As anniversaries go, this isn't one the quarterback cares to celebrate. During the week leading up to the NFL draft this April, McNabb was so busy preparing for the upcoming season that he had no time for the past. He spent each day working out at the Eagles' new practice facility, the NovaCare Complex, across from Veterans Stadium. He lifted weights, threw passes, did some running, met with coaches and reporters and clowned around with teammates. At night he played basketball. "Donovan's usually the first player to arrive and the last one to leave," says Andy Reid, the team's coach. "He's always here."
The day after the 2001 draft, Reid bumped into the quarterback at the complex and said, "It's been two years."
"Two years," McNabb repeated. Then he and Reid had a laugh together. McNabb can do that now that he has emerged as one of the league's top young stars. Last season he did more than silence the boo-birds; he made them wish they'd stayed home that day two years ago and yelled at the dog instead of at a 22-year-old in a new suit. The kid the city rejected is now the man Philadelphians hope will never leave. Fans who cursed his selection are forever introducing themselves to him and apologizing, but McNabb harbors no grudge. "I don't think about it anymore," he says. "It's over with. Time to move on."
Philadelphia had the likes of Norm Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgensen, Ron Jaworski and Randall Cunningham quarterbacking the Eagles, and now it has McNabb, who promises to be better than all of them. "We're two years in, and Donovan hasn't reached his potential yet," says Reid. "That will happen in two more years, when he moves into his prime. As a rule it takes four years for a quarterback to master the position. That's the exciting part, to think about what's ahead of him."
Last year he carried a team with average talent to six road wins and an 11-5 record and into the second round of the playoffs. McNabb accounted for 3,999 total yards, which was roughly 75% of the Eagles' production, and easily led the league in that category. He also became the team's first quarterback since Cunningham in 1994 to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season. The Eagles' only other offensive star, running back Duce Staley, went down with a foot injury in the fifth game, and Philadelphia's other runners combined for a pathetic 737 yards. To make up for that, McNabb rushed for 629 yards, best among NFL quarterbacks.
"Donovan's a gamer," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber. "Last year all you heard was 'Daunte this, Daunte that,' " as in Daunte Culpepper, the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback. "But Daunte, I think, lives off his receivers, while Donovan doesn't have any [of the Vikings' caliber]. Donovan lives off Donovan."
McNabb was never better than in November, when he led Philly to four straight wins, two of them (against the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers) in overtime. McNabb and the Eagles run the West Coast offense, which challenges the quarterback to make quick decisions and react as either a passer or a runner. "You need a good athlete to play quarterback in our system," says offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower. "We send so many receivers out, and you can't block everybody on pass protection, so your quarterback isn't going to have that classic pocket where he can sit back and read the play. He has to move around. The other thing is, opponents will blitz from all directions, and he has to be quick about getting the ball out of his hands. If he can't pass it, he has to be able to run."
McNabb is the prototype for football's new-generation quarterback. At 6'3" and nearly 230 pounds, he's the ideal size. He's been timed at 4.4 in the 40, though he runs the distance more regularly at 4.5, and he's thick and padded with muscle from a fierce regimen of weight training. In another era he likely would've played tailback, and he would've played it well. "Donovan could make it as a running back, but he's also one of the better long-ball throwers I've ever been around," says Dowhower, who in his 35-year coaching career has worked with several excellent passers, John Elway and Jim Hart among them. "What sets him apart is, Donovan can be on the move and still flip the ball with his wrist. He's got a very strong wrist, so the ball gets to the receiver pretty fast in tight coverage."
Last Nov. 12, McNabb rallied the Eagles from 10 points down in the last 3:47 and beat the Steelers 26-23 in overtime by throwing for 75 yards and one touchdown during the comeback. At Washington two weeks later he rushed for 125 yards in a 23-20 win over the Redskins. The NFL hadn't seen a quarterback run for that many yards since the Chicago Bears' Bobby Douglass rushed for 127 in 1972. For McNabb, however, the game was most significant because it helped him erase the memory of a disappointing performance against the Redskins in October. The Eagles lost that one 17-14 after McNabb, trying to put his team in field goal range, threw an interception with less than a minute to play. "I wanted to prove that what happened in the first game should not have happened, that the person the fans saw [in October] wasn't the Donovan McNabb they were seeing the second time out," he says.
As in the first Washington game, McNabb was given the ball late in the second half and asked to produce. This time he didn't fail. With the clock winding down, McNabb faced third-and-10 on his own 39. He broke from the shotgun and rambled 54 yards to the Washington seven, setting up the game-winning 30-yard field goal. "He dominated the game for us that day," says Dowhower. "He was easily the best player on the field."