out and get a new one.  It’s been fun, Donovan.  Thanks for the memories.

Originally posted on my blog:


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