The Eagles became convinced of that when they sat down with McNabb before the draft to test his aptitude for X's and O's. Quarterbacks coach Brad Childress was responsible for the questions, and his plan was to fire away at McNabb fast and furiously, hoping to create confusion and frustration. It worked. Childress ended up confused and frustrated. "Brad was just spitting things at him, and Donovan was answering at a rapid-fire pace," says Reid. "Finally Brad was like, 'Slow down, would you? I can't keep up.' But that's how Donovan's mind works. He's unbelievably sharp."
At this time last year, McNabb was projected to be a late first-round or possibly a second-round choice. The rap against him was familiar and, for McNabb, infuriating: great athlete, good option quarterback, but can he run a pro-style offense? Some NFL scouts and personnel men had doubts, but not McNabb or those who shared in his success at Syracuse.
"I know what the other quarterbacks can't do, but I'm not sure what Don can't do," says Kevin Rogers, who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Syracuse before recently taking a similar position at Notre Dame. "He's a dominant player. Is he the prototypical NFL quarterback? No—he's the wave of the future. Teams need a guy who can make things happen when everything breaks down, a guy who can avoid a rush, who can run and who can also throw downfield. Believe me, Don can do it all."
Doing it all was what the Orangemen's coaches demanded of McNabb. Pasqualoni says McNabb had to know between 125 and 150 plays each week, as well as 25 to 35 formations. Pasqualoni calls the Syracuse offense "multiple pro concept with an element of option" and dismisses the notion that McNabb tucked the ball under his arm and ran his way to 33 wins in four years. "He could throw the streak route or run the option," says Pasqualoni. "Whatever it took to win."
McNabb is an unassuming and accommodating guy who agreed to have lunch with SI as long as his mom could come along. Until retiring recently, Wilma was a registered nurse for 25 years; her husband, Sam, is an electrical engineer. Wilma and Sam used to travel 11 hours each way by train to attend Donovan's games at Syracuse. Donovan says the first thing he will buy when he signs his first contract (which should be worth more than $6 million annually) is a dog. He can bench-press 400 pounds and has run the 40 in 4.45, but he says he is most proud of having graduated in four years with a degree in speech communications.
McNabb holds the Syracuse and Big East career records for touchdown passes (77) and passing yards (8,389). "It really started to bother me after my redshirt freshman year," he says. "I'd pick up a preseason magazine, and they'd call me an all-purpose quarterback or an option quarterback. I can't stand that label. Throughout my career, I'd hear people say, 'Syracuse doesn't like to throw the ball.' I took that personally. In my senior year I tried to learn more about every aspect of the passing game and take my performance to another level."
To further enhance his NFL stock, McNabb quit the Syracuse basketball team after two years as a reserve. "He became a 365-day football player," says Rogers, "and he really tried to improve on the things the NFL looks at." He had one eye on a national tide and the other on a pro career. The Orangemen, with an 8-4 record, finished 25th in the final AP poll. McNabb ascended to No. 2 in the draft. Not bad for an option quarterback.
Reid would like to see McNabb flourish the way another of his former pupils—Brett Favre, an early second-round selection in 1991—has with the Green Bay Packers, winning a Super Bowl and being named league MVP three times. "It's unfair to compare anyone to Brett," says Reid, the former Packers quarterbacks coach, "but there are a lot of similarities between Brett and Donovan: the athletic ability, the confidence, the leadership qualities. Brett was always the funniest guy on the bus and in the locker room, but when it was time to get guys juiced, he was the most intense player on the field. I see a similar style in Donovan."
Rob Konrad, an All-Big East fullback, was McNabb's teammate at Syracuse for four years and was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the second round. He says playing with McNabb was "like playing with Eddie Murphy" and claims his former quarterback did "the best Coach Pasqualoni imitation ever." Then when the game began, says Konrad, everything changed: "When I looked at him in the huddle, I knew we were going to win. There's a special quality to him."
On top of everything else, McNabb doesn't hold a grudge for long. Five days after he was greeted with chants of "We want Ricky!" in New York City, he stepped in front of another large gathering of rabid Eagles fans. The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce held a reception in his honor at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and as a peace offering Mayor Rendell presented him with a Liberty Bell souvenir. "But he didn't apologize," says Wilma, shaking her head. "He said he wasn't booing Donovan personally. He was just booing the choice."