Rich Hofmann | Is the old No. 5 gone forever?

Posted: September 17, 2007

IS IT RUST or is it rigor? That is the question, as we all watch Donovan McNabb take his first tentative steps into his ninth National Football League season. He doesn't know the answer, not really. None of us does.

The Eagles could have won their first game at Green Bay - could have won, would have won if not for wretched punt returning, coulda, woulda, shoulda, etc. - but they did not get winning quarterback play from McNabb. I'm a big fan. I think the guy is the best quarterback in the history of the franchise. But as he prepares for his 100th start tonight with the Eagles, anyone with eyes could see that No. 99 was lacking. It just was.

Some of it was understandable enough, like his shyness about running past the line of scrimmage. We all have to be able to understand why McNabb would not yet want to unfurl some of those long, full strides and begin the gallop downfield.

It is not 2001 anymore, and hasn't been for a while. He has had three major lower-body injuries since 2003 - the broken leg, the sports hernia, and the major knee repair from which he currently is returning. That and the certain knowledge that running never has equaled winning in the NFL all have combined to keep McNabb on his side of the line of scrimmage.

"I felt that I could get it downfield," he said the other day, when asked about his seeming hesitancy about running. "You want to stay a passer first, and if nothing's there, then you pick up yards. When I would have to move in the pocket, you still keep your eyes downfield. If nothing's there, then you pick up yards. I tried to do that a couple of times. If that means for me now to take off quicker, that eventually will happen. Again, you want to continue to stay a passer, keep your eyes downfield, and give the guys an opportunity to break free, and you'll be able to complete a pass."

But here is the problem: The Eagles got nothing done after McNabb left the pocket. Really, nothing. His game has always been as he just described, buying time and buying more time and then making something happen. But the Green Bay game fell spectacularly short of that vision.

His in-the-pocket numbers were weak enough: 14-for-30 for 175 yards and a touchdown. His out-of-the-pocket numbers were oddly limited and just bad: 1-for-3 for 9 yards and an interception, the only completion being a little dumpoff to Brian Westbrook in the fourth quarter.

He made nothing happen with his legs, not running, not buying time. And then, this week, he admitted the obvious: that the explosiveness, the burst, wasn't yet there following the knee surgery.

"Well, the explosion is not where it was when I was healthy, but it will get there again eventually," McNabb said. "At this point, you wouldn't expect it to be to the point of where you were when you were healthy. I still can get out of the pocket. I still can cut and do all that, but as far as that explosion is concerned, that's not where it was before."

But there were other oddities, too. For instance, McNabb was really ineffective when working to the left side of the field. Even giving him credit for the touchdown pass to Jason Avant, which was about 2 feet to the left of where the ball was snapped, these are the numbers on that side of the field: 3-for-10 for 54 yards. Three of the incompletions were batted down at the line by Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, and one was a dropped interception by safety Nick Collins.

What does all of this mean for the future? Just an oddity of the day? Just a good game by Packers corner Al Harris? Something more? None of us knows. We are all playing for time here, watching, waiting, wondering.

Is this rust or is it something more? Will McNabb have to be like the power pitcher, later in his career, who becomes craftier in order to survive? Or will the rust fall off in regular order here? And what happens while we are all waiting to find out? *

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hofmanr@phillynews.com.

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