EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Donovan McNabb took a seat in a cramped office at the Vikings' training facility and brushed his right hand over his face. He let out a long sigh, flashed a broad smile and, in a nasal baritone that is as much his trademark as his No. 5 jersey, repeated the words that had greeted him moments earlier:
Here we go again.
McNabb thought the controversy carousel had stopped in July, when he was traded from Washington after a turbulent season in which he was benched several times. His football world began to spin again, however, after he threw for just 39 yards in Minnesota's season opener, failed to make a play to preserve halftime leads of 10, 17 and 20 points in each of the first three games, and could not rally the Vikings down the stretch in a 22-17 loss at winless Kansas City.
With the team 0-4, critics began clamoring for rookie first-round pick Christian Ponder.
"Is it offensive to me?" McNabb said two days before leading the Vikings to their first win, a 34-10 drubbing of the Cardinals. "It's hilarious to me. I went through the same thing in Philadelphia with Kevin Kolb. I heard, 'Kevin can do this, Kevin can do that; Donovan can't do this, Donovan can't do that.' Well, if I couldn't do it over my 11 years with the Eagles why did we go to five NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl? But that's the thing. No one cares -- at least certain people don't -- about what you've been able to accomplish."
Full disclosure: McNabb fascinates me. More specifically, people's reactions to him fascinates me.
He has more yards passing (37,099) than Steve Young and Troy Aikman; more touchdown passes (234) than Young, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Namath; and a higher completion percentage (58.9) than Dan Fouts and Warren Moon. He also has more wins (98) than 15 of the 23 modern-era quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yet as his career winds down, the pervasive response to questions about his place in the pantheon of elite quarterbacks is usually an awkward ummmm or an uncomfortable ehhhh. That's not to say he doesn't have supporters, but their voices aren't as vocal or strident as his critics'.
"I try to avoid TV and reading articles because when it comes to Donovan it's almost like I'm not sure people want him to succeed," said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who was an assistant with the Eagles during McNabb's first four years in the league, from 1999 to 2002. "It doesn't seem like he gets the benefit of the doubt. I understand some of it is winning and losing [the last two years]. But I think you have to go back to what happened leaving Philadelphia and how he left Washington to find the origins of it. As you uncover it you see some of the headlines and it kind of dictates people's opinions. ...
"It's not justified what happens to him in the media. Some of the shots that are taken at him are just unfair. They're just not right. But he's a strong guy. He handles it very, very well. Even some of the stuff that went on last year, he never said anything publicly or demeaned anybody. He didn't counter some of the other things that people said. That's hard to do. Trust me."
McNabb says he doesn't spend time worrying about how he is perceived or how his career is viewed because he's too focused on getting things right this year. Still, the reality is that the Vikings are four games behind NFC North-leading Green Bay and Detroit and likely would need to finish at least 9-2 in their final 11 games to have a shot at earning a wild-card spot. Possible? Yes. Probable? No.
The greater likelihood is that Frazier will bench McNabb, who turns 35 next month, once the Vikings are officially eliminated from playoff contention so the team can get Ponder some work before next season. A source close to McNabb said the 13-year veteran would probably consider retirement at that point rather than be a backup or join a fourth team in four years.
McNabb insists he hasn't thought beyond this season -- "I see great things happening this year" -- but he didn't deny retirement was a possibility. Which begs the question, what then? Will McNabb be regarded as simply a very good player or as a great player?
"That's what I don't get," says former Eagles teammate Hugh Douglas. "You look at his numbers and what he was able to accomplish -- I mean, he went to five conference finals and the Super Bowl and was three points from winning it -- and I don't understand why Donovan McNabb doesn't get the same type of consideration as everybody else in his category would get. He's taken a lot of unnecessary shots from a lot of people for no reason. The only criticism I would have of Donovan is that he should at least have come back and gone off on someone for the way he was treated. Like in Washington. For him to have accomplished all that he has accomplished, if that was me and they had treated me like that, we would have had a problem."
Former teammates and Eagles employees contend that McNabb's personality has a lot to do with people's ambivalence toward his achievements. They point to his non-confrontational manner and the indelible "goofy" smile he wears, even in times of failure or distress. To critics, it's symbolic of a player who lacks fire and passion.
Another issue, in some people's minds, is his failure to deliver a championship. Four of his five trips to the conference final ended with losses, and after his lone trip to the Super Bowl, a 24-21 loss to New England, wideout Terrell Owens claimed McNabb tired down the stretch, which prevented him from rallying the Eagles.
One of the dangers for McNabb is that people remember him more for what he has done since leaving Philadelphia than for what he accomplished with the Eagles. Fans in Minnesota now boo with each pass that one-hops to a receiver or misses a target by a wide margin. The irony is that McNabb did those same things in Philadelphia, but those blemishes were erased by eight winning seasons in 11 years. He is 6-12 since being traded from Philadelphia to Washington before the 2010 season.
For a story in this week's magazine, I polled a coach, scout or player -- if not all three -- from each team that has faced McNabb this season. All but one said McNabb still has the ability to be effective. However, they acknowledged it will be tough, for reasons including:
He's running a new offense.
As much as people talk about the Vikings and coordinator Bill Musgrave installing a West Coast system, those who've game-planned for Minnesota contend it's a hybrid offense with a lower percentage of shotgun formations, split backs and checkdowns to the backs. Instead, the play-calling revolves around Adrian Peterson, the dynamic ballcarrier whom Frazier calls "our best player." Minnesota uses more I-formations and play-action passes than McNabb is accustomed to, and opponents feel he is struggling with the adjustment.
"It is just a different way for him to have to play," says one coach. "He just never was asked to be a run and play-action QB. He is better in the 'gun, kind of Ben Roethlisberger-ing it. It's better to spread the field and give him options; let him use his legs to keep plays alive or pick out his receivers. It's too easy now to keep him in the pocket, and that's not his strong suit."
He lacked an offseason to get acquainted and comfortable with his receivers.
There were several occasions against the Cardinals when the timing between quarterback and receiver was off. Another time, McNabb motioned after an incompletion that he expected wideout Devin Aromashodu to come back for the ball instead of sitting in a spot after making his break.
"I don't know that he's totally in sync with the offense," says one coordinator. "He's definitely not where he needs to be. He doesn't tend to run as much, so it makes it easier to defend him. He's more of a pocket passer, and if he's not in sync with his receivers it creates problems for them."
Says McNabb: "Obviously it's a different surrounding cast than I've had. You have to have an opportunity to get accustomed to the guys around you. You have to build that chemistry in knowing what he's going to do, how he plays, strengths and weaknesses. And coaches need time to begin to get adjusted to different players. That doesn't happen in half a year, really a year. Because I want to know what you're thinking as a coach. If I know what you're thinking as a coach, then I can relay it to the guys on the field. That's one thing I try to do, change my game to what the coaches want. From Washington to here, I ask, What can I do to make myself better, from your standpoint? And I'm trying to do what they want me to do."
His confidence has been shaken.
McNabb, who needs just two more wins to become only the 12th quarterback to reach 100, chuckles at the suggestion that his confidence has been shaken, which has been made publicly by Douglas and privately by some members of the Vikings.
"Once you start to second-guess yourself in this league, you're done," he says. "Personally, I never second-guess myself. I don't lose confidence in myself."
McNabb then sat upright, chuckled and brushed his goatee. New year, same questions. Here we go again.