Eagles QB Donovan McNabb is more relaxed, confident in pocket
Posted: Monday October 25, 2004 11:41AM; Updated: Sunday October 31, 2004 3:37PM
CLEVELAND -- On draft day 1999, the Browns picked Tim Couch with the No. 1 pick. The Eagles selected Donovan McNabb at No. 2. You hate to oversimplify things, but since then, Cleveland is 28-58, Philadelphia is 57-29.
McNabb is one of the best quarterbacks in football, playing at a virtuoso level, leading the best team in the NFC on and off the field. He was mostly magnificent yesterday, leading the Eagles to their sixth win in a row, knowing when to run (his 28-yard gallop in overtime helped set up the winning field goal) and throwing to everyone in sight, including the fifth wideout, the backup fullback and the third tailback. Couch was probably watching the games on TV yesterday. He had a tryout with the worst team in football, Chicago, on Friday.
Isn't draft science amazing?
I wanted to watch McNabb against the Browns to see if he was a changed quarterback and I got my answer. He is different, but it's a difference largely made possible by the arrival of Terrell Owens. What I saw:
1. McNabb knows he doesn't have to run to win. Aside from a failed quarterback sneak late in the first half when he tried to get a first down on fourth-and-one, McNabb's first rush against the vulnerable Browns didn't come for 65 minutes. When it did, the Browns were so deceived by his stay-in-the-pocket play that he was able to run up the left sideline for 28 yards in OT. This is a quarterback comfortable in his skin. In the three previous years he played full seasons, McNabb ran the ball 86, 82 and 71 times. This season he's run it 18 times in six games.
2. The Owens-Impact factor is real. The biggest cliché in football entering the season was that Owens' arrival would open up the Eagles' offense and make it possible for McNabb's completion percentage, mediocre in the passer-friendly West Coast Offense, to go up to efficient West Coast levels -- say, the mid-sixties. Well, on the first two plays against the Browns, Owens was shadowed by two men -- cornerback Anthony Henry and a safety. On the first play, Todd Pinkston streaked up the left side on cornerback Daylon McCutcheon and caught a 65-yard strike. On the second play, two more guys were on Owens, and no one covered tight end Chad Lewis flashing across the middle of the end zone. Easiest touchdown you'll ever see. Forty-three seconds into the game, the Eagles had a 75-yard scoring drive and a 7-0 lead. "You cannot double-team a receiver on this team,'' said McNabb, "or it will create opportunities for other guys.''
3. He's throwing a better ball. Maybe it's because he's not always trying to throw into tight coverage. But McNabb looked relaxed and exceedingly confident on the field. To watch him set up in the pocket, survey the field and throw ... it's the best I've ever seen him play. Never mind the 376 yards passing and four touchdowns. I'd have said that if he threw for 280 and two. His accuracy reflects it. His previous five-year totals: .491, .580, .578, .584 and .575. This year: .657. We aren't in the bad weather yet, and he could still have six foul-weather games after Nov. 20 (Washington, at Giants, Green Bay, at Washington, Dallas, Cincinnati), but unless he slumps badly, McNabb should end up in the 62-63-percent range. Very good, particularly considering where he came from.
"We tried to change up the formation as the game went on and move T.O. around the field,'' said McNabb (28-43, 376 yards, four touchdowns, one pick). "As long as we continue to move the chains, there will be opportunities for everyone. Sometimes they put eight or nine guys in the box [to slow RB Brian Westbrook], so that left man coverage outside.''
On Owens' first of two touchdowns, from 29 yards, the safety was late coming over, and he caught it in the end zone with Henry draped on his back. On his second, he beat Henry easily and caught a 40-yard strike. Both well-thrown balls.
I asked Andy Reid, who picked McNabb five and a half years ago, swimming against a tidal wave of public opinion (the Philadelphia mayor, now the governor of Pennsylvania, campaigned for a pot-smoking tent-dweller), what he thought was the difference in McNabb.
"The offensive line has been very, very good,'' he said. "They're giving him all the time he needs. Donovan has gotten into a great rhythm, as good as he's been in here, and you've got to credit the guys giving him the time. And you're seeing defenses cloud Owens. You almost always see that safety over the top on Owens, shading to his side, waiting for him.''
"Ever seen that -- " I began.
"Yeah,'' he said. "With Sterling Sharpe in Green Bay."
"No,'' I said. "I mean here."
"Here? Oh no. And when they cloud T.O.'s side, that frees up other guys to make plays. It's working pretty well."
You can say that again.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (6-0). Held the formerly unbeaten Jets to 268 yards while Corey Dillon got 115 against the best front the Pats have faced. That's a pretty good offensive line BillBelichick and Scott Pioli have cobbled together and Dante Scarnecchia has tutored.
2. Philadelphia (6-0). Way too vulnerable against the run in Cleveland (Browns: 165 yards rushing, 4.9 per rush), surrendering 117 in the first half alone.
3. Indianapolis (4-2). Yes, I'm leaving them right here. I still think the Colts are football's third-best team.
4. Denver (5-1). And the Broncs won't move up in the Peter Pecking Order by spanking the Bagels tonight.
5. Jacksonville (5-2). Some teams just have that something. Hard to define. But this is a team that's been outscored by four points this year, yet the Jags are ahead of the Colts in the standings and won at Indy. You start to get the feeling they'll be playing in the middle of January.
6. New York Jets (5-1). They were a great catch by Justin McCareins in the end zone with three minutes left away from winning in Foxboro. McCareins couldn't hang on, which was just about par for the Jets, who had enough chances to win this game and couldn't.
7. Pittsburgh (5-1). On his bye week, Ben Roethlisberger got fitted for an "S'' cape.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
8. Minnesota (5-1). How about this for the formerly lousy Vikes D: Billy Volek, SteveMcNair's sub, went three-for-14 in the fourth quarter. The Vikes might be dangerous, people.
9. Atlanta (5-2). I'm not forgetting yesterday. I'm trying to put it in perspective, and realizing defensive tackle Rod Coleman will be back -- not to help the rush D, but to scare quarterbacks -- in a couple of weeks.
10. Baltimore (4-2). Held Drew Bledsoe to a QB rating of 32.3, which used to be an accomplishment.
11. San Diego (4-3). The Chargers have Oakland and New Orleans coming up at home, then the bye. Amazing. They could be 6-3 entering their bye week.
12. Detroit (4-2). Two teams in the NFL are 3-0 on the road: Philly and these Leos.
13. New York Giants (4-2). I love how GM Ernie Accorsi wrote a letter to the editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette after the Giants played there earlier this month, praising the Lambeau experience. I called Accorsi about it. "Now we'd won the game, our buses were pulling out the stadium and we're passing the tailgaters, and they're giving us the thumbs-up. Like, 'Good luck.' Unbelievable. I just think Green Bay's the Cooperstown of our game."
14. Kansas City (2-4). I'm starting to get a good feeling about this team.
15. Seattle (3-3) and St. Louis (4-3). I can't figure out which team deserves this less, so they're both here.
THE AWARDS SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
Kansas City OL Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, Casey Wiegmann, Will Shields and John Welbourn. This is what happens when you run for eight touchdowns, an NFL record, and pile up 271 rushing yards on the No. 1 rush defense in pro football. Simply an amazing, tour de force performance by a group that, when right, is the best in the game.
Defensive Player of the Week
Cleveland FS Chris Crocker. He made but one big play in the Eagles-Browns game, but it's a huge reason Cleveland put such a scare into Philadelphia. Early in the third quarter, with the Eagles hanging on to a 21-17 lead and trying to convert a third down, Donovan McNabb pitched it to wideout Greg Lewis on an end-around. Lewis steamed around left end and seemed a lock for the first down ... and here came Crocker, flying out of nowhere, diving at Lewis and ankle-tackling him. No first down. Punt. And the Browns drove for the go-ahead score. These plays get lost in the box score, but it was a crucial play that allowed Cleveland to enter the fourth quarter against an unbeaten team with a lead.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Atlanta PR Allen Rossum. Kansas City has a maniacal special teams club, and imagine the Falcons, down 32 and struggling to stay in the game mentally, clearing a path wide enough for Rossum to shake and bake for a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Rossum's really underrated as a returner. It was the Falcons' only touchdown of the day.
Coach of the Week
Miami's Dave Wannstedt. I have a feeling this will be the last time I will ever give this award to Wannstedt --well, ever is a strong word. But you've got to hand it to the coach of a team that is dead for having his guys so well-prepared to play a good Rams team. Talked to Wannstedt the other day, and he was incredulous the Dolphins might have to take Ricky Williams back if the NFL rules he should be reinstated after his "retirement.'' "Can you believe this?'' he said. I told him: "You've got to write a book.'' He said: "I might.''
Goat of the Week
The Atlanta run defense. For as much as I've praised the Falcon D, they deserve to take a big rap for surrendering eight rushing touchdowns. They'd allowed four all season. A disgrace, men of Donatell.
FACTOID THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME
Ticket-holders were asking -- and getting -- $ 1,700 for a right-field bleacher seat to the first game of the World Series.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"You can't do too much when you have an offensive coordinator who doesn't trust you and a head coach who never wanted you in the first place.''
-- Permanently idled Kansas City running back Larry Johnson, after not being moved at last Tuesday's NFL trading deadline, as quoted by the Kansas City Star.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Pittsburgh Central Catholic Quarterback Note of the Week:
Dan Marino began his career 23-5. Marc Bulger began his career 22-6 before losing at Miami Sunday.
ENJOYABLE/AGGRAVATING TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
FOX baseball/football man Joe Buck took the Acela -- good man, that Joe -- back and forth for the Red Sox-Yankees series. Loved it.
"I have a column I write for The Sporting News and I was able to write it and finish it on the Acela from Boston to New York," he said. "People would walk by, and a few would recognize me. Quietly, you might hear, 'Let's go, Yankees.'"
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think these are my quick-hit football thoughts of the week:
a. I didn't give Dorsey Levens any props for player of the week, but, truth be told, the Eagles won that game because of what he did in overtime.
Keenan McCardell caught five passes for 65 yards in his Chargers debut.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
b. You know what I love about the Chargers? They win on the road with LaDainian Tomlinson rushing for 47 yards.
c. What would you have told me a week ago if I said Keenan McCardell will outgain Tomlinson at Carolina Sunday?
d. You'd have sent me to the funny farm. Can I go anyway?
e. Seahawks, you're paper tigers.
f. Denny Green, I'll never doubt you again.
g. Well, never say never. But you're doing a heck of a job.
h. I don't like to bring officials into this column much, but Tom White, you need glasses. At the end of a maddeningly long Eagles-Browns game (3:44), White twice called for measurements when the ball was a yard or more from a first down. Is there no one on that crew who could say, "Uh, boss. That was one's a body length short?'' Jeez.
i. The Bears have to be the worst team in football.
j. You still want Kerry (350 yards throwing) Collins benched, Black Hole?
k. Colts: 12 penalties, two turnovers. Un-Dungy-like.
2. I think the Eagles made the right decision on going younger with SheldonBrown and Lito Sheppard, replacing Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. It showed in Cleveland. Now the Browns aren't the gold standard on offense, and the Eagles did give up 31 points, but that was more the rush defense faltering than Jeff Garcia consistently riddling the secondary. Sheppard and Brown look instinctive and athletic. They break on the ball well and, Sheppard particularly, are physical enough. They combined for 13 tackles, a pick and two deflections. I was one who thought, particularly in the case of Vincent, the Eagles were going young too quickly in the secondary, and it would hurt them. But TomHeckert, a very good personnel man, mined this secondary well.
3. I think there's a very small chance that Sean Salisbury will be invited to the Quinn family Christmas party. Talking about the struggling (and that is a huge compliment, based on the reality of his play as RexGrossman's replacement) Bear quarterback, Jonathan Quinn, Salisbury said on ESPN radio Sunday: "Jay Fiedler at least can complete a pass. Jonathan Quinn can't throw up."
4. I think one thing in football shocks me right now: Dallas being 2-4. Not even the Red Sox being up 2-0 can cheer Bill Parcells this morning.
5. I think the one thing that people will do now is rush to judgment on MikeVick, who completed seven balls to his players and two to the Chiefs. Is he brutal right now (56 percent passing, four touchdowns, six picks)? Yes. But learning a new offense is a tough thing, and learning when your practice time is curtailed because of injury before the season is tougher. Vick needs time, and maybe a thinner playbook, but Greg Knapp is not going to throw this thing out the window because Vick's been mediocre and sometimes less in the first half of the season.
6. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Baseball quote of the week: From Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post: "Now the single biggest postseason flop in baseball history does not belong to some Red Sox team or Boston goat such as Bill Buckner. Instead, the new and uncontested champions of the October gag are the New York Yankees.''
b. I'll tell you something that scares you as a parent of a 21-year-old female college student in Boston, even after she's called you a few minutes after the Red Sox beat the Yankees -- when you hear on the news a day later that a 21-year-old female college student in Boston was killed in a melee with police in the postgame revelry.
c. Coffeenerdness: When you're sick, I highly recommend the Tazo tea at Starbucks. I've been majoring in it.
d. How many idiot movies in a row will Ben Affleck make? Surviving Christmas? Out before Halloween. Hey, that's good marketing. Looks like another gem, too. Said the New York Daily News: "Affleck's latest bomb makes us long for Gigli."
e. Fox has slammed me over the head so endlessly with promos that I'm going to give in on one of them. I'm going to give House'a look.
f. Mark it down right now: In 10 years, Al Leiter will be the best baseball analyst on TV.
7. I think you can't underestimate what a big win that was for Jacksonville at Indianapolis.
8. I think I've got to hand it to Jimmy Smith, one of football's least appreciated players of this era. His five catches in the game at Indy gave him 751 for his career, good enough to pass Michael Irvin and Charlie Joiner (750) on football's all-time list. He's not in the mode of hanging on yet, either. He's still the go-to guy for Byron Leftwich.
9. I think if the Raiders can't win on the field, they sure can win in the arena of the international Web site. The Patriots were the first to have a Chinese site. The Raiders were the first to promote their Chinese site --announced last week -- by producing T-shirts saying "Just win, baby'' in Mandarin. I told that to ChadLewis, the Eagle tight end and lone Mandarin-speaking NFL player yesterday, and he was excited. "How can I get on there?'' he said. I told him to click onto Raiders.com and look for a link.
10. I think it's bush league to put a guy in the game just to extend a streak, as the Vikings did with Randy Moss. If he can play, he can play. If he can't, don't throw him in there just so he can say: "I play 16 games a year. I'm never hurt.'' You are hurt, dude. Don't go phonying up the record book.
WHO I LIKE TONIGHT, AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS
The Bengals haven't lost a Monday night game at home in 21 years. That's the good news. The bad news is that they've played only two Monday-nighters at home in that time. If the streak doesn't end tonight, Jake should become a Plumber. Denver, 38-12.
The Bengals haven't been on MNF for 12 years. My guess is after the mirage job they pulled on the league last year, it'll be another 12 before the league risks putting them on again.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.