With a new era of Eagles football set to begin in less than two weeks, this article represents this author taking one final look back at Donovan McNabb’s career in Philly.
No, this column doesn’t address how Donovan was booed on Draft Day, feuded with T.O., or whether or not he actually threw up in the Super Bowl.
It’s about how, essentially, McNabb was two different QBs during his tenure in Philly: his first five years as a starter separated by his last five years.
So, I present to you what I view as the two careers, the two tales, of Donovan McNabb…
’00-’04 McNabb: Superstar
Yes, Rush, the Eagles defense played a major role early in Donovan’s career as by far the best unit in the NFC over that five-year period. But, if you regularly watched Donovan over those years, there’d be no way you could say that he wasn't “THAT good from the get-go.” Please. McNabb was sensational, one of the Top Three playmakers and quarterbacks in the NFL over that time.
Donovan was the real deal. His mobility and elusiveness was outstanding for his first four seasons while his passing numbers were very strong as well, even while throwing to clothespins like Todd Pinkston.
Sure, the lack of wide receiver “weapons” was pinpointed as the reason why the heavily-favored Eagles had virtually no offense in their two straight NFC Championship Game losses at home. However, McNabb had been extremely successful with the likes of Freddie Mitchell up until those embarrassing losses. That success, of course, was a direct credit to McNabb, not so much to his receivers.
Still, Donovan was more than just a rusher and a scrambler and a guy with a huge arm and an unreal set of physical skills. He was clutch. Believe it.
Remember in 2000 when he led the Eagles to three fourth-quarter-comeback wins in the month of November ALONE? Remember those two signature wins over the Giants in 2001? Remember when Donovan’s great play down the stretch in 2003 helped the Eagles overcome a horrible 0-2 start and a defense that struggled to stop the run?
Remember when he hit James Trash, I mean Thrash, with clutch passes late in games? Back then, Donovan was the man when it mattered most.
In ’04, well, as everyone knows, it all came together for McNabb in a big way.
Anyway, Rush, you’re entitled to disagree, but Donovan was THAT good…from the get-go.
’05-’09 McNabb: Good, But Not Great
Donovan didn’t run after 2003. He averaged 5.2 rushing attempts per game from ’00-’03 but only 2.7 attempts during ’04, and just 2.9 from ’05 onward. Perhaps all his success as a passer in 2004 convinced him that he no longer needed to rely as heavily on his mobility. Yet, in choosing not to run, Donovan abandoned one of the skills that made him so lethal in the first place.
Why did Donovan stop running? Surely age and injuries had begun to take their toll, but it also seemed that Donovan had a certain unwillingness to run because he sought validation as a traditional pocket passer after years of staking a reputation largely on his mobility.
Over the years, McNabb’s perceived lack of accuracy has been overblown and unfortunately taken on a life of its own (much like all that endless scrutiny over his facial expressions after an incomplete pass).
Yes, McNabb COULD hit a receiver in stride and fit the ball into a small window between defenders more often than most people acknowledged. But still, he never truly matured into a great pocket passer or a guy who could run the typical west coast offense like other good QBs around the league. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely his fault. McNabb’s skill-set simply wasn’t made for the west coast offense, and that became more evident once Donovan stopped using his legs.
Overall, McNabb put up good numbers from 2005 onward. But he was no longer clutch. In games decided by seven points or less, he had a sparkling 17-9 record from 2000 to 2004 as opposed to an 11-17 record from ‘05 onward. He was an incredible 13-1 in prime time games from 2000 to 2004, yet just 6-10 from ’05 to ’09.
McNabb was also a ridiculous 22-5 against the Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins from ’00 through ’04, but just 10-14 from ’05 onward. Surely over the past five years the NFC East hasn’t exactly been the Punch and Judy division it was for the first half of the decade.
Of course, Donovan gets some of the blame for the shortcomings of the last handful of seasons, but certainly not all of it. His teammates get some too. Let’s be real here: the Eagles haven’t been a championship-caliber team since 2004.
In the past five years, the Eagles roster hasn’t been as strong as it was from ’00-’04. But it’s important to remember that the post-Super Bowl Donovan hasn’t been as strong either, although to this day he is still better than two-thirds of the starting QBs in the NFL.
It’s a shame that Donovan McNabb left this city without his very own Super Bowl ring. He deserved one. Really. But it’s also a shame that the Donovan McNabb from ’00 to ’04—the truly sensational Donovan McNabb who would run the ball like Randall and lead fourth-quarter comebacks like Elway—said goodbye to the Eagles years before the Eagles said goodbye to him.
*** The photo is from November 26, 2000: when first-year starter Donovan led the Eagles to a 23-20 win in Washington. McNabb only threw for 137 yards...but ran for 125 (the most for an NFL QB in a single game in 28 years). That performance convinced me that No. 5 was pretty, pretty, pretty damn good.