Pasted below is the column I wrote in Tuesday’s Pocono Record on Donovan McNabb, who retired as a Philadelphia Eagle on Monday and will have his No. 5 retired on Sept. 19. Enjoy.
Donovan McNabb will never be the most popular athlete in Philadelphia, but there’s no question that he is the best quarterback in Eagles history.
Forget the boos, controversies with teammates and commentators and his nonchalant attitude. McNabb did for the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia what no quarterback did before or since.
One of the most polarizing figures in the annals of the city’s rich sports history, no quarterback in team history achieved more. McNabb, who will have his number 5 retired on Sept. 19, holds 11 records and led the Eagles to the most regular-season victories (91) and playoff wins (nine) by a quarterback. All other Eagles quarterbacks combined for 10 playoff wins.
But the relationship between McNabb and the Eagles’ passionate fans didn’t get off to the best start.
Reid chose McNabb with his first draft pick, taking him with the second selection in 1999, but he was greeted with boos during what should have been the signature moment of his athletic career. Led by Philadelphia mayor and season ticket holder Ed Rendell, the fans wanted Texas running back Ricky Williams, but Lurie revealed Monday that the choice would have been Miami running back Edgerrin James had McNabb not blown them away during the draft process.
It didn’t take long to change the fans’ minds.
By his second season, McNabb almost single-handedly led the Eagles to the playoffs after they had gone 8-24 the previous two seasons.
In 2001, the Eagles began a run of four straight NFC East titles, but it also started a stretch of coming up short when it mattered most.
A week after leading the Eagles to a victory over the Bears in his hometown of Chicago, McNabb’s interception in the final minute against St. Louis sealed the first of three straight losses in the NFC Championship game.
McNabb returned for the playoffs in 2002 after breaking his leg in Week 11, but he was rusty and the Eagles laid an egg in a 27-10 loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship game which was also the last game at Veterans Stadium.
Lincoln Financial Field opened the next season, but the Eagles got off to an 0-2 start and McNabb was criticized by Rush Limbaugh, who said “the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” McNabb and the Eagles bounced back, winning 12 of their last 14 games, but a week after a fourth-and-26 conversion helped the Eagles rally to beat Green Bay, he threw three interceptions and broke a rib in a 14-3 loss to Carolina in the NFC Championship game.
After a career of throwing to second- and third-rate wide receivers, the Eagles finally gave McNabb a top-flight option when they traded for Terrell Owens in 2004 and the two hit it off immediately. The Eagles looked primed to finally reach the biggest game of the season and the fourth time was the charm when Philadelphia beat Atlanta (without Owens, who had broken his leg in early December) in the NFC Championship game a day after a blizzard dumped nearly two feet of snow on Philadelphia.
McNabb and the Eagles had reached the pinnacle, but again couldn’t get the job done. McNabb threw three interceptions and the Eagles took too much time on their second-to-last possession (there were reports McNabb threw up, but he said that was “a myth”) and lost 24-21 to New England.
The relationship with Owens began to break when he said, “I’m not the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl,” during the offseason. By the time training camp rolled around, McNabb and Owens were not speaking and trading barbs through the press. At one point, Reid kicked Owens out of practice only to see the enigmatic receiver do shirtless sit-ups in his driveway while surrounded by the media. Owens played through Week 8 before the Eagles suspended him for the reason of the season.
That was the beginning of the end for McNabb in Philadelphia.
He played 2005 with a sports hernia before it became too much in Week 10. He put up MVP numbers early in 2006 before tearing the ACL in his right knee in Week 11. McNabb returned in time for the 2007 season, but clearly wasn’t healthy and the Eagles missed the playoffs at 8-8.
McNabb was up-and-down in 2008, when he didn’t know a game could end in a tie during a 13-13 stinker against Cincinnati, before being benched at halftime against Baltimore in Week 12. He bounced back to lead the Eagles to the playoffs, where they fell for a fourth time in the NFC Championship game in a loss to Arizona.
The Eagles had a chance to win another division title in 2009, but McNabb and the team played poorly in the season finale against Dallas and the Cowboys ended their season in the wild-card round the following week when McNabb played an air guitar as he walked out of the tunnel before the game.
McNabb’s Eagles career ended on Easter 2010, when Reid traded him to Washington for draft picks. McNabb won in his return to Philadelphia, but was so bad with the Redskins that they traded him to Minnesota the next year. He was benched after 1-5 start and released by the Vikings that December.
McNabb maintained he wasn’t retiring, but admitted Monday that teams were only interested in him being a backup.
Being second string and moving his family around wasn’t appealing for McNabb. What he can take comfort in is his well-deserved place in Eagles history.