Wilma McNabb liked what she saw last Friday evening inside the Westin Hotel in downtown Chicago, where a conference room had been turned into a McNabb family cafeteria. Philadelphia Eagles players, including Wilma's son, quarterback Donovan McNabb, were chowing down on her home-cooked specialties: red beans and rice (Donovan's favorite), macaroni and cheese, turkey with dressing, cole slaw, salads and the most private of pig parts, shredded. Peach cobbler for dessert. The rest of Chicago might've been distracted by Saturday's game between the Bulls and the Washington Wizards—Michael Jordan's first trip back home in a new uniform—but not the McNabbs, who live in suburban Dolton, Ill. "For us, with Donovan coming home for a playoff game, this is like our Super Bowl," said Wilma. Her prediction? " Eagles, 20-17. You've got to give the Bears some credit. They've got a good team."
With 14 minutes left in the NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon, Wilma looked like quite the seer: Philadelphia 20, Chicago 17. But on a day that stamped her son as one of the finest quarterbacks in pro football at the ripe old age of 25, his brilliance ruined her prediction. McNabb, superbly mixing the pass and the run, led three more scoring drives, two for field goals and one for a touchdown. For the second straight Saturday the Eagles scored more than 30 points on one of the league's better defenses.
The Bears had allowed nine points a game since Thanksgiving. Philadelphia rang up 33 points to Chicago's 19, earning a berth in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game at St. Louis against the Rams. "Donovan made plays with his arm, with his feet and with his mind," Eagles tight end Chad Lewis said. "He let everyone know that Michael Jordan wasn't the only great player in town today."
"He's our Favre!" was how coach Andy Reid's effervescent wife, Tammy, put it. She would know. When her husband, after seven years as a Green Bay Packers assistant—the final two as Brett Favre's position coach—was hired by the struggling Eagles in January 1999, he set out to find Philadelphia's quarterback of the future. On a visit to Syracuse not long after that, Reid knew he had his man in McNabb. The coach and two of his assistants grilled McNabb while watching game tape, and the quarterback had all the answers. Reid also found out McNabb was the funniest guy in the Orangemen's locker room, a mimic who had his teammates down cold, and the Syracuse coaches said McNabb was a rare leader. All Favre-like traits.
"At quarterback," Reid says, "you have to find someone who is comfortable being the Guy. You have to find someone who can play, who can lead, who can loosen up the locker room. Donovan was the right fit."
Although McNabb is quick, fast and strong-armed, he has only recently mastered the most important element in quarter-backing Reid's West Coast offense: knowing when to throw and when to run, when to move up in the pocket and when to hang tough. "The way quarterbacks are taught in this system," Reid says, "they think you have to read your progression of receivers one-two-three-four. You know, just sit there and read. You can't do that. The game's too fast. You have to look at one and two, then start moving on three, and by the time you get to four, you're running. You still might throw, but you'll throw on the run. In the last quarter of the season Donovan figured it out." (Over his last four games McNabb has been a 63% passer with seven touchdown throws and four interceptions, and he's run for 173 yards when the pass wasn't there.)
Here's what else McNabb has figured out: Great quarterbacks must have great vision. He didn't, so last off-season he hired personal trainers to help improve, among other things, his peripheral vision. McNabb would put on glasses that were blacked out except for openings on the outside of each eye. Exercise sessions using these glasses helped him see rushers better on either side of him. "Seeing the whole field is what playing this position is all about," says McNabb. "I not only needed to see down-field but to see and feel to the sides. Rushers come from everywhere."
The Chicago playoff game was a test of McNabb's grasp of when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. No one had run much on the Bears because of the two glaciers blocking the middle: tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor. The Chicago pass rush comes from everywhere, and the Bears linebackers are the fastest in the league. The secondary is also formidable; the Chicago defense gave up 12 touchdown passes this year, fewest in the NFL. Still, Reid designed his game plan with the idea that it was McNabb's game to win or lose. For Philadelphia's first 15 plays Reid scheduled nine passes and six runs.
McNabb took the game in hand early. He completed five of seven passes on the Eagles' first possession, which ended in a 34-yard field goal by David Akers. On Philadelphia's second drive, McNabb took the snap for the team's 14th offensive play, dropped back and looked at his first two options. Covered. Flushed right by a heavy rush, McNabb saw his third option covered. He looked back to the left and began running in that direction. He spied wideout James Thrash near the sideline, uncovered, and fired a spiral across his body. Thrash took the ball 43 yards to the Bears' 24, setting up another Akers field goal.
McNabb saved his best for last—the Eagles' last play of the half, that is. With 25 seconds to go at the Chicago 13, he dropped back. The rush was all around him. While surveying the secondary, McNabb stepped back to his right, went forward to his left and, on the run, threw a bullet across his body to fullback Cecil Martin just past the goal line.