NOW THAT IT doesn't matter anymore, Donovan McNabb is almost complete; almost fully comfortable with himself; almost stripped of the veneer that kept him inaccessible for 11 years in Philadelphia.
Tonight, the Eagles retire his No. 5, in which he established the benchmark for all Eagles quarterbacks from 1999-2009; in which he enjoyed unanticipated successes and suffered unimaginable disappointments; in which he endured criticisms both fair and absurd.
McNabb chose tonight because of his connection with Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who before last Sunday was the only Eagles coach to ever have worked the sideline at Lincoln Financial Field. Reid's first and most significant decision was to draft and develop McNabb, an athletic, strong-armed kid with skin thick enough to deflect all barbs.
"I wanted him to be a part of it - the person who stuck with me for 11 years," McNabb said. But they will remain separate, if equal. They will not take the field together, as Reid hopes: "I told him, if the fans boo him, they're booing him. I'm not being a part of that."
Earnest, funny, clever: That is what McNabb can be when McNabb is sincere, focused, fluid. He speaks the way he plays.
When he lets it flow: pure Montana.
When he thinks about it? Ryan Leaf.
Last night, on his eve of recognition, on the top level of the stadium where he crafted a legacy, McNabb was Joe Cool.
Ask him about Chip Kelly's offense, black quarterbacks and the NAACP, McNabb warms to the topics like it's game day against Arizona. (He was 6-2 in the regular season against the Cards; no wonder he lives there now.)
Most of the football world is stumbling over itself to stroke Kelly and the scoring system he installed, but McNabb said Chippah's fast-paced attack cannot last a season, much less a decade, in a league of grown men. And, while McNabb's talents particularly suit the read-option facets, he would want no part of such a frenetic scheme:
"I'm not trying to run 90 plays in a game,'' McNabb said. "I don't know if any offensive player would want to run 90 plays. You're not going to run 80, 85 plays. Not in the NFL. Teams, and defensive coordinators, are a lot better than what you see in college. There comes a time when you're up by 14, up by 21 with 10 minutes to go, it's time to . . . eat up some clock. It wears your offense down.
"You worry about the depth. You worry about the injuries . . . long-term; Week 8, Week 9, Week 10."
In fact, in Week 2, the Eagles' inability to manage the clock contributed to their loss. Then again, clock management never was a strength for the McNabb/Reid consortium. Their forte was overcoming detractors, real or imagined; and no issue dogged McNabb more than being a black man running a voluminous and complex system, which, in the final analysis, he accomplished nicely.
He ranks in the NFL's all-time top 25 in passing touchdowns and yards, but McNabb seems as proud of eroding stigmas as he is of any other accomplishment. He can name every black predecessor, every contemporary, every current black quarterback. In addressing the presence of nine black NFL starters, McNabb stressed their arms and brains.
"It means people are looking into having a strong-armed, athletic, intelligent guy at the position, who not only can make plays in the pocket but also with their legs," McNabb said - which, of course, dredged up the issue of McNabb's most unlikely detractor.
In 2005, J. Wyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and publisher of the Philadelphia Sun, wrote a scathing critique of McNabb's perceived reluctance to scramble and McNabb's perceived deficient leadership skills. (Mondesire, of course, did not cover the team.) McNabb still bears those scars.
Two years earlier, McNabb had endured ridiculous accusations concerning his race from conservative windbag Rush Limbaugh, which cost Limbaugh a gig at ESPN. Then . . . betrayal?
"To be criticized not only by the masses, but you'd be criticized by your own people?" McNabb asked. "That me off more, because of the struggles we had been through, trying to play the position. To have a guy come out and say that I'm not running because I'm trying to prove a point, or I'm not black enough?"
Nowadays, between the pistol and the wildcat and the read option, everybody wants the newest model of McNabb: an RGIII, a Wilson, a Kaepernick, a Newton, even a classic old Vick.
"I guess we have a lot more quarterbacks who aren't black enough still," said McNabb, who returned to his point: All possess the arms and the heads to make their offenses work, like him. "Folks won't focus on the fact I learned playbook in a year. Stop looking at the outer shell and focus on who the kid really is . . . I think this read option is putting a damper on things. These kids can throw."
So could he, and efficiently, but only after thousands of hours of work under Reid's piercing gaze. Reid served as a father figure and was the franchise's figurehead. So, McNabb felt abandoned and "upset" when Reid traded him down I-95 to Washington after McNabb's fine 2009 season. He harbored resentment until they met for tacos in March at the NFL meetings in Phoenix.
"I wish it could've happened earlier. That conversation gave us the opportunity to move forward. I thought it was important that we sat down, looked at each other eye to eye," McNabb said.
McNabb, who was owed $12 million, asked Reid about the decision process and the franchise's thinking when he was traded. McNabb offered none of Reid's answers but McNabb seemed to have achieved a measure of closure.
Perhaps now he can move on.
He wants to become a top TV analyst. He wants to form a business that will empower urban youth in Phoenix, in Philly, in Chicago and beyond, something like the Tiger Woods Foundation.
He has regrets. He wishes he solicited an outside quarterback guru earlier in his career to foster more honest criticism.
He said he is cordial with Terrell Owens, his greatest weapon and his worst teammate.
A good number of other teammates will attend tonight: Jamaal Jackson, Bobby Taylor, maybe even Troy Vincent, who ceded the locker room to McNabb a decade ago. They will be among 70 or so of McNabb's family, friends and colleagues, six dozen certain to cheer him on his big night.
He was overwhelmed when he was announced among the Eagles alumni, but now, as he enters the atmospheric level just below his boyhood Chicago heroes, Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, he can hardly believe he has ascended thus.
He was the Chunky Soup guy, and he took his mama with him. With six Pro Bowls on his resume, he spent more time in Hawaii than Magnum, P.I.
He was the best player in his draft, with apologies to Champ Bailey and Joey Porter, neither of whom the Eagles needed. He cannot touch contemporaries Peyton Manning or Drew Brees or Tom Brady, but he never had their weapons, either. He compares nicely with Jim Kelly and Steve Young, who also benefited from better targets.
All five are, or will be, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All have won Super Bowls except Kelly, who went four times. McNabb went once, and he lost, but he did so much for so long, maybe one day Canton will call him, too.
Maybe then the veneer will fully erode, revealing for good this smart, funny, clever man.
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