HE NEGOTIATES through rabbit punches. He vacillates between bully and victim. Is Donovan McNabb the cocky gunslinger who grabbed a phone on the Giants' sideline one Sunday, or the hurt child who, after being reinstated weeks earlier, said, "I'm asked to win the game every week.''

He's both, of course. It's the opposite of character, I suppose. He's a bit of a bully one week, a bit of a baby the next. He's tough enough to play on a broken ankle, to play with a sports hernia, to play with a bad knee and bruised ribs. Yet he's also the guy who was said to have barfed in a

Super Bowl huddle, to have publicly pouted on the sideline during a loss against Pittsburgh that year.

He's a good soldier one minute, the lone gunman hiding in the grassy knoll the next - issuing messages through camouflage, which is apparently what is happening this week.

Get me free-agent help or trade me. Did he issue an ultimatum, as a source told ESPN this week? A source that some believe was his agent, Fletcher Smith?

He won't tell. Smith won't tell. That alone is so infantile for a 10-year pro who some have argued is building a resume worthy of the Hall of Fame. The suggestion is now out there, though: McNabb won't sign an extension to an Eagles contract that has 2 years remaining until he sees what weapons the Eagles, with all their cap room, present him with.

It's aggravating the way he does things. It makes it hard to side with him, even when you want to. He should get weapons - most Eagles fans seem to agree on that. He should know what he will have to work with if he's going to sign an extension and spend the rest of his career as the team's quarterback.

In some ways, he reminds me of my days covering Mike Tyson. The big difference is that Tyson wanted you to ultimately hate him, because he hated himself. He went out of his way to push away even those with altruistic motives, went out of his way to be, ultimately, alone.

McNabb wants to be loved, no question. And there is a lot there to admire. His stubborn insistence to remain a quarterback as people at each level tried to change that. His pain tolerance, his philanthropy and the class he has displayed during the embittering episodes involving draft day, Terrell Owens and Rush Limbaugh. But, man, does he make it hard to root for him. Man, does he make it hard to see him as a good guy, even when there's a body of evidence out there - his charity work, his husbandry - that suggests that he really, truly is.

What's the harm in openly stating his intentions? What's the harm in holding a news conference and really tightening the screws on the Eagles' brain trust, of which Joe Banner is on record saying, "We can win a championship with those people and they will be back, and I've gone on to say that we believe we're very lucky to have them.

"The good news,'' Banner said in that Comcast SportsNet interview, "is that's overwhelmingly the view of our fans.''

Well then, we all must be expecting great things from them, right? So what's the big deal if Donovan wants it in writing? That he will be perceived as a selfish guy, that he won't be well-liked?

That perception already exists, at least here. Maybe McNabb is playing the rest of the nation here, the Michael Smiths of the nation, the people who think we've had it out for our star-crossed quarterback since the draft-day booing.

You hear it every time you leave town, from people in the league, people in the media, people who should know better. Why does Philadelphia hate Donovan McNabb, they ask? The simple answer is that they don't. They hate finishing second, third, fourth or 30th, and they hate carrying their hopes into NFC Championship Game after NFC Championship Game, most of the time as favorites, and walking away ticked off.

Who are you going to blame, Jon Runyan? No, you're going to blame the head coach and the franchise quarterback. That's not a Philly thing and it's not a black-white thing. That's a New York thing, a Minneapolis thing, a Dallas thing, a frustration thing. Anyone who witnessed people actually bawling their eyes out at the Phillies parade never again should promote the idea that this town thrives on negativity. If anything, we are ridiculously naive, given all we've been through.

We're Charlie Brown, trusting that holder every single time.

McNabb had another chance to get that hold down secure in Phoenix a month ago. The lasting impression is that final drive when he misfired a few times. But the real Lucys that day were on the defensive side of the ball.

He got blamed, of course. And he's been acting like a victim since.

He's absolutely right to ask for more help from the Eagles.

I just wish he'd stand in front of a podium and do it like the 32-year-old veteran that he is. Not some rabbit-punching rookie. *

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