Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Goodbye, Donovan McNabb

There has been a battle brewing in my pro football-crazed town of Philadelphia over the past couple of football seasons. That battle has been over the fate and future of it's quarterback, Donovan McNabb. Is McNabb good enough to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl? Should McNabb be traded away? The answer apparently came on Easter Sunday night when the Eagles traded McNabb to the division rival Washington Redskins for a pair of draft picks.

Some have been waiting for more than a decade for McNabb to stumble and fall. These were the Eagles fans infamously known as the 'Boo Birds', the fans who showed up for the NFL Draft in 1999 hoping and praying that their beloved Eagles would select running back Ricky Williams to lead them out of the wilderness of losing seasons that had befallen the team. With the 2nd overall pick, Williams was there waiting for the Birds. But much to the chagrin of the rabid fan base, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped to the podium and made this announcement:

"With the 2nd pick the Philadelphia Eagles select Donovan McNabb, quarterback, Syracuse University."

Never before has such a torrent of boisterous "boo" calls rained down upon an NFL Commissioner as the Eagles fans delivered on that infamous day. And that is saying a lot, considering the Draft is held in New York, rabid Jets fans show up regularly in numbers, and their team has made some awful picks over the years.

However, thankfully for the majority of Philadelphia Eagles fans, and also for those 'Boo Birds' even if they weren't yet ready or willing to admit it at the time (some never were) the Eagles made the correct selection that Draft day. The fans wanted someone to lead them out of the losing wilderness, and they got it in the outgoing, personable, talented, confident young man who coach Andy Reid had hand-picked to become his quarterback, centerpiece, and leader.

McNabb was coming off a storied collegiate career at Syracuse, where he had started every game and led the team to a 35-14 record between 1995-1998. He set school records for the longest TD pass and the most passing yards in a season. He set or tied numerous other school records, and accounted for 5 touchdowns vs. a vaunted Miami squad. In his senior season, he led the Orangemen to a berth in the Orange Bowl, and was brilliant in the team's narrow 34-33 loss to eventual National Champion Tennessee, a team that has been ranked as the 2nd greatest college football team of all-time.

McNabb was more than just a strong-armed passer, however. He was also a strong and fearless running quarterback. By the time that 1999 NFL Draft came around, McNabb had been recognized as the Big East conference's Player of the Decade for the 1990's, a first team all-conference selection each of his four years, and it's Offensive Player of the Year in each of his final three seasons. That the fans would boo a guy with this resume after years of watching the likes of Jeff Kemp, Brad Goebel, Bubby Brister, Rodney Peete, Bobby Hoying, Doug Pederson, and both Ty & Koy Detmer guiding their team shows just how ridiculous they can be at times.

Donovan McNabb got his very first start in his rookie season against, ironically, the Washington Redskins. He guided the Birds to a 35-28 victory that day and remained the starter from that moment until being traded away this past Sunday. In his first full season the following year, McNabb became a bona fide NFL star when he finished 2nd in the MVP voting and led the Eagles back to the playoffs for the first time in five years, including a playoff win over the favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In 2001, McNabb took the Eagles to another level, leading them to an NFC East title and taking them all the way to the NFC Championship game where they lost a heart-breaking tight contest to a heavily favored St. Louis Rams team led by the NFL MVP, running back Marshall Faulk. The 2002 season began brightly for the Birds, but became questionable when McNabb suffered a broken ankle in the 11th week. He worked and fought hard to return, getting back in time to lead the club to a playoff win over Atlanta. However, the team lost, this time as home favorites, in the NFC Championship to Tampa Bay in the final game ever at Veteran's Stadium. Despite McNabb's heroism and sportsmanship in getting back that year at all, some of the fan base began to turn on him that very day.

The 2003 season would just add more fuel to the fire, and more fans to the bandwagon, for getting rid of McNabb. He once again led the team to the NFC Championship game at home, once again as the favorites, and for the 3rd consecutive season to a loss in that NFC finale, this time to a devastating Carolina Panthers defense that beat the Eagles on the scoreboard and that physically beat up McNabb, knocking him out of the first title game at the new Lincoln Financial Field. It was after this loss that McNabb and the word "choke" officially began to become synonymous to a growing number of fans and media personalities.

The Eagles realized as an organization that something drastic needed to be done to get them over the hump of NFC title game losses, and drastic is just what they did, signing outspoken and controversial but mega-talented wide receiver Terrell Owens to serve as a key weapon for McNabb. For that one season, it was a match made in football heaven. McNabb had the best season of his outstanding career, and with Owens helping to lead the way the Birds again advanced into the playoffs. It seemed like a story-book ending waiting to happen until Owens suffered a broken ankle and looked likely to miss the playoffs. With Owens out, McNabb led the Eagles to a playoff win over the Vikings and then, finally, to an NFC Championship win over the Atlanta Falcons and young hotshot quarterback Michael Vick.

The Eagles were finally over that hump. They had actually won the NFC Championship, and had done it on their home turf at the Lince in front of their joyous fans. It was now on to the Super Bowl at last. Facing them would be the tough defending NFL Champion New England Patriots, and Owens was working furiously in an attempt to return from the injury that many believed had ended his season. Owens did indeed make it back, and the Eagles gave the Patriots fits in the NFL's big game before falling just short in a 24-21 defeat.

To say that McNabb was at fault for that loss is ridiculous, but many Eagles fans did say just that and still believe that to this very day. He completed 30-51 passes for 357 yards and 3 touchdowns, had his team tied with the NFL Champs after 3 quarters, and nearly engineered a great final-minutes rally in the 4th quarter. But he also threw 3 interceptions, and was sacked 3 times by a tremendous Pats' defense that kept him under fierce pressure the entire game. And then there was the 'puke' incident.

In post-game interviews, one Eagle said that McNabb was so hyper at one point in the huddle that he nearly puked. Despite the fact that it was disputed by McNabb and his teammates, and that there was no video evidence in the most camera-covered event of the year, some fans and media ran with it and said that McNabb had thrown up during the most important game of his life because he was too nervous, a sign that he couldn't take the pressure in a big game.

That loss in the Super Bowl was devastating to many fans. They had finally reached the NFL version of the promised land after so many recent attempts had fallen just short. Now to have had the game been so frustratingly close and have had the Eagles walk away with still no Lombardi Trophy was too much for some. McNabb threw three interceptions and threw up from bad nerves on the field. He simply couldn't win the big games. He was a choke artist. McNabb needed to go. This became the aura that surrounded the team, fed in particular by local talk sports radio station 610 WIP AM and their cast of buffoon announcers and borderline 'expert' sports analysts.

For most of the next few years, McNabb suffered a series of legitimate injuries that began to add concerns that he was also 'brittle' as well as being a choker. With each passing year, the voice of the fans and the radio media seemed to cry out louder and louder for McNabb's ouster, and when it didn't come, that anger and frustration began to turn also on head coach Andy Reid. Those fans who hated McNabb and wanted him out of town began to criticize Reid for being too loyal and stubborn to his longtime centerpiece player.

The calls for changes at both quarterback and head coach were temporarily eased when the Eagles once again, and somewhat unexpectedly, reached yet another NFC Championship game following the 2008 season. McNabb set a career high with more than 3,900 passing yards and guided the club to a romp over the hated rival Dallas Cowboys in the season finale to gain the final NFL playoff berth. He then led the team to playoff wins over Minnesota and the Giants before losing another heart-breaking close game in the NFC title tilt in Arizona.

It was during that up and down 2008 season that McNabb was first benched by Reid. During a difficult loss to the Baltimore Ravens, a healthy McNabb was sent to the bench and 2007 draft choice Kevin Kolb was given an opportunity to enter his first NFL game. When McNabb began the 2009 season following that Arizona title game loss with yet another injury, Kolb got a chance to start with more experience under his belt. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 300 yards in his first two starts, getting the Eagles off to a 1-1 start before McNabb returned.

That was the final straw for many. Not only was McNabb an injury-prone, aging, choking puker and loser when it counted most, but his understudy now appeared to be absolutely ready to take over the lead role. In what would prove to be his swan song, McNabb led the Eagles to an 11-4 record and a season finale showdown with Dallas once again. If the Birds won, they would get the NFC East division title, a #2 playoff seeding and a first-round playoff bye, and an easier path to the Super Bowl. Not only did Dallas blowout the Eagles that day, but then again a week later in the playoffs. The twin losses to their most hated rival by a combined score of 58-14 were the final nails in the coffin for the quarterback.

The story of Donovan McNabb's career as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback stretches back now for a full decade. For the entire first decade of this new millenium, McNabb led the Birds to the playoffs 8 times in 10 seasons, a record not only unmatched but unapproached in franchise history. He set Eagles career records for pass completions, attempts, yardage, and touchdowns. He set franchise single-season records for both completions and yards. He led the team to 5 NFC Championship games and only the 2nd Super Bowl appearance in it's history.

For those who questioned the strong-armed McNabb's accuracy over the years, the facts speak otherwise. He holds the NFL record for consecutive pass completions, and is the NFL's least-intercepted quarterback per pass attempt of all-time. In that 2004 storybook season he became the first NFL quarterback in history to throw for more than 30 touchdowns with fewer than 10 interceptions. And to highlight his excitement and versatility, he is one of only six NFL quarterbacks of all-time to register over 25,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards.

The fact is that Donovan McNabb is simply the greatest quarterback in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise. The era for which he will always be remembered should, in fact, be remembered as the greatest sustained era of winning excellence in the team's long history that is pock-marked by numerous losing years and eras. I have personally always been a fan and supporter of the man. He was never anything less than a positive role model in the community and a smiling, positive leader on the field. He was also, despite what the WIP nut jobs and those 'Boo Birds' will still likely never admit, a winner.

Goodbye and good luck in your future, Donovan McNabb. Thanks for the numerous great memories and big wins. I will personally be hoping that in those two games per year that the Redskins will play against the Eagles, that Donovan enjoys a fine afternoon but comes up short on the scoreboard. Of course, that is just what he was criticized for here over the years. It's ironic that this time the 'Boo Birds' would be cheering that type of result from him and his team.

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