In Class of '99 QBs, McNabb stands out

Running back Ricky Williams, above, throwing a stiff arm, was the choice of Eagles fans on draft day in 1999. When the Birds picked quarterback Donovan McNabb instead they booed. Former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, below, was shocked by the fans' reaction.
Running back Ricky Williams, above, throwing a stiff arm, was the choice of Eagles fans on draft day in 1999. When the Birds picked quarterback Donovan McNabb instead they booed. Former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, below, was shocked by the fans' reaction.
Posted: April 19, 2009

Akili Smith was there, sitting in the audience at New York's Madison Square Garden, when commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the announcement:

With the second pick in the 1999 NFL draft, the Philadelphia Eagles select quarterback Donovan McNabb, Syracuse.

Reaction from the gang of green-shirted fans standing in the balcony was immediate and unmistakable: a vitriolic mixture of boos and expletives.

"It was kind of shocking to me," Smith said last week from his home in Southern California. "I knew the numbers Donovan put up at Syracuse. I knew he was a great player, and he obviously still is a great player. Those fans wanted Ricky Williams, and they didn't know how talented Donovan McNabb was. To this day, I'm not sure that they know."

A decade has passed since that infamous day in Eagles history. Hindsight has created a clear picture of the first-round picks in that 1999 draft. You can debate whether McNabb, 32, will ever win a Super Bowl in Philadelphia, but it is difficult to argue that the Eagles made the wrong choice.

Barring a shocking development, McNabb will begin his 11th season in Philadelphia when the Eagles open the 2009 season Sept. 13 against the Carolina Panthers. McNabb played in five Pro Bowls, five NFC championship games, and one Super Bowl. Most other members of the first-round Class of 1999 wish they had such success.

Only two of the 31 players taken in that draft play with the teams that selected them.

One is Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse, who returned to the Titans last season after being released by the Eagles.

McNabb is the other, but he is the only player of the 31 first-round picks in that draft who has remained with one team for his entire career.

Tim Couch was the first pick in 1999, going to the Cleveland Browns, with Smith following McNabb to the stage. McNabb is the only one of the three to participate in a playoff game.

Daunte Culpepper was the fourth quarterback chosen, 11th overall, by Minnesota. Cade McNown was taken 12th by Chicago. Only Culpepper also remains in the league, although he's now with the Detroit Lions, which is as close as you can get to being out of the NFL without being banished. With nine playoff wins, McNabb has seven more than the combined total of the four other quarterbacks taken in the first round in 1999.

Seventeen of the 1999 first-rounders are no longer on an NFL roster.

That's not to say McNabb was the best player overall selected in the 1999 draft, because there were some great ones. Cornerback Champ Bailey, taken seventh by the Redskins and now with the Denver Broncos, has been to eight Pro Bowls. Torry Holt, taken sixth by St. Louis, has been to seven Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl as a rookie with the Rams. Several others have won Super Bowl rings, either as starters or reserves.

Williams, the object of desire by those green-clad fans a decade ago, has been perhaps the most fascinating story of the 1999 draft, starting with the blockbuster trade that landed him in New Orleans on draft day. Since then, he has been traded to Miami, retired, been suspended for failing drug tests, and played in the Canadian Football League. At 31, he's still playing and he had a pretty good season last year.

Smith, now the quarterbacks coach at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., also has the benefit of hindsight when he thinks about the rude welcome McNabb received from Philadelphia fans a decade ago.

"At the time, I had talked to Andy Reid, and I knew I wasn't going to Philadelphia," Smith said. "Because of the situation that occurred that day, I was happy about it, but now, looking back, I wish I would have gone to Philadelphia."

Smith, who started just 17 career games with the Bengals, said McNabb was fortunate to land with a quality organization that gave him time to learn before throwing him into the NFL fire.

"That part is just so important," Smith said. "When you're a young quarterback, you need that chance to sit and develop, and you need an organization that is doing everything right. You don't want to have to deal with a bunch of obstacles like I did."

The Bengals were led for years by one of the NFL's innovators, Paul Brown, but more recently have been plagued by coaching turnover, thin budgets for scouting and training facilities, and off-field problems.

When asked whether McNabb could have succeeded in Cincinnati, Smith was only sure that he wishes he had been the quarterback booed in New York City a decade ago.

"Donovan is a tremendous player, and I'm not saying he wouldn't have done well in Cincinnati," Smith said. "But look at all the players who have been drafted by Cincinnati and how many of them have had success with the way it was there. I know when times have been bad [in Philadelphia], they've wanted his neck, and they've wanted to bring in another quarterback. But if I could trade places with him, I definitely would."


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com

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