Leadership. Theword was emblazoned in large gray letters on the back of the sleeveless blackT-shirt worn by Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb during a recentpractice. Underneath, in smaller letters, read this: "The problem with thepeople in the world today is everyone wants to be the man. But when it's timeto step up and take charge, they take two steps back. So if you ain't ready,stop talking about it."
McNabb insists the message doesn't allude to his current work situation, but itdoes offer a concise description of how the five-time Pro Bowler went aboutreasserting his role with the Eagles after a tumultuous 2005 season, which wasimmolated by his prolonged (but mostly one-sided) feud with wideout TerrellOwens and ended with a sports hernia that forced him to miss the last sevengames. And now, with the 5--4 Eagles a game behind the New York Giants in thetightly packed NFC East after Sunday's 27--3 defeat of the Washington Redskinsat Lincoln Financial Field, McNabb's understated but forceful leadership willbe critical as his team reaches for a playoff berth over the final seven gamesof the season.
That leadershiphas taken on some new forms. Unlike in previous years, McNabb spent much ofthis off-season training with teammates at the Eagles' NovaCare Complex. Hesays he wanted to stay close to the team as he rehabilitated from herniasurgery (his first time under the knife), but it's clear his constant presencewas also a subtle but effective way of closing the fissures blown open by theOwens affair.
"He definitelymade an effort to get that camaraderie going," tight end L.J. Smith says."Donovan doesn't have to tell you he's a leader--his actions speak louderthan his words--but for him to be around the guys, I think that's his besttherapy."
Adds All-Prosafety Brian Dawkins, "That built something, when he stayed."
"I didn't rammy head through a wall," McNabb says, flashing his familiar smile. "Ididn't check myself into a clinic or anything. And I wasn't going to walkaround with my chest out and say, 'Yeah, you should have backed me.' There's noneed for that. I do my job."
Shortly beforetraining camp began, McNabb held his annual get-together (a.k.a. boot camp) athis off-season home in the Phoenix area. In attendance were receivers ReggieBrown and Hank Baskett, tight end Matt Schobel and tailback Reno Mahe, amongothers. For a week they endured an arduous workout regimen led by McNabb and apersonal trainer in mostly triple-degree heat. ("Dry heat that swallows youup," Brown recalls.) But the event had a welcome McNabb touch: Players wereencouraged to bring wives, children, girlfriends. And the week concluded with acatered feast at McNabb's house featuring New Orleans--style cooking.
On Sept. 5, fivedays before the season opener, McNabb organized a skill-players-only practicein the team's covered facility. All of the Eagles' receivers, tailbacks andtight ends participated, and without position coaches screaming in their ears,the players felt free to open up, discussing the nuances of the offense.
The payoff wasimmediate. The 6'2", 240-pound McNabb had one of the most explosive startsever by an NFL quarterback--averaging 320.4 yards, with 11 touchdowns and oneinterception--as the Eagles went 4--1. His trademark cannon arm was on display,as were the Houdini-like moves in the pocket, the adroit scrambling and themostly sound decision-making. And the rapport he'd developed with hislittle-known receiving corps made the offense potent and unpredictable. In eachof those five games Philly had a different player lead the club in receivingyards. "There's a benefit of having a so-called Number 1 receiver,"McNabb says with a grin. "I have a Number 1 receiver. It just so happensthat it's one guy with different names."
Philly lost muchof its momentum with three close losses, two of them decided on last-secondfield goals. But after a dismal 13--6 home loss to Jacksonville, the Eaglesregrouped, adjusted the offense to shift some of the burden from the long ballto the running game and responded with a resounding win on Sunday against adivision rival.
McNabb now findshimself in a familiar position, among the league leaders in passing, pilotingthe NFL's top-ranked offense, in the playoff hunt--and subjected to intensescrutiny from fans and the local media. He may have won back a fracturedEagles' locker room, but the confounding question remains whether he'll everwin over the NFL's toughest town.
Take, for example,the Oct. 8 game against Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field. In a game featuringT.O.'s return to Philly and hyped as a kind of Armageddon in pads, McNabbproduced a tour de force in a 38--24 win: a season-high 354 passing yards, plustwo touchdowns and no interceptions. Still, the next day in Philadelphia,during WIP Sports Radio's afternoon-drive program, host Howard Eskin foundhimself fielding calls nitpicking McNabb's performance. "Not a lot andfewer than normal, but I was surprised that anybody would complain," saysEskin, who's covered Philadelphia sports since 1976. "Some people, forwhatever reason--maybe that they never liked Donovan McNabb--are not going tolike him when he's playing well. He's going to have a bad game, and I'll go tothe studio with combat gear because there are people just waiting to pounce onhim."
Indeed, since heentered the league--before that, even--the Syracuse product has been the NFL'smost publicly dissected, and dissed, top quarterback. Even politicians havejoined in. During the run-up to the 1999 draft, then Philadelphia mayor EdRendell, a longtime Eagles season-ticket holder (and now the governor ofPennsylvania), lobbied loudly for the team to take running back Ricky Williams.When Philly instead took McNabb with the second overall pick, the selection wasroundly booed by Eagles fans watching at Madison Square Garden. The criticismhasn't abated since. In 2003 Rush Limbaugh notoriously contended on ESPN's NFLCountdown that McNabb was overrated and protected by a liberal media"desirous that a black quarterback do well." (Limbaugh resigned fromthe show three days later.) The following year McNabb guided the Eagles totheir first Super Bowl since January 1981, but after the loss to the NewEngland Patriots he was dogged by charges that he'd run out of gas late in thegame and couldn't effectively operate the offense.
Last year's 6--10season was marred by what Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan calledthe "Swiftboating of McNabb"--Owens's inexorable flaying of hisquarterback while the rest of the Philly locker room remained mostly silent.(Some Eagles even lobbied for Owens's return after the wideout was suspended, aresponse McNabb acknowledges was "a slap in the face.") The criticismturned surreal when J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the Philly chapter of theNAACP, 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 Februaryformer Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas contended on local radio that McNabbdoesn't show enough fire.
He hasn't beenimmune this season either. In Philly's three-game skid the offense wasoutscored 31--3 in the first half, and McNabb had a paltry 41.3 rating in thosesix quarters. During the bye week Inquirer columnist Ashley Fox suggested coachAndy 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 thelosing streak, an Eagles p.r. assistant gently questioned one of McNabb'sresponses. "See," McNabb said with a big smile. "I get it fromeverywhere."
McNabb is baffledby the sniping, though he realizes that being the face of the franchise and thehighest-paid player (12 years, $115 million) on a club notorious forjettisoning pricey older veterans doesn't help matters. (Two teammates say anunderlying reason why players didn't rebuke Owens was T.O.'s outspokencriticism of the Eagles' payroll philosophy.) "If people see me as kind ofhip to hip with management," McNabb says, "there's nothing I can doabout 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 thecriticism when things don't go right: the head coach and thequarterback."
The obsessivecarping belies McNabb's standing among the NFL's best quarterbacks. He enteredthe 2006 season with the highest winning percentage (.682) among active NFLquarterbacks with at least 80 starts. He leads all active quarterbacks intouchdown-to-interception margin (144--70) and is second only to Steve Young inNFL history in that category. His seven playoff victories are third-most amongactive quarterbacks behind Brett Favre and Tom Brady. Such achievements are allthe more impressive considering McNabb's supporting cast: From 2000 through '03the Eagles won at least 11 regular-season games a year featuring the likes ofrunning back Darnell Autry and wideouts Torrance Small, Todd Pinkston and JamesThrash. "No other quarterback in the league has done more with less,"says Seahawks pro personnel director Will Lewis. "Those guys are solidreceivers--and that's the best you can give them."
As an NFL analystfor ESPN, former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski has seen every pass inMcNabb's NFL career, either live or on tape, and he finds the persistentcriticisms of McNabb mystifying. "I really can't give you an answer,"Jaworski says. "Donovan has always done everything the right way. He's theTiger Woods of the NFL: He has a great family; he has never screwed up off thefield. Those guys always deserve the benefit of the doubt. But for whateverreason, Donovan doesn't get it."
All the morepuzzling is that McNabb is a force on Madison Avenue. One of the league's mostmarketable 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 thosecompanies, a gregariousness also evident in his interactions with his fellowEagles. His spot-on impersonations of Reid before meetings prompt teammates tocrack up when the coach comes in to begin a session. In the locker room he'llkeeps things loose by skewering Brown for his garish sneakers or flexing hismuscles at Smith to show off his lower body fat. ("Yeah, you see it! Get alittle work in and you'll get to be eight percent.") On the field he'llease tension with a one-liner in the huddle and even smile and wink at anopposing defensive back creeping up to the line to blitz.
McNabb describeshis relationship with Philadelphia and its fans as a "work inprogress." True, he has more postseason victories than any otherquarterback in club history, but there's one big win that's missing.
Philadelphia'slast championship in a major sport was the 76ers' NBA title in 1983. The cityhas given its brotherly love to such heroes as Dr. J and former All-Prolinebacker Bill Bergey. But the experiences of Jaworski and Randall Cunningham,McNabb's star predecessors, illustrate just how harsh Philadelphia can betoward its QBs, who are judged by their last game--or pass. Not until afterthey retired did Jaworski or Cunningham receive unconditional love from theEagles faithful. "I couldn't change it; Randall couldn't change it,"Jaworski says. "And Donovan McNabb isn't going to change it. To dispel anymyth about his ability, it would probably take a championship."
A Super Bowl mayseem a long shot for a 5--4 team, but McNabb, the most beleaguered greatquarterback of his generation, knows how to approach the stretch run. "Youask, 'Why the criticism?'" he says. "But do you come up with ananswer?"
He pauses. Thesilence hangs, and in it McNabb has all the answer he needs, or will ever get.He grins and replies firmly, "So the only way of handling it is beingyourself."
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All of McNabb's tools-- the cannon arm, the nimble scrambling, the pocketpoise--have been on display this season.
After three straight losses, McNabb and the Eagles turned to a more balancedattack to beat the Redskins.
Talk-radio sniping aside, Philadelphia's NFL title hopes rest on theshoulders--and arm--of its quarterback.