Training Of Donovan Mcnabb Is Going On Backstage The Staff Works Hard With The Rookie. But The Main Focus Will Always Be On The Starting Qb During The Season.

Posted: September 17, 1999

Though the apprenticeship of Donovan McNabb has moved behind the scenes, it remains every bit as intense. Maybe more so.

"The whole coaching staff gets with Donovan," offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower said. "We get a strobe and we shine that bright light on him and we make him sweat."

Dowhower was kidding about giving McNabb the third degree, but there is a second-degree urgency in the Eagles' continuing training of their first-round draft pick. The first degree is dedicated to the weekly task of game planning and preparing the team for the next game.

"It's not easy," Dowhower said. "If you want somebody to progress, you have to push them. It may not be their comfort zone, but they have to develop a new comfort zone. You could say that about our whole team, our whole offense. You're going from this level and you have to push it and you have to keep going on."

In Cleveland, No. 1 pick Tim Couch is preparing to make his first career start this weekend. Browns coach Chris Palmer, who traded ideas and opinions on quarterback development with Andy Reid during a meeting on Cape Cod in July, decided it was time for Couch to take the next step. Of course, Palmer had to factor an ugly, 43-0 loss to Pittsburgh into his decision to start Couch in place of Ty Detmer.

The Eagles are holding back, although they are essentially developing two quarterbacks on parallel tracks. Doug Pederson is further down the line than McNabb in his knowledge of the offense, but is still learning how to be a starter.

McNabb has played a lot more football over the last few years than Pederson and has never been anything but a starter, but he is learning to master a complex offense.

With Couch starting, the coaches can focus all their attention on him. With Pederson starting, and getting all the practice reps a starter needs to prepare himself, the Eagles' offensive coaches are multitasking like a Pentium II chip. There is the game looming on Sunday, and then there is the future of the franchise standing over there watching the first team practice.

"There are two parts to it," Dowhower said. "One is our part. We have to get him as many reps as we can. Most of the pressure is on Donovan. Even though he's not involved as much as he was [in the preseason], he still has to take in what we give him, study and be prepared to utilize it. This offense is not one where you cut back the plays. You have to have a full repertoire going into each game. It's his responsibility to know that now."

After spending his career as a backup to the likes of Brett Favre and Dan Marino, Pederson knows all too well what happens when the preseason ends. The starter is prepped and coached and fine-tuned as much as possible. The backup has to be ready to play, but without all those advantages.

"I can relate to exactly what Donovan is going through right now," Pederson said. "In training camp, you're in there getting a lot of snaps, a lot of playing time. Then bam! Your reps diminish, your playing time diminishes. And yet they expect that, if something happens, you'll go in there and execute as if you'd been getting all the reps. There's no letup.

"From his perspective, that's where the mental preparation comes in - being on top of the game plan and knowing Tampa Bay's defense inside and out, as if he was starting the football game. When you get all the reps, you're exposed to all the looks Tampa Bay, or any defense, can give you. You see things a little easier on game day. From his perspective, things become a little harder."

As a veteran backup, Pederson was left on his own much more than McNabb has been. Quarterbacks coach Brad Childress spends a lot of time with McNabb. He works with Pederson and Koy Detmer, too, but McNabb's development is his primary responsibility. That's one of the reasons Reid brought Pederson in, because he doesn't require a lot of coaching on the fundamentals of the offense. He already knows them.

For Pederson, the challenge is different. He has to apply what he knows on the field, at full speed, with teammates who are still learning the offense and with fans not especially well known for patience.

For the first time in his career, Pederson played an entire NFL game, watched his performance film, learned what he needs to improve upon and began to apply those lessons in preparation for the next game. It sounds like a little thing, but it isn't. It's all part of becoming a starting quarterback.

"You live and learn," Pederson said. "But you'd better learn fast. When you're the quarterback, your number is called on every play. That part of it is new to me. I'm in that role, in that spotlight. I think each week should get a little better. The first half, I personally played pretty good. In the second half, I missed some opportunities, definitely."

Dowhower seconded Reid's assessment of Pederson's performance. It wasn't brilliant, but it should have been enough to get the Eagles out of the Arizona game with a win. If Brian Finneran had held on to Pederson's last pass, they probably would have done just that.

"In a critical situation," Dowhower said, "that throw was as good as he could make it. I don't see anybody throwing that any better. I think he did a lot of good things in that game. The ability to communicate the plays, and what we're trying to do, is a very important part of this operation. It's a matter of experience for him. I look for him to keep getting better and better and develop more consistency."

As Pederson moves down his personal track, McNabb is moving along, too. Each week, he is responsible for the entire game plan, including any new plays the coaches add to the mix. By soaking up each game plan, McNabb is preparing to play in case Pederson is hurt or Reid decides to make a change. But he's also gradually getting the hang of the offense's nuances and subtleties.

"Do we add a lot of new plays in a given week?" Dowhower said. "Not usually, but there's enough to challenge you. He has to do that to be prepared to play and also to learn this offense. It adds up on a weekly basis. At the end of 16 games, there's going to be quite a volume. Then, if he plays, he can draw upon that."

It's more a question of when McNabb plays than if. That's the unspoken reality. Reid has said all along that the decision will be his and will be based on his "feel" for McNabb's readiness. Reid will get that feel behind the scenes, during practice and in the meeting rooms.

That's where the apprenticeship of Donovan McNabb is taking place.

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