McNabb and Philadelphia: A sometimes rocky marriage

Posted: September 18, 2013

WE THINK we understand him.

He thinks we don't.

He thinks he understands us.

We think he doesn't.

Boiled down to its essence, this is where the relationship between Donovan McNabb and the people of Philadelphia sits a few days before he and his jersey number become officially weaved forever into our civic fabric.

"I look at the relationship just like a marriage," McNabb said when the Eagles first announced they would officially retire his number during halftime of Thursday night's game against Andy Reid's Chiefs. "You have some great times, you have some tough times."

You love. You hate. You do this not in equal parts, because even if you remember it that way or worse, there is just no way Donovan McNabb could have accumulated all those records and all those statistics if the first nine seasons he spent here were anything like the last two - hearts broken repeatedly until eventually clothes were thrown from the bedroom window and out onto the lawn.

McNabb can be asked a million times about draft day in 1999, can misunderstand what happened that day a million times, too. It had nothing to do with animosity toward him: For the millionth time, the angst was directed at an organization with a history of draft-day blunders, an organization that bypassed a Heisman Trophy winner to draft him.

Truth is, we weren't enamored with the choice of a new coach, someone without even coordinator experience, chosen over several better-known names. We were wrong about that, and we were wrong about the draft pick. If it seemed to McNabb that we never quite apologized for that, there were at least 100 Sundays and nine playoff victories where it must have felt close.

We admired his strength, his grit, his willingness to play on a broken ankle and through a painful sports hernia.

"The thing for me is I don't regret anything that happened throughout my career here," he said during that news conference in late July. "You know, for the fans, they thoroughly appreciate the effort that I gave and what I gave them out on the field."

Certainly we did when the marriage was young. Most of our football weekends ended with expressions and professions of love, and great anticipation of what lay ahead. We loved that offense in the early days of the new millennium, loved watching McNabb's big arm and big body drive defenses daffy. Remember how he used to just run over defensive backs when he got into the open field? Remember how he could just flick off a couple defensive linemen and keep a play alive?

So he could never quite get the feel of that little dunk pass, couldn't persuade the head coach who will be forever linked to him to use it less or not at all in favor of another play. Andy Reid thought he would get that touch in time. Instead, those little passes began to add up to big frustration, fueling the debate over which man was getting in the other's way.

It was Andy's playcalling. It was Donovan's execution. Both had their critics, both had their radio shows, both had their lawyers and prosecutors among the media. No matter where you stood one thing was crystal clear: The honeymoon was over.

The postscript, of course, is that it was a little or a lot of both. Reid's stubborn and sometimes slow-paced playcalling was at times toxic. McNabb's erratic execution in the short game sometimes sabotaged the best-laid plans. Together, they lost three straight conference championship games before beating Atlanta to reach Super Bowl XXXIX.

In a game that encapsulated his career - lots of passes, lots of yardage, a few big plays, a few big mistakes, some controversy at the end - the Eagles lost to New England by three points. There were so many things to blame: missed scoring opportunities early, a defense that could not get New England off the field in the third quarter, the usual clock-management issues. But the lasting debate is whether the quarterback vomited during the final drive, and what it said about his mind and his mettle.

Remember, this is someone who had played on a broken ankle, with bruised ribs, took shots every week while passing and running the ball. If McNabb was treated unfairly during this marriage, it is not because of how draft day went, but through the insinuation that he was ever a wimp.

The truth is the opposite. He took the boos, took the bad times with the good times, stuck out the marriage for 11 years, and would have stayed longer if we let him. Scott Rolen wanted out when the marriage got tough. Eric Lindros wanted out eventually too. The list is long and distinguished of athletes who found a marriage to us too hard on the heart.

Instead, here he is again, wearing the jersey one more time for a ceremony that will include his old coach, a ceremony that promises to be representative of emotions we, and he, had toward each other in those 11 tumultuous years.

Love, hate, expectations, disappointment and now, ultimately, great respect and appreciation.

We're bonded forever, "5" and us. A marriage certainly not made in heaven, but one forged through some high water, and some hell.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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