Rich Hofmann | HEALTHY LATITUDE

If there's a gap between McNabb, Eagles, closing it involves being physically sound and leading team toward Super Bowl

Posted: May 10, 2007

YES, THERE is this perceived distance now between Donovan McNabb and the Eagles. It is true and it is real and it is different. The relationship is evolving, through the years and through the drafting of Kevin Kolb, his presumed successor as the franchise's quarterback. It is all so. The background music is, indeed, changing.

You can say that without turning it into more than it is, though. Because as McNabb himself said, when asked if he wanted to be traded, "I'm happy with where I'm at."

In the day after McNabb's media blitz, the search is for some context, some balance. Because, yes, it was newsworthy that McNabb chose to step away from the club and its boundaries to give a series of interviews to local reporters for the first time in 6 months. Yes, it was a big public shift. But, no, it was not the end of anyone's world.

We have miles to go here, even if McNabb is wrong about his hope to keep Kolb holding a clipboard into the next decade. The overall imperatives for McNabb have not changed - to get healthy and to get back to the

Super Bowl.

That he cannot make a move in this town without it being criticized by some and analyzed by all has become a given. Yet he says he does not seek a fresh start elsewhere. Sitting there on Tuesday, talking easily about all kind of things, McNabb said he was not interested in turning the page on Philadelphia and the Eagles and trying to write a new beginning.

"The grass is not always greener everywhere else," McNabb said. "I've talked to players who have gone everywhere else or who left here and went to another team and it really didn't pan out for them.

"That's something that you don't focus on. My focus, again, is to get us to the Super Bowl . . . to win a Super Bowl, kind of unfinished business from 2004. That's what I am looking forward to. That's my focus."

To repeat: All of the original imperatives remain in place. McNabb needs to get healthy again and McNabb needs to find his consistency again. It has become shorthand-gospel that McNabb "was having a Pro Bowl season" before he tore up his knee in Game 10 against Tennessee, but it just isn't true. McNabb was having a Pro Bowl season in the first five games last year, and he wasn't having a Pro Bowl season after that.

When he struggles, it can be so confounding. It happens in games, or in stretches of games, and it's so hard to figure out why. You can't tell if it's physical, or if it's a kind of mental fatigue, or what. But it has happened in several seasons.

The common result, after it plays out for a while, is a redrawing of the game plan by coach Andy Reid and a renewed emphasis on running the football. People did not want to recognize it last season, but the Eagles started running the ball more before Jeff Garcia came in to replace McNabb after the knee injury. That decision had already been made, forced by the way McNabb and the offense cooled off so precipitously after their hot start.

Logic would suggest, as McNabb tries to get his legs under him this fall, that the emphasis on the running game will continue. The drafting of Penn State running back Tony Hunt would suggest the potential return of the three-headed monster offense that was implemented in 2003, after another McNabb struggle. Back then, it was Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook sharing an increased load at running back. This time, it could be Westbrook, Buckhalter and Hunt.

Asked about all of that - whether or not it made sense to keep running the ball as he eased back into the game - McNabb talked in a big circle but didn't answer, something at which he has become accomplished over the years.

Still, he did acknowledge that he has talked to people in the game about returning from a serious knee injury like his, and that he has received a variety of responses, including, "I've heard you don't really feel healthy for a year."

That is the issue, right there. McNabb needs to deal with that knee and he needs to be good on the field and he needs to do both of those things simultaneously and quickly - and he knows it. He has been hurt seriously three times in five seasons, and that hangs over everything (as does Kolb).

Asked if he worried that the club thought he was one more injury away from the end, McNabb said, "No, I don't worry about that. I can't speak for anybody else, but I don't. I don't."

He should. Because another injury really will signal a significant change in the relationship between Donovan McNabb and the Eagles, much more than a media session in May. *

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hofmanr@phillynews.com.

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