Donovan McNabb's complicated legacy with Eagles

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Former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

THOUSANDS of words were spoken by and about Donovan McNabb yesterday at NovaCare, as McNabb officially retired as an Eagle, and the team announced that his No. 5 will be retired in a Sept. 19 ceremony before the Birds play Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs.

Some of the most illuminating words came from Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie. Lurie extolled McNabb's toughness, for playing on a broken fibula while throwing four touchdown passes against the Cardinals in 2002, and for winning an NFL offensive player of the month award while playing with a sports hernia in 2005. Lurie said a lot of other flattering things that made you wonder how in the world the Eagles avoided winning a Super Bowl during McNabb's 11 seasons here, and how such an incredible person and player could have become so polarizing a figure to the team's fan base.

But Lurie also said this: "Players connect [with a fan base] in different ways, and it's not always the organic connection of a Brian Dawkins."

That was the nub, all right. Philadelphia faulted McNabb for not winning a Super Bowl, certainly, but Dawkins, the heart-and-soul safety who came to NovaCare to praise McNabb yesterday, never won one either. Though Dawkins' play on that fateful evening in Jacksonville didn't start a decade-long debate over alleged upchucking, it's hard to remember any game-changing plays he or the rest of the Eagles' defense made while getting pushed up and down the field the entire second half.

But Dawkins was visceral, emotional, down-to-earth. McNabb's major preoccupation, which he referenced again yesterday, seemed to be giving the appearance of not letting things get to him. McNabb laughed off disappointment and humiliation, or at least he says he did, from the infamous booing at the 1999 draft to the teammates who took Terrell Owens' side in 2005 when Owens tried to destroy McNabb as a leader, in a bizarre, misguided attempt to get his contract upgraded.

"I thought it was funny," McNabb said yesterday, when recounting how the T.O. followers eventually had to come back, helmets figuratively in hand, after McNabb survived that showdown and Owens was banished. "It's like, 'Hello! Good seeing you again!' " McNabb recalled.

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It's hard to believe McNabb really found that awkwardness terribly funny, just as it's hard to believe he laughed off having his draft day ruined by boos. When McNabb was thanking his family yesterday, he said: "I know at times you wanted to lash out at folks, but I appreciate your passion and your love and your strength." Apparently, everyone in the household didn't always laugh.

"I look at the relationship [with fans] just like a marriage," McNabb said. "You have some great times, you have some tough times . . . I don't regret anything that happened throughout my career here."

McNabb said he didn't think the fallout from that bitter autumn of 2005 affected the rest of his career here, in terms of leadership. (He said he often ponders what might have been, had Owens stayed in 2004 mode.) But the touchdown pass that took way too long near the end of Super Bowl XXXIX, and the T.O. drama that quickly followed, permanently curdled McNabb's relationship with a significant portion of the fan base. Some of those people, you just can't reason with; they're like Obama birthers or 9/11 conspiracy theorists, they know what they think happened, and facts are wasted on them.

Most fans probably realize that McNabb's legacy here is complicated. He has all the major franchise passing awards. He had far and away the best career of the five hotshot quarterbacks in the 1999 draft. One of the two Super Bowl appearances the franchise has ever managed. Nine playoff wins, which is a lot for a guy who critics say never came up big in the clutch. A fourth-and-26 bull's-eye to keep his team alive in a playoff game, even harder to explain away in terms of non-clutchness. He was the key player on a team that he said yesterday "came together like Voltron" in dominating the NFC East for the decade of the 2000s. Find another era in Eagles history with that much winning.

But there were the four losses in five NFC title games, and there was that maddening, plodding drive that saw the Lombardi hopes slowly trickle away. There was the thing about being so determined not to throw interceptions, receivers frequently had to scoop the ball off their shoe tops. There was his goofy, oblivious grin, charming on an up-and-coming kid, jarring and infuriating on a 30-something alleged football statesman. Air guitar in the tunnel before that last blowout loss at Dallas, the wrong tone at the wrong time. And overall, a feeling that as much as McNabb accomplished, which was a lot, there was a final corner he never turned as a mature quarterback - he could have been even better than he was, could have lasted longer.

The bottom line, though, or one big part of the bottom line, anyway, is what Lurie said yesterday: that McNabb was "a franchise-changing quarterback." Lurie acknowledged the decision to make No. 5 the ninth Eagles number retired was a complicated one, and even McNabb acknowledged it wasn't as much of a "shoo-in" as Dawkins' No. 20 was a year ago.

Still, the number is being retired and in terms of McNabb's impact on the franchise, it's very hard to argue that it shouldn't be.

Dawkins said that as an Eagle on the 3-13 1998 team, he appreciates "how quickly this thing went on the upswing" when McNabb arrived. "It was a pleasure going to war with you," Dawkins said.

"The decade he led us is one of the great decades any team has had in the NFL," Lurie said yesterday. "The primary mover of that was Donovan."

 


On Twitter: @LesBowen

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