That will always be his legacy - of unfulfilled excellence; of a series of fantastic voyages that always ended on the shoals.
That will always be his story, such a mixed story - of impeccable personal character; of widespread national commercial appeal; of a local fan base that always saw him as lacking in leadership and charisma.
A long and complex tale, then. (Tolstoy should have been the beat guy.) And now, a final twist. Rather than box him up and ship him several time zones away into the AFC - out of sight, out of mind, and it's been great knowing you - the Eagles, instead, traded the face of their franchise within the division, to the Washington Redskins, to a place where they will be looking at that same face twice a year.
They made their lives more complicated. They made the job of new quarterback Kevin Kolb more difficult. After cultivating over the years, justifiably or not, an image of heartless adherence to the facts and the film, they said last night that they did their best to send McNabb to a place that he wanted to go. On the way out the door, McNabb's feelings mattered.
"We thought that it was best for Don and, at the same time, the compensation was right for us," Eagles coach Andy Reid said, at the proverbial hastily called press conference. "We sure took into consideration Don's feelings."
The vibe at the NovaCare
Complex was that the Eagles turned down at least marginally better compensation offers than the Redskins presented - their second-round pick in the 2010 draft (the 37th pick overall) and a fourth-round pick in 2011 that could become a third-round pick based upon certain contingencies related to McNabb's success and the Redskins' success - because they were from places that McNabb preferred not to go.
Reid, though, would not confirm that there were better offers. He said, "This was a good place for Donovan and the compensation was good."
Philadelphia used to be a good place for Donovan. All of the carping over the last five seasons - since he either did or did not throw up in the huddle near the end of Super Bowl XXXIX - can make you forget the esteem in which McNabb was held at the beginning of his career. People don't remember sometimes that he was a playoff quarterback in his first full season as a starter. They don't want to recall the hope that everyone held when the Eagles, nearly double-digit underdogs, took the St. Louis Rams to the limit before losing in McNabb's first trip to a championship game.
He brought hope to a franchise, along with Reid. He brought consistency. The two of them seemed temperamentally suited to each other, better sometimes on Wednesday than late on Sunday but very talented men who thrived when they stuck to the script. The coach was not wrong last night when he said, "I think [McNabb's legacy] should be that he was the greatest quarterback ever to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, until this point."
McNabb holds most of the measurable quarterback records in the history of the franchise. He won a lot of games and a lot of playoff games. You can acknowledge that and still acknowledge the need for a change - there is no inconsistency there. Kolb is ready and the franchise is ready. It does not detract from the historic picture of McNabb, not from its greatness, not from its flaws.
If you do not look back fondly on these last 11 seasons, you are lying to yourself. Because, yes, the absence of the Super Bowl trophy might be excruciating - but its absence cannot completely blot out all of the wins and all of the playoff appearances. And McNabb was a big part of it all.
Now, it is over. Anybody who speculates that Reid has somehow lost a degree of his power within the Eagles organization would be wise to study this transaction carefully. It seems obvious that Reid had the closest personal relationship with McNabb and that this closeness, forged over 11 seasons, was a key factor in how all of this went down. With that, the coach could see the need to make the switch to Kolb on the one hand but he would not allow himself to be seen as disrespecting the quarterback who joined him in reinvigorating a moribund franchise in 1999.
And so, Reid said, he somehow kept McNabb's agent, Fletcher Smith, in the loop as talks were continuing. Reid said that he
was never told by Smith that
McNabb would refuse to play in a certain city, but it is obvious that some pecking order of
preferences was communicated between the parties - and that Washington met with McNabb's approval.
"You can't say that we didn't think about that - we did," Reid said, when asked about the proximity of the Redskins, and the complications about aiding a division rival. Later, he added, "Are they a better football team with Donovan? Absolutely. We'll be there a couple of Sundays with them."
But why? It didn't have to go down this way. Then again,
maybe it did. Maybe a neat
ending for Donovan McNabb's Philadelphia story was never meant to be.
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