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
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
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
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.
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.
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."