Before the start of Eagles training camp, Donovan McNabb invited several of his younger teammates to the desert oasis of Scottsdale, Ariz., for a series of workouts far from the sometimes withering glare of the Philadelphia populace. Their nights were occupied by barbecues, their days spent shuttling through a maze of drills, the most memorable involving McNabb and a bench press loaded with 400 pounds.
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2009 issue
As his legs hovered in the air, not providing any support, McNabb pushed the weight bar off the rack, brought it down to his chest and then pressed it five times, to the kind of supportive cheering he often finds elusive in Philadelphia.
Toward the end of the trip fullback Leonard Weaver, who'd left the Seahawks to sign with Philly as a free agent in the off-season, asked McNabb how in the world he'd accomplished what he had—not the feat of brute strength but his survival as a quarterback in a city that in seconds can go, as Weaver says, from "'I love you!' to 'You freakin' suck!'"
"When I signed with the Eagles, that was one of the things that kind of bothered me," says Weaver, who over the summer joined Philly receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant in Scottsdale. "Donovan knows there are people out there talking bad about him. We talked about it. Same with Andy Reid. He's one of the winningest coaches in the NFL, and it seems like nothing is ever good enough. I understand the fans' side—'You're not consistent'—but the fans have to have faith."
It is another autumn in Philadelphia, and faith is fragile. The Eagles once again are giving the town moments of magic and fits of frustration in a bid to win the championship that has eluded the franchise for 49 years. On Sunday, in a game in which the home crowd at Lincoln Financial Field booed McNabb incompletions and even a Reid timeout, the Eagles earned a wild 27--24 victory over the Redskins that seemed to encompass the highs and lows of the quarterback's and the coach's 11 seasons together in Philadelphia.
Reid opened the game with an onside kick that failed, staking the Redskins offense to a short field, an opportunity Washington quickly turned into a touchdown. But the Eagles' coach also went for a fourth-and-one in the first quarter at the Washington 42, which led to a Philly touchdown three plays later. McNabb was alternately shaky and brilliant, stalling on three straight three-and-outs in the third quarter, then rallying the Eagles to their second come-from-behind win in as many weeks.
McNabb led the charge without his most trusted offensive weapon, Brian Westbrook, who was out with a concussion, and he lost the explosive Jackson to a concussion midway through the third quarter. Soon after, with the Eagles down 24--16 in the fourth quarter, the quarterback gathered his summer workout partners on the sideline and told them they were going to score, and they were going to win.
"The one thing I tried to express to the guys in the off-season and display during the season was that I'm going to give you an opportunity to make a play," McNabb said after the game. "When you have rookies and young guys, you have to [be vocal]. It's my job, and I take pride in it."
Says Weaver, "There's no doubt, back in the summer, when we were in the heat together and struggling together, that's where we developed a sense of trust."
If the bonds of trust are strong within the Eagles' locker room, they are fraying out on the street, where a city has watched the recent editions of its football team compete with the best but never be the best. By most measures Reid is the most accomplished coach in franchise history and McNabb its greatest quarterback, yet their story in Philadelphia is seen as one of shortcomings as much as success. Among active coaches with at least 100 NFL games, only Bill Belichick (.708) has a better winning percentage than Reid's (.612). Among active quarterbacks with at least 100 starts, only Peyton Manning (.684) and Tom Brady (.776) have a higher winning percentage than McNabb's (.646). The Eagles have finished under .500 just twice in Reid's and McNabb's tenure—in their rookie year of 1999 and in 2005, when McNabb missed the final seven games with a sports hernia. They have been to five NFC Championship Games together and one Super Bowl. And yet it is remarkable how winning can turn stale when the ultimate prize remains elusive.
"The town is tired of both of them," says Angelo Cataldi, who hosts the morning-drive show on Philadelphia's 610 WIP Sports Radio. "A national perspective might be that we're not grateful for having good teams for a decade, but it's the same story over and over. It's Andy Reid giving the same rote answer to the same questions, it's McNabb being a talented guy who will never win the big game, and [the fans] know it. This is as uninspired a city as I've ever seen toward its football team, and I've been doing this for 20 years. They're sick of the act. They want it to be over."
The morning after the Eagles' 31--23 loss in San Diego on Nov. 15, a game marked by breakdowns in the red zone and burned timeouts, Cataldi fielded call after call from fans on a virtual ledge.
From Robert: Insanity is doing the same thing week in and week out, year after year. We are insane. Can't manage the clock. Can't get one yard in an NFL playoff game. This team is ridiculous. This regime must go.
And Steve: I put blame on Andy Reid. You're the guy that let [tackles] Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan go.
And Franco: This is a baseball town now, and [Reid] is the guy that did it to us.
"It's fair to ask the question—and a lot of people are asking it—is Andy Reid Chuck Knox or Marty Schottenheimer, or is he Tony Dungy, Tom Coughlin or Bill Cowher?" says Ray Didinger, a writer and football analyst for Comcast Sports and a Philadelphia native. "Next year will be 50 years since this team won a championship. There are 11 Lombardi Trophies in the NFC East—three in New York, three in Washington, five in Dallas, zero in Philadelphia. What the fans want is what everybody else has.
"When the fans get frustrated, they get frustrated both with Andy as the coach of the offense and Donovan as the centerpiece of the offense," Didinger adds. "It's impossible to separate them. The picture you draw for each guy is the same. Andy has set every team coaching record. Donovan will break or has broken every team [passing] record. But it does seem hollow without a championship."
Much of the history of the NFL is defined by coach-quarterback unions, those that netted championships and those that missed. By its nature, a combination that endures for a decade must be a winning one, but that doesn't always mean the pair is piling up trophies (box, page 72).
"You have to have a good relationship because you're spending so much time together in meetings and watching film and talking about the philosophy of the team," says Dan Marino, the Hall of Fame quarterback and CBS analyst who spent 13 seasons in Miami with Don Shula. "Being in the same system for so many years can backfire because an offense needs to change according to personnel, but Coach Shula was always supporting me as a player by getting me the right talent. Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb have been to a Super Bowl and five championship games. That's something I can't say about my 13 years with Coach Shula. At times people get spoiled with your performance, but I'm sure Andy and Donovan have higher expectations than any fans have."
In Philadelphia it can be hard to tell. "When you saw an Eagles fan on the street, it was always, "Why are we doing this?" says Vikings receiver Greg Lewis, who spent six years in Philly. "It's as if they thought they were out there with you."
But how much longer will the fans participate in a show with the same ending? Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and president Joe Banner have long supported Reid, who's in the penultimate year of a contract that will almost certainly be extended before the 2010 season. (Banner declined SI's interview request but told Comcast earlier this year he was "sure" Reid would get a new deal.)
Despite the hardship of seeing two of their sons arrested on drug charges two years ago, "Andy and [his wife] Tammy love Philadelphia—it's been the longest stop in their marriage and in their whole adult lives," says Vai Sikahema, who attended BYU with the Reids and played for the Eagles. "Andy is very aware of his place in Eagles history. He also recognizes that if he doesn't win a championship, despite the enormous success he's had, [his tenure] will be considered a failure by Philadelphians."
The same standard applies to McNabb, who had the final two years of his contract restructured in June to give him a raise, but he didn't get the additional years he sought. His legacy in Philadelphia is also yet to be determined. At 33 he is eight months younger than Peyton Manning, but while Manning's status in Indianapolis is never in doubt, McNabb's relationship with Eagles fans seems to change from snap to snap, and his future in Philly has been a matter of much debate.
Speculation became heated when the Eagles drafted Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb in the second round in 2007. The discussion resurfaced last season when Reid benched McNabb in favor of Kolb during a loss to the Ravens, and it bubbled up once more when Philly signed Michael Vick in August.
"I've always said I would like to retire here, but that's not going to be in two years," said McNabb, who points to Brett Favre and Vinny Testaverde as examples of players whose longevity he admires. "My main focus, as well as [Reid's], is on what we have to do in these next two years, and we feel like, with the guys we have in this locker room, we can get the job done."
Asked in June if McNabb would be his starter in 2009 and '10, Reid said, "I think we have the best quarterback in the National Football League. I've said that many times. I'm very partial to Donovan and respect him for the things he's done. That's the important part."
In the two years since Kolb was drafted, Reid and Banner have blessed McNabb with the most talented set of skill position players of his 11-year tenure. Last year they drafted Jackson, a speedster out of Cal, who brought the kind of deep threat the Eagles lost when Terrell Owens left following the 2005 season. This year they selected Maclin, a versatile receiver out of Missouri who can beat defensive backs down the sideline and over the middle, and Pitt running back LeSean McCoy, who shares many of Westbrook's skills, with his shiftiness and his good hands out of the backfield. Weaver is a wrecking ball of a fullback, able both to block and to earn the tough yards the Eagles have sometimes been unable to get in short-yardage situations.
It is through the youth movement that McNabb is finding his voice. "He's the man; he's taking control of this team, putting it on his back," Maclin says. "He's the guy to take us where we want to go."
Adds backup running back Eldra Buckley, another 2009 newcomer, who scored on a one-yard touchdown run against the Redskins in the fourth quarter, "In the locker room we know how much he means to us, and I think for him that's all that matters."
What matters to the rest of Philly, though, is whether the Eagles have what it takes to play into February, a hurdle they've made just once under Reid and McNabb. At 7--4 they're a game behind the Cowboys in the division, with five to play. The season finale? At Dallas on Jan. 3.
After the Redskins game, Reid pointed to McNabb's animated speech to his young charges as evidence of his quarterback's leadership and the team's resolve, but such pronouncements won't excite a town that now defines championship mettle in Phillies red rather than Eagles green. Only a winter victory parade will validate the years of waiting and the spilled sweat of a Scottsdale summer.
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Let's Stay Together
In the postwar NFL, 11 coach-quarterback pairings have endured for a decade or longer, and only three have outlasted the Eagles' Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb. The Philadelphia tandem, though, shares a dubious distinction with three other enduring duos—Don Shula--Dan Marino, Marv Levy--Jim Kelly and Dan Reeves--John Elway: All four have failed to win an NFL title.