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Take, for example, the Oct. 8 game against Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field. In a game featuring T.O.'s return to Philly and hyped as a kind of Armageddon in pads, McNabb produced a tour de force in a 38--24 win: a season-high 354 passing yards, plus two touchdowns and no interceptions. Still, the next day in Philadelphia, during WIP Sports Radio's afternoon-drive program, host Howard Eskin found himself fielding calls nitpicking McNabb's performance. "Not a lot and fewer than normal, but I was surprised that anybody would complain," says Eskin, who's covered Philadelphia sports since 1976. "Some people, for whatever reason--maybe that they never liked Donovan McNabb--are not going to like him when he's playing well. He's going to have a bad game, and I'll go to the studio with combat gear because there are people just waiting to pounce on him."
Indeed, since he entered the league--before that, even--the Syracuse product has been the NFL's most publicly dissected, and dissed, top quarterback. Even politicians have joined in. During the run-up to the 1999 draft, then Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, a longtime Eagles season-ticket holder (and now the governor of Pennsylvania), lobbied loudly for the team to take running back Ricky Williams. When Philly instead took McNabb with the second overall pick, the selection was roundly booed by Eagles fans watching at Madison Square Garden. The criticism hasn't abated since. In 2003 Rush Limbaugh notoriously contended on ESPN's NFL Countdown that McNabb was overrated and protected by a liberal media "desirous that a black quarterback do well." (Limbaugh resigned from the show three days later.) The following year McNabb guided the Eagles to their first Super Bowl since January 1981, but after the loss to the New England Patriots he was dogged by charges that he'd run out of gas late in the game and couldn't effectively operate the offense.
Last year's 6--10 season was marred by what Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan called the "Swiftboating of McNabb"-- Owens's inexorable flaying of his quarterback while the rest of the Philly locker room remained mostly silent. (Some Eagles even lobbied for Owens's return after the wideout was suspended, a response McNabb acknowledges was "a slap in the face.") The criticism turned surreal when J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the Philly chapter of the NAACP, wrote a column in the Philadelphia Sunday Sun headlined, DONOVAN McNABB: MEDIOCRE AT BEST. One of the more curious digs at McNabb questioned his "blackness," in part because he didn't scramble enough. Last February former Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas contended on local radio that McNabb doesn't show enough fire.
He hasn't been immune this season either. In Philly's three-game skid the offense was outscored 31--3 in the first half, and McNabb had a paltry 41.3 rating in those six quarters. During the bye week Inquirer columnist Ashley Fox suggested coach Andy Reid bench McNabb in the first quarter in favor of backup Jeff Garcia. There's even been some friendly fire. At one weekly press conference during the losing streak, an Eagles p.r. assistant gently questioned one of McNabb's responses. "See," McNabb said with a big smile. "I get it from everywhere."
McNabb is baffled by the sniping, though he realizes that being the face of the franchise and the highest-paid player (12 years, $115 million) on a club notorious for jettisoning pricey older veterans doesn't help matters. (Two teammates say an underlying reason why players didn't rebuke Owens was T.O.'s outspoken criticism of the Eagles' payroll philosophy.) "If people see me as kind of hip to hip with management," McNabb says, "there's nothing I can do about it. I can get released just like others, but people don't see that. People just see the guy getting the hype. They never focus on who gets the criticism when things don't go right: the head coach and the quarterback."
The obsessive carping belies McNabb's standing among the NFL's best quarterbacks. He entered the 2006 season with the highest winning percentage (.682) among active NFL quarterbacks with at least 80 starts. He leads all active quarterbacks in touchdown-to-interception margin (144--70) and is second only to Steve Young in NFL history in that category. His seven playoff victories are third-most among active quarterbacks behind Brett Favre and Tom Brady. Such achievements are all the more impressive considering McNabb's supporting cast: From 2000 through '03 the Eagles won at least 11 regular-season games a year featuring the likes of running back Darnell Autry and wideouts Torrance Small, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash. "No other quarterback in the league has done more with less," says Seahawks pro personnel director Will Lewis. "Those guys are solid receivers--and that's the best you can give them."
As an NFL analyst for ESPN, former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski has seen every pass in McNabb's NFL career, either live or on tape, and he finds the persistent criticisms of McNabb mystifying. "I really can't give you an answer," Jaworski says. "Donovan has always done everything the right way. He's the Tiger Woods of the NFL: He has a great family; he has never screwed up off the field. Those guys always deserve the benefit of the doubt. But for whatever reason, Donovan doesn't get it."
All the more puzzling is that McNabb is a force on Madison Avenue. One of the league's most marketable players, he signed two major sponsorship deals in the off-season, with Vitamin Water and Novartis, to add to a portfolio that includes Reebok, Campbell's Soup and Visa. It's McNabb's obvious appeal that attracts those companies, a gregariousness also evident in his interactions with his fellow Eagles. His spot-on impersonations of Reid before meetings prompt teammates to crack up when the coach comes in to begin a session. In the locker room he'll keeps things loose by skewering Brown for his garish sneakers or flexing his muscles at Smith to show off his lower body fat. ("Yeah, you see it! Get a little work in and you'll get to be eight percent.") On the field he'll ease tension with a one-liner in the huddle and even smile and wink at an opposing defensive back creeping up to the line to blitz.
McNabb describes his relationship with Philadelphia and its fans as a "work in progress." True, he has more postseason victories than any other quarterback in club history, but there's one big win that's missing.
Philadelphia's last championship in a major sport was the 76ers' NBA title in 1983. The city has given its brotherly love to such heroes as Dr. J and former All-Pro linebacker Bill Bergey. But the experiences of Jaworski and Randall Cunningham, McNabb's star predecessors, illustrate just how harsh Philadelphia can be toward its QBs, who are judged by their last game--or pass. Not until after they retired did Jaworski or Cunningham receive unconditional love from the Eagles faithful. "I couldn't change it; Randall couldn't change it," Jaworski says. "And Donovan McNabb isn't going to change it. To dispel any myth about his ability, it would probably take a championship."