He’s been a great player and a standup guy. He stays out of trouble, he’s engaging with a great smile and he resurrected a franchise from the dead. So why is it that everyone seems to hate Donovan McNabb? Every time I turn around, someone is ripping him or throwing him under the bus. When did this guy become the most hated man on the planet? I just don’t understand. Let’s start from the beginning…
In 1999, the Philadelphia Eagles were setting out to make some big changes. They had been in the playoffs just two years before, but had followed that season with records of 6-9-1 and 3-13 respectively. Frustrated, owner Jeffrey Lurie fired the fledgling Ray Rhodes and hired Packers quarterback coach Andy Reid as his new head coach. Reid’s first move was to tab Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb with the 2nd overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. It was a somewhat curious move that was questioned by analysts and absolutely torn apart by fans, who badly wanted Texas running back Ricky Williams. Eagle fans at the draft, one of whom was sporting shoulder pads, face paint and an Eagles jersey with Williams’ name on the back, booed McNabb off stage.
So as you can see, the relationship was off to a good start. Make no mistake, McNabb was by no means considered a great pick at #2. He was a great athlete and had a big arm, but his accuracy was questionable, he didn’t play against the top collegiate competition and he played in an odd offense. The tools were there, but he was going to need a lot of work. Of course McNabb didn’t get the time he needed, starting his first game in Week 10 against Washington. He played in 12 games in his rookie year, predictably struggling to the tune of a 49.1% completion percentage and a 60.1 quarterback rating. As a Philly sports hater, I couldn’t have been happier.
Then, as the full-time starter in 2000, McNabb made some big improvements. He threw for 3,365 yards with a 21:13 touchdown to interception ratio and ran for 629 yards and 6 touchdowns. Even more impressive, he did all of this while leading the Eagles to an 11-5 record and a 2nd round playoff loss. His accuracy was still questionable (58%), but the overall results were outstanding, especially for a quarterback who most considered a project. Eagle fans quickly turned from fury to love, as they often do, exalting McNabb to kingly status. And rightfully so. The man had almost singlehandedly turned around a floundering franchise overnight. As a Philly sports hater, I seethed with anger and jealousy.
Unfortunately, the fairytale lasted only one season really. McNabb’s quick turnaround of the team had supplied fans with what they needed to construct exceedingly high expectations. Anything less than a Super Bowl was now considered a failure. The Eagles would play in the next three NFC Championship games, losing all three. McNabb was clearly the star of the team. His accuracy remained suspect, but he put points on the board and moved the team up and down the field, using both his legs and his arm.
And here’s where our first controversy starts. In 2003, famed political radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was moonlighting as a football analyst of sorts for ESPN, stated the following on Sunday NFL Countdown:
“I don’t think [McNabb’s] been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They’re interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there’s a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”
While outrage spread because of the racial connotations of his words, Limbaugh actually made a decent point. McNabb had struggled in a fair amount of games and was helped greatly by an excellent defense. The argument was preposterous though. Many quarterbacks have had great defenses behind them and been bailed out by their defense on occasion. Tom Brady anyone? Limbaugh quickly resigned his ESPN post as he came under heavy fire for his comments. As would become his custom, McNabb simply smiled, laughed and let his play do the talking.
Then, in 2004, buoyed by the acquisition of star receiver Terrell Owens, the Eagles took off. McNabb posted his best season by a mile, throwing for 3,875 yards while completing 64% of his passes with a 31:8 touchdown to interception ratio. Better yet, the Eagles finished with a 12-4 record and got the monkey off their back by winning the NFC and advancing to the Super Bowl against New England. Leading up to the game, there were questions as to whether or not Owens would play after breaking his ankle in Week 15 against the hated Cowboys. Then, almost in a Willis Reed type of moment, Owens jogged onto the field. He performed valiantly, catching 9 balls for 122 yards. Unfortunately, McNabb struggled, throwing for 357 yards and 3 touchdowns, but also 3 interceptions. The Eagles fell to the Patriots 24-21. As a Philly sports hater, I quietly smiled, basking in my friends’ sorrow.
The criticism started almost immediately with fans again stating that McNabb had choked away the big game and didn’t have what it took to get them a Super Bowl. While his three interceptions were quite costly, McNabb was hardly the sole culprit in the loss. Tight end L.J. Smith lost a costly fumble, punter Dirk Johnson had a horrible shank that set the Patriots up at the Eagles’ 37, defensive tackle Corey Simon had an inexcusable roughing the passer penalty and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson stubbornly continued to blitz, as he often did, while his secondary got picked apart. Still the vast majority of the blame fell at the feet of McNabb. When repeatedly questioned about all of this, McNabb again smiled, laughed and let his play do the talking.
That offseason, another controversy struck. While holding out for a new contract (and more specifically, doing situps in his driveway), Owens refused to speak with McNabb and repeatedly threw his quarterback under the bus, blaming him for the Super Bowl loss. His holdout lasted into the season, but that didn’t appear to matter to McNabb and the Eagles. The team started 2-1 and McNabb was named the NFC Player of the Month for September. However, everything quickly came crashing down. Playing through a sports hernia and a sore thumb, McNabb struggled and the Eagles lost their next four games. McNabb’s season came to an end in Week 10 against the Cowboys when he injured his groin attempting a tackle following an interception. The Eagles finished 6-10, their worst record with McNabb as the full-time starting quarterback. Owens was subsequently released following his hold out, a team imposed suspension and an accompanying season-long deactivation.
The criticism now roared louder than ever. Despite a solid statistical line in the 9 games he played that season, McNabb took heavy fire from the fans and media. Clearly the past five seasons hadn’t earned him the benefit of the doubt, they had set him up for failure. It was clear that, in the eyes of the city, this was a make or break year for McNabb. How could a these people who embraced Allen Iverson as if he was their son, show such contempt for a class act like Donovan? And still, McNabb smiled, laughed and let his play do the talking.
In 2006, the Eagles started off 4-1, but hit a rough patch and stood at 5-4 going into Week 11 against Tennessee. They lost to the Titans 31-13, but the bigger loss was that of McNabb to a knee injury. However, the team rallied around backup quarterback and former 49er star Jeff Garcia, winning 5 of their last 6 and qualifying for the playoffs. With McNabb still on the shelf, Garcia led the team to a first round victory over the hated Giants 23-20. Unfortunately, in the 2nd round, they lost in a heart-breaker to the New Orleans Saints 27-24.
And yet, the city rallied around Garcia. Fans claimed the team should trade McNabb and go with Garcia as the starter. To make matters worse, the Eagles selected Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb in the 2nd round of the 2007 NFL Draft, clearly stating that McNabb’s days were numbered. This is right about where I changed course as a fan. My hate for the city of Philadelphia was set aside and I found myself looking at Donovan McNabb. A man who had done nothing but bring a franchise back from the dead and put up fantastic numbers year after year, all while saying and doing all the right things and being criticized mercilessly by the fans and media. I believe my exact words were:
“How can these idiots forget everything this guy has done for their franchise so easily? Jeff Garcia?! Seriously? There’s a reason no one wanted to sign him! Are you kidding me?”
Garcia ended up taking a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be their starting quarterback and Reid wisely re-inserted McNabb as the starter. He played relatively well for the majority of the year (89.9 QB rating), but missed two games with an ankle injury. With Garcia now in Tampa, the Eagles turned to Jay Feeley for relief, but he was not of much help, losing both the games he started. The Eagles finished 8-8, missing the playoffs. McNabb had clearly lost most of his once amazing athleticism, no doubt hobbled by the three years of injuries. The criticism from last offseason returned, but with Garcia out-of-town and Kolb clearly needing time to develop, fans realized McNabb was their only option. McNabb again smiled… well you get the picture.
McNabb returned rejuvenated in 2008, starting all 16 games and throwing for nearly 4,000 yards. He threw more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions and jeers again turned into cheers as fans quickly did an about-face. The Eagles finished the regular season 9-6-1 and made it all the way back to the NFC Championship game where they lost to Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals. The criticism quickly returned. McNabb had an excellent game, throwing for 375 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception, but it was clear that didn’t matter. The fans were going to pile on him, even if the defense was to blame for the loss (and they were).
With Kolb still not ready to take the reins, McNabb again returned in 2009 as the starter. His sit atop the depth chart didn’t last long though. During a Week 1 game against the Panthers he was tackled late out-of-bounds by several Carolina players, cracking ribs on his right side. Philly won the game, but Kolb would be forced into action the next two weeks leading up to their Week 4 bye. Unfortunately for McNabb, Kolb played well in both of his starts, getting blown out by the Saints and beating a hapless Kansas City squad. The fans had all the ammunition they needed to start a full-fledged quarterback controversy. McNabb would return in Week 5 and lead the Eagles to an 11-5 record for the season. Unfortunately the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Dallas. It was clear that McNabb’s reign as starting quarterback was nearing the end as fans did everything short of rioting the offices at Lincoln Financial Field, demanding Kolb named the starter.
On April 4, 2010, McNabb (and his contract which expired after the 2010 season) was traded to the Washington Redskins for a 2010 2nd round pick and a conditional pick in the 2011 draft. As always, McNabb said and did all the right things. He spoke fondly of his time in Philadelphia and said he looked forward to his time in the nation’s capitol. In my eyes though, it was a sad day. Probably the most underappreciated professional athlete in the history of Philadelphia had finally seen his time in the city end. If McNabb were traded to any other team, I probably would have said, “Good for him!” and predicted a solid season, sticking it to the Eagles. However when I saw that it was the Redskins who had traded for him, I knew the drama had only just begun.
A franchise that had become famous over the last decade for trading away draft picks and stockpiling aging, past-their-prime veterans was not the landing spot I had hoped for. The team was in total disrepair, possessing possibly the worst talent base of any franchise in the league after years of sparse drafts. I knew this would not end well. The Albert Haynesworth debacle managed to keep the spotlight off McNabb for all of training camp and even part of the regular season. However, once that story had been worn out, the media turned its attention to McNabb and his sub-par stats.
“He’s inaccurate!” they cried. Well duh. The guy has played in your division his entire career and you didn’t notice that he had a completion percentage under 60% in seven of his eleven seasons in Philly? “He’s not mobile! He looks injured! He’s not in good shape!” they screamed after sacks and failed escapes. Yeah, happen to notice how he played 16 games only four out of those seasons in Philly and that he hadn’t rushed for more than 236 yards since 2003? He’s had a few injuries folks. Might want to check under the hood before you purchase that multi-million dollar car.
The criticism lingered, but the team was somehow hanging tough, sitting at 4-3 entering a Week 8 matchup with the Lions. Down 5 points in the fourth quarter, coach Mike Shanahan benched McNabb in favor of journeyman Rex Grossman who promptly fumbled away the game for good, literally. After the game, when asked why McNabb was benched, Shanahan used McNabb’s apparent “lack of conditioning” and “inability to run the 2 minute drill” as excuses. This is what’s known in the business world as C.Y.A. (Cover Your Ass). Instead of owning up, saying Donovan had played poorly and that he had wanted to try Grossman at quarterback all season long (which everyone knew he had), Shanahan threw McNabb under the bus just like the city of Philadelphia before him.
Everyone could see the situation crumbling. Then, in a completely unanticipated move, the Redskins handed McNabb a new five-year contract worth $78 million that was announced right before kickoff of their Week 10 Monday night matchup with the Eagles. Of course those numbers are inflated and the language of the contract made it so that the Redskins could simply cut McNabb after the season if they wished and pay him only $3.5 million. The Skins were promptly run right out of the building by Philadelphia, losing 59-28. The score doesn’t even do justice to this butt-whipping as the Eagles led 35-0… nine seconds into the 2nd quarter!
It was clear to everyone that the contract was a sham. Owner Dan Snyder had tried to cover his mistake by making an even bigger one. Before their Week 15 matchup with Dallas, Shanahan declared McNabb the third-string quarterback, saying he wanted to get a better look at Grossman and the inexperienced John Beck. McNabb once again said all the right things, but it was clear he was crushed. Had his star really fallen this far? The Redskins finished the season 6-10. It is widely believed that they will release McNabb, but because of the current NFL lockout, there can be no player moves.
To make matters worse, Kevin Kolb succumbed to injury during Week 1 in Philadelphia and Michael Vick came on to lead the Eagles to the playoffs in a near MVP season. I had hoped the Philly fans would get what they deserved, having to watch their beloved franchise once again flounder in the cellar of the NFC East. Unfortunately that was not in the cards, at least in 2010.
After this season, McNabb was publicly criticized, again, by former Middleweight boxing champion and Philadelphia native Bernard Hopkins. By my count this is the third time Hopkins has publicly slandered McNabb. His complaints include, but are not limited to:
-McNabb “choking” in big games
-McNabb’s apparent lack of “blackness”
-McNabb’s good upbringing in his family’s Chicago suburb
-McNabb’s failure to cater to his every request during one visit to an Eagles practice
Hopkins also went out of his way to praise Terrell Owens and Michael Vick for “remaining true to their roots”. That’s a very nice way of saying that he’s proud of them for not betraying their thuggish upbringing. Yes, kudos to you Terrell Owens for your complete lack of respect, your inability to shut your mouth and your insatiable greed. And congrats to you Mr. Vick on spearheading that dog fighting ring. Your mother must be proud. If McNabb had only said to himself W.W.V.D.? What would Vick do?
So here we are, May 19, 2011 and McNabb is still sitting in limbo. He knows he isn’t going to be a Redskin once the lockout is over, and yet he continues to say all the right things. I turn on the radio in my car to drive home from work and hear the talking heads bantering about the quarterback. “How can he sit there and say he still wants to be a Redskin? I guess McNabb has always had this whole passive-aggressive attitude.”
His counterpart turns to him and says, “You know, some people would call that professionalism.” Amen. Donovan, I salute you and if no one else will stand up for you, this guy will. You’re the last of a dying breed.