Out of Pocket
Quarterback Donovan McNabb looked more like his old self in leading the Eagles to their first win of the year
Each week during the season quarterback Donovan McNabb and center Hank Fraley of the Eagles get together on Wednesday and Thursday evenings for "dinner and a movie." They settle in the office of quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur, chow down and watch videotape. In the middle of their first session last week, while studying defensive tendencies of the Bills, McNabb got a call on his cellphone from his brother, Sean, who told Donovan to turn on the TV.
A cable channel was carrying the Philadelphia 76ers' press conference announcing the contract extension signed by guard Allen Iverson, and there was Iverson wearing a white Eagles jersey with McNabb's number 5 on it The quarterback had absorbed most of the blame from the fans and media for Philly's 0-2 start, and now his name was bound to come up in questions for Iverson. (Jeez, Fraley thought as he sat in the small office, we can't even escape the what's-wrong-with-Donovan story in here.) Someone asked Iverson about the jersey. "I wore it for a reason-to show support for him," Iverson said of McNabb. "The guy had two bad football games, and people who say they love him are booing him."
The next day McNabb said he appreciated Iverson's sticking up for him. "He knows," said McNabb. "The thing he said that got to me was, 'Sometimes [fans] look at us like we're not human.' We're supposed to play the same every game. It was good to hear."
What the Eagles saw from McNabb in a 23-13 road win over the Bills on Sunday was even better. On his first play McNabb threw a fade pass with beautiful touch to wideout Todd Pinkston for 27 yards. On his third play McNabb, who had been criticized after the first two weeks for not scrambling enough, took off in the face of a rush and juked his way for a 25-yard gain. Five plays later running back Correll Buck-halter burst into the end zone from the two. After the Bills went three-and-out, McNabb drove the Eagles 65 yards in 16 plays, setting up David Akers's 26-yard field goal. And when he needed to bleed the clock at the end of the game, McNabb did that, too, converting a third-and-seven with 2:32 left on a 14-yard pass to wideout James Thrash.
To be sure, McNabb was not solely to blame for the opening losses to the Bucs and the Patriots. Coach Andy Reid called an out-of-whack 106 passes versus 22 runs. The line didn't do a good job of protecting McNabb, who was sacked 11 times and pressured into three interceptions. Nevertheless most fingers were being pointed at the $115 million quarterback, whose 41.4 passer rating ranked 33rd in the league.
So with a bye in Week 3, Reid told McNabb to get out of town during the team's four-day break McNabb went to his off-season home in the Phoenix area. "I sat on the patio a lot, just thinking," McNabb says. "It was about 105 degrees, but I was able to wipe the slate clean."
The second pick in the 1999 draft, McNabb has never been a consistently accurate passer. Entering the season he had a 56.9% career completion rate, and he was even worse in the first two games (45.1%). "I think people have been getting more pressure on him this year," says New England cornerback Ty Law. "You get five or six big guys running at any quarterback, and his performance is going to drop. Sure, McNabb's been less accurate this season, but his line hasn't held up." That's true to an extent, but McNabb couldn't get into any kind of rhythm even when he had time to throw.
That all changed on Sunday when McNabb, relaxed and jovial before the game, completed 11 of his first 14 passes. He was sacked only twice and ran nine times for 47 yards. After banging his left thumb on a helmet in the second quarter, he finished 18 for 29 for 172 yards and no interceptions.
So has Donovan found his groove? Not yet. He still doesn't set up and throw the deep ball as well as he did early last season. But he showed he's on the right track. "He's got a fiber running through him that is perfect for our team," offensive coordinator Brad Childress said after the game. "We knew he wouldn't stay in a funk forever."