Fair or not, McNabb to be judged heavily

Quarterback Donovan McNabb has built a great deal of loyalty in some quarters and has put up admirable numbers this season, but critics question his ability to rise to the occasion in big games - like tonight's against Dallas.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb has built a great deal of loyalty in some quarters and has put up admirable numbers this season, but critics question his ability to rise to the occasion in big games - like tonight's against Dallas.
Posted: January 09, 2010

As the Eagles return to the scene of last week's disaster, Donovan McNabb may wonder - can a first-round NFL playoff game against the Cowboys in his 11th season really be crucial to his entire Eagles legacy?

Of course.

"If it finishes badly, forget about everything else," said former Eagles player and Fox analyst Brian Baldinger, talking about any season. "With franchise quarterbacks, that's all we want to remember."

With McNabb, the legacy obviously can never be judged simply by formula. It starts with wins and losses but extends off the field, often in strange ways. This week, there was a tempest over his words - but one McNabb could have avoided - and legitimate questions were asked about his Eagles future. Other questions also were asked. One talk-show host, pressing the hot button, asked listeners on Tuesday: "What it is about McNabb that irks you the most?"

Jim Murray, former general manager of the Eagles, said nobody in this market, not the governor or mayor or district attorney or any corporate chieftain, receives the daily scrutiny of McNabb or Eagles coach Andy Reid.

"It's not even a magnifying glass - it's like one of those things they have in the lab where they take it down to the DNA," Murray said.

Baldinger, who lives in Marlton, said any argument that suggests Eagles fans couldn't be satisfied with McNabb unless he wins a Super Bowl is too simplistic. And the idea of big games being the ones you lose - that doesn't exactly apply here either, Baldinger said.

"We've never seen him play great in a final game," Baldinger said. "We want that as a fan base."

The governor of Pennsylvania, for one, said he sees it as his civic duty to remind us what life was once like.

"We had Mike McMahon. We had Rodney Peete and Ty Detmer and who was the kid from Ohio? Bobby Hoying! Do people remember any of that stuff?" asked Gov. Rendell, who didn't want the Eagles to draft McNabb but has become one of his most ardent defenders. "For 10 years, we've had no quarterback problems - none. Where are people's memories?"

However, the governor knows his fellow Eagles fans also can cite chapter and verse about the last decade, McNabb's decade, with all its near-misses.

"In politics, if there's a debate, what do both sides try to do? They lower the expectation levels," Rendell said this week. ". . . Donovan can't do that. The bar is high. He's performed on such a high level, when he doesn't meet the bar, people are disappointed. That's the lion's share of the problem."

Asked this week if time is getting short for McNabb to get it done, Michael Vick said: "Part of being a professional is we have to deal with criticism. I have to say this - John Elway won a Super Bowl in his 15th, 16th, whatever. So there's no timeline, if you ask me."

Talking in front of his locker, Vick didn't differentiate between Eagles fans and any other fans.

"Fans tend to become impatient," Vick said. "That's normal. But we just have to keep pushing, keep taking steps. This is a tough league, man. This is a tough game. From the outside looking in, people think you just go out there and throw the ball to the receivers. You have to prepare for every game, every play. People don't know what it's like unless you're actually in there. All I can say is that good things come to those who wait."

McNabb's contract was reworked in the off-season, giving him a raise and more guaranteed money for 2009 and 2010. The deal was not extended, which some might view as a sign of something. The Eagles could let him play out his contract. The Eagles could also use a franchise tag to retain him for 2011.

But with renewed debate about whether it is time for McNabb to go, an argument can be made that he's never been better.

"What I like to look at with the quarterbacks, the simplest and most telling stat is total yards per attempt," said Brian Burke, who has a Web site, advancednflstats.com, devoted to statistical analysis of pro football. "McNabb, his career net-yards-per-attempt is just above average, really."

Peyton Manning, for example, gets 7.2 net yards per attempt. This year, the NFL average is 6.2 yards per attempt, Burke said, while McNabb, with a better arsenal of receivers, has gone up to 6.9 yards per attempt. Burke also puts a lot of credence in interception percentage. This has been a longtime McNabb strength. Burke said the average NFL quarterback throws 50 percent more interceptions than McNabb, a huge factor in the Eagles' success.

So while Eagles naturally look at those McNabb passes thrown hard and sometimes behind receivers, Burke gives him the benefit of the doubt: "I think that's part of his decision-making. He'll put the ball where he knows there's maybe a low chance his receiver will get it. On the other hand, there's a very, very low chance it will get picked off."

The bottom line, Burke said, is that McNabb's career right now is just below Hall of Fame caliber. Statistically, McNabb belongs in a cohort with Steve McNair, Mark Brunell and Troy Aikman, Burke said.

Of course, Aikman is in the Hall of Fame, inducted in 2006.

"He was surrounded by an incredible team," Burke said.

Another area where it is fair to judge McNabb or any quarterback is their leadership. That's not always been considered a McNabb strength - but maybe it is becoming more of one within the team.

"I think lately he's taken more of a leadership role because he's the oldest one in the huddle," offensive tackle Winston Justice said this week. "Maybe he wasn't as vocal - I think he's more vocal; I think I'm feeling more of a leadership presence than in prior years."

Burke, like Rendell, also thinks McNabb should get a lot of credit for the stability he's provided at the position. Burke pointed out that it's a huge help to a general manager not to have to look at a quarterback in the first round. Over the last decade, 21 teams have drafted a quarterback in the first round. Four teams - Atlanta, Detroit, Washington and the Jets - have drafted two QBs in the first round.

Full McNabb discussions have always been many-angled things, going back to the day he was drafted and booed by Eagles fans in attendance at the draft. He's been ripped by Bernard Hopkins and Freddie Mitchell and Rush Limbaugh. He tangled verbally with Terrell Owens, although it was mostly indirectly through the media, T.O. firing his critiques, agreeing that he might prefer Brett Favre as his quarterback, McNabb responding how this was "black on black" crime.

Never mind that McNabb has played with a broken bone in his ankle and has never shown up in a police report and has done more than his share of charity work. Murray remembers McNabb dressing up as Santa Claus one year at the Ronald McDonald House.

The Eagles lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, so McNabb's alleged dry-heaving in the huddle was viewed one way even though he threw some strong passes after that. If he'd thrown the winning touchdown pass, all that would have been part of his heroism. Except he didn't throw the winning pass. The story line has fit in with the outcome.

At his news conferences, McNabb's not one of these players who talk like they're from another planet. He's just never been revealing.

"It never feels genuine, it never feels heartfelt," Baldinger said. "That's why there is this massive love-hate relationship despite all his success. We love Favre because he shows an honest reaction."

Rendell, who's had his share of media scrapes over the years, said fans would like more of a rah-rah guy. "He sometimes speaks in riddles," Rendell admitted.

But the governor found it absurd that a veteran quarterback wasn't supposed to answer a question honestly when asked this week about the young players struggling against Dallas.

"People thought he was shifting responsibility on Sunday, but they didn't listen to his whole news conference," Rendell said. "He started off by saying this loss is on me. That was the first statement out of his mouth. He took 100 percent responsibility."

The flip side: McNabb said the words, but nobody could feel the pain. McNabb's an expert at hiding that.

"When you look at it, Donovan McNabb is one of the more dichotomous figures in Philadelphia sports history," said Chuck Betson, who has a six-day-a-week sports-talk show, the Betson Connection, on WIBG-AM (1020) in Atlantic City.

"It's either you're pro-Donovan or anti-Donovan," said Betson, who has had season tickets since the Eagles played at Franklin Field and is in the "McNabb is underappreciated" camp. "There are people that like him and people say they'll never win with him. It's split. This isn't something that's reared its ugly head in the last year. It's been his whole career."

And that won't change tonight.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-313-3041 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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