Phil Sheridan: McNabb vs. Vick becoming miniseries

Posted: November 15, 2010

Somewhere along the way, the NFL evolved from CIA secret to HBO original series. Like any long-running melodrama, it takes ever more outlandish plotlines to keep viewers coming back.

Brett Favre. Brad Childress. Randy Moss. Wade Phillips and Jerry Jones. The Ryan Brothers' coaching and cussing contest. The weekly roundup of video-game hits, concussions and ever-increasing fines.

Who comes up with this stuff?

This episode of Monday Night Football is a textbook example. You have the Eagles playing at Washington. Donovan McNabb, fresh from being benched and then publicly dissed by his coach, will face the team he represented for 11 years. Michael Vick, McNabb's friend and protégé, will start his first Monday night showcase since his fall from grace and long absence from the league.

Oh, and the winner will be in the best possible position to challenge the New York Giants for the NFC East title in the second half of the season.

Fifteen months ago, Vick's assuming McNabb's role as face of the Eagles would have been completely unimaginable. A year ago, the idea would have merely defied belief. As recently as training camp, it was unforeseeable.

But here we are. And make no mistake, Vick is the Eagles' franchise quarterback. Unless he is injured or gets involved in some off-the-field mischief, there is virtually no way the Eagles can sell their fans, or his teammates, on anything other than a long-term contract for Vick. The timing will be affected by the NFL's looming labor strife, but there is no longer anything to debate here.

This is a huge step for a franchise that was so careful, for so long, about the image it projected. McNabb was chosen for the complicated job of franchise quarterback for a number of reasons, and he wore that heavy crown better than many others could have. It is one thing to bring Vick in on a low-risk contract as a kind of social experiment. It is quite another to wager tens of millions of dollars and your franchise's stability on him.

I've made no secret of my feelings about the signing of Vick last year. And I remain skeptical, given the decision-making that led to a shooting at his birthday party in Virginia in June. There will be no way to judge this whole thing fully until Vick's career is over: Once he gets that last big contract, will he be the man he once was or the man he has appeared to be becoming?

Vick can write a truly remarkable redemption story, but that story line will carry over to future seasons of this soap opera.

This game against McNabb is simply another fascinating episode, promising more intriguing character development.

It has become all too easy to dismiss McNabb after his benching two Sundays ago in Detroit. Mike Shanahan gave the always vocal anti-McNabb crowd plenty to work with. And yet there was a report from ESPN - through Shanahan's media pal Adam Schefter - that McNabb's agent will meet with the team Monday afternoon about a contract extension.

It was true when McNabb was here and it remains true now of him (and, by the way, every other quarterback in the league, including Vick): If you can't protect a QB, he can't be effective. And if you combine a porous offensive line with a dearth of offensive weapons, the quarterback will look terrible.

Funny how Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg are now big believers in keeping backs and tight ends in to block. That maximum protection approach has helped Vick by giving him time and by making his reads quicker and easier because there are fewer receivers running routes.

No one is suggesting the offense has to be simplified for Vick, because this is the same approach that has made Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Kurt Warner so prolific over the years.

Reid was always better at protecting McNabb in press conferences than on the field. Shanahan doesn't appear capable of either.

And yet Washington is just one game behind the Eagles and could sweep the two-game series with a win Monday. Like the Eagles, Washington's players know they control their chance to finish strong and make the playoffs.

"I would love to be sitting here at 8-0," McNabb said last week. "I would love to be 6-2, but we're 4-4. That's what we are right now. We can do things to change that the next eight games. I think it's important we focus in on that and not focus in on the first part of the season. We've all been a part of and we all recognize what's happened and it's important for us to go and change it."

This becomes an enormous game for McNabb, a chance to silence or embolden his critics. Of course it is against Vick's Eagles. Of course the drama will play out on Monday Night Football. Of course.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844

or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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