Seismic activity, both literal and figurative, barely rattled a napping Donovan McNabb. On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, as tremors from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Baja California shuddered north, wobbling his Phoenix home, he did not stir. And when cellphones then shivered in concert, all trying to inform McNabb of another major shift that had just occurred, he did not wake. Finally his father, Sam, had to prod Donovan out of the postbrunch slumber so that the greatest quarterback in Eagles history could hear the news: After 11 years in Philadelphia, he was now a Washington Redskin. "The first thing I thought," McNabb matter-of-factly recalls, "was, Well, obviously, it's over."
This is an article from the Aug. 30, 2010 issue
It's a summer scorcher in Ashburn, Va., and McNabb, 33, has alighted upon a couch in his new team's burgundy-hued headquarters. To anyone with an understanding of recent NFL history, the scene is surreal. Even now, four months after he was dealt for a second-round pick in 2010 (Philly took South Florida safety Nate Allen) and a third- or fourth-rounder in 2011, McNabb's coworkers haven't fully come to terms with the intradivisional changeup. "It's shocking," Skins linebacker Andre Carter says. "But we were all like, We'll take him!" Even McNabb's mother, Wilma, recently confessed that she felt Donovan looked "very strange" wearing Skins colors. Beltway fans who once lit McNabb jerseys on fire in the FedEx Field parking have now taken to calling him the Franchise.
Within hours of getting the news, McNabb was in Ashburn, where his inaugural press conference was set for noon the next day. His former antagonists found him lifting weights in the facility's first-floor gym that morning. "You think, Did they let him go because he's older? Past his prime?" tight end Chris Cooley says. "Then you come in here and he's repping out 315 [pounds] on a bench. And you're like, yeah, O.K., this guy's a stud."
For McNabb, who loves the weight room, strength has never been the hard part. Instead—in implicit recognition of his Philly critics and the youth of his receiving corps in Washington—McNabb chose to spend the bulk of the off-season "getting back to basics," he says. He purchased a new set of movable throwing targets, with adjustable heights, to strop his accuracy. He focused on fundamentals, like footwork and timing, in addition to the skills required of any quarterback under new Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, like rolling out and throwing on the run.
Fueling him, quietly, was a series of text messages that had poured in from the NFL's quarterback fraternity—Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning—after the trade was announced. The sentiment was universal: I never thought it would happen to you.
In all his time in Denver, Shanahan never had occasion to get to know McNabb. "But I knew Donovan was a natural leader," Shanahan says. "He could make plays when nothing was there. He could make plays with his feet." On a recent afternoon, stationed at the desk in his office in Ashburn, Shanahan is presented with the logical question: Is his new quarterback, the face of the remade Redskins, still that playmaker?
Before signing off on the trade, Shanahan pored over tape from last season. He came away impressed with McNabb's mobility, however latent (he hasn't rushed for more than 240 yards since 2003), and arm strength, which was "off the charts." The Redskins also talked to former teammates to "find out what type of guy Donovan was," says G.M. George Allen. The reviews glowed.
"When I went to Denver, John Elway was older than Donovan [is now]," Shanahan says. "When we won a Super Bowl in San Francisco"—Shanahan was offensive coordinator under George Seifert—"Steve Young was very close to the same age as Donovan." The Redskins' playbook, Shanahan pledges, will run the gamut of drop-backs, quarterback keeps, play-action passes and more. In camp he's already watched McNabb, yellow jersey hiked up to the midriff, run play-action and bomb the ball 70 yards in team drills.
It all stands in sharp contrast to last season in Washington. Redskins brass won't speak ill of Jason Campbell (now in Oakland), but the players are almost giddy about the upgrade. McNabb, they've found, is charismatic and vocal. He high-fives coaches. He jokes around with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in film sessions. He works out like a maniac. He inspires confidence in young players. "It's just a different kind of leadership," safety Reed Doughty says. "We know Donovan's going to make big-time throws, and we really need some of those. Going into that last drive, it'd be nice to have guys feeling confident that we're going to pull this thing out."
Adds receiver Devin Thomas, who spent a week working out with McNabb and fellow wideouts Malcolm Kelly, Santana Moss and Bobby Wade in Phoenix in July, "I remember playing the Eagles the last couple years and thinking, Man, these guys are lucky that they got a guy like McNabb. . . . He's got everything."
Everything, of course, except a Super Bowl ring. And despite a love-hate relationship with Philly that often spun like a rusty turnstile, McNabb would have preferred to have woken up from his nap with the world still in order. He didn't want to win his first title anywhere but the city he represented at six Pro Bowls, five NFC title games and a Super Bowl, and where he holds every significant team passing record. McNabb and Andy Reid had been together longer than all but three quarterback-coach pairs in modern NFL history. "Eleven years," McNabb admits, "isn't something you can forget over a week, a day, a night."
Not that he wants to. He declines to detail any particular reveries of vengeance (of his return to Philly on Oct. 3, he says simply, "I'm looking forward to it"), but he will mention another text, this one from Peyton Manning. What did it say? "More or less," McNabb says, calmly, "it was, 'Make 'em pay.' If they're willing to go out on a limb and do that, make 'em pay."
In other words: Make sure the Eagles and their fans never forget Donovan McNabb.