Every now and then, somebody says something in a NovaCare news conference that brings you up short.
So it was Wednesday, when a questioner mentioned to Donovan McNabb that he was closing in on his own franchise record for passing yards in a season. The reporter asked how McNabb would assess his year, for the 8-6-1 Eagles.
"I think I've played great," McNabb said. "I don't look at the stats aspect of it, but if you do, then it is better than it has been in years. Offensively, we've been able to do some good things, and some things, obviously, we would love to change. I don't regret any of the things that I've done this year. I'd love to do better in this game coming up ... Certain things are just an inch away, not getting a first down here, or whatever it may be. Obviously, if we were able to get that done, we wouldn't be sitting in this spot right now."
The quarterback of a team that just lost a game that probably doomed its season, by a score of 10-3, just can't say that he feels he has played great. Even if the rest of the answer implied that McNabb does see some things he could have done better, it was a silly thing to say. Nobody will remember the rest of the quote. As McNabb has done so many times, he needlessly handed his critics an ax with which to bludgeon him.
Knowing McNabb, what we were seeing was that hard shell of defensiveness that has built up over 10 seasons of withering scrutiny. He has to know he has been up-and-down this season, better than his harshest critics give him credit for being, but far less than "great." At a critical point in the season, those Cincinnati and Baltimore games, he played the worst seven quarters of his life, turning the ball over seven times, before being benched. In several previous games, he seesawed between being unstoppable and completely ineffective. He was not good enough at Washington, even factoring in the terrible drops. He has to know all that, even if he thinks playcalling was a factor, even if he doesn't agree that he should have been benched.
McNabb probably feels that he can't betray any weakness, show any vulnerability, before a media corps he feels treats him unfairly. He learned that stubborn, willful refusal to engage on a human level at the feet of the master, Andy Reid.
But it is such a disastrous strategy. People -- even reporters -- respond to honesty. If McNabb had said: "Overall, I've been healthier and more productive than I've been in years, but I haven't been as consistent as I would have wanted. The offense hasn't quite gotten it done in some crucial spots, and even if that isn't entirely my fault, it reflects on me, as the quarterback. So it has been a mixed season. I'm proud of a lot of the things I've been able to do, but I wish I could have done more, so we would be in a better spot."
Say that, everyone nods in agreement. Say "I think I've played great," and people sharpen the knives.
Of course, there's an awful lot at work here behind the scenes. McNabb reiterated Wednesday that he does not want to go anywhere. He wants to fend off the transition to Kevin Kolb. He wants, he made plain Wednesday, a new contract, though he has time left on his current deal.. McNabb didn't say so, but that desire is not because he doesn't make enough money, it's because the signing bonus amortization on his old deal is just about up, which makes him easy to get rid of. A new contract, with a new signing bonus, would ensure he won't be traded or released.
All indications right now are that the Eagles plan to come back with McNabb in 2009.(Asked if he feels he's seen enough of Kolb this season, Reid Wednesday gave a lukewarm, "I've seen what I've seen, yeah.") But as we've noted before, McNabb is part of that equation. If he really insists on a new deal, on a commitment, he could write his ticket elsewhere, in a sort of passive-aggressive way, while proclaiming that he really wants to stay. That would be disappointing. Just as this season has been.
Meanwhile, Reid said Wednesday that DE Victor Abiamiri's Lis franc sprain will keep him out of Sunday's finale against Dallas, and should the Birds make the playoffs, Abiamiri won't be available for about a month. LG Todd Herremans (ankle), RT Jon Runyan (knee) and TE L.J. Smith (shoulder) sat out the afternoon practice, as did RB Brian Westbrook, as is usually the case when practice is held indoors.
Reid said whether the Eagles are eliminated before the kickoff Sunday or not, he will play everyone and approach the game the same as if his team was alive.
And Happy Holidays, by the way, from your Eagletarian.
Extra Eagletarian points if you can identify this, the best of all televised Christmas specials: