Donovan McNabb has just been nominated for induction into the National Football League Hall of Fame.
As a fan of a certain age, I can break down Eagles history into three parts: pre-Andy Reid, Andy Reid, and post-Andy Reid.
Jeffrey Lurie bought the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994, just in time for nobody’s favorite head coach Rich Kotite to decide it was time to negotiate a contract extension. Kotite had the bad luck of following Buddy Ryan, who WAS a fan favorite (although he never won squat), and his four seasons were lackluster at best. After the Eagles started the 1994 season at 7-2, Lurie said he wouldn’t renew Kotite’s contract, Kotite declared his intention to “explore his options,” and the team fell apart, losing all of the remaining seven games to finish 7-9. The chemistry between Kotite and the new owner (let alone the fans) was never good, and Lurie wasted no time in firing Kotite the day after the final game of 1994. It was Kotite’s only losing season.
People are coming to your house, trying to break into your house, probably sodomize your wife and kids and you don’t do anything about it. –Ray Rhodes
After interviewing several top-level prospects (including the possible return to the NFL of Dick Vermeil), Lurie chose the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers, Ray Rhodes, to reconstruct the Eagles team. A large portion of Kotite’s team was cut and replaced with journeymen free agents, and Rhodes, with his bluster and bravado about rapists breaking into the house and sodomizing the players’ wives, would put together a pair of 10-6 seasons, taking the team back to the playoffs each time. Rhodes was hailed as a savior, NFL Coach of the Year, and could have successfully run for mayor of Philadelphia after his first season. His second season ended with a loss in the Wild Card playoff game, and the following two seasons continued a downward trend (6-9-1, then 3-13), and Rhodes soon wore out his own welcome.
After the meteoric rise and just-as-meteoric fall of coach Rhodes, Lurie began again the search for a new coach to lead the Philadelphia Eagles. He had a chance this time to truly pick “his man” to finally take the team to the Promised Land. To everyone’s surprise, he chose the quarterbacks coach of the Green Bay Packers, Andy Reid, who was on no one’s radar as a possibility. Reid had apparently created a buzz within the NFL as “someone to watch,” but he was a virtual unknown outside the biz.
Eagles fans were stunned, not knowing what to think. In the end, we decided that we’d be patient with the new coach, just happy that Rhodes was gone. Patient, at least, until the NFL Draft in April.
Because of the 3-13 record in 1998, new coach Reid found himself holding the 2nd pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Having worked so well with Brett Favre, Reid knew that the best foundation of an NFL team was a solid and talented quarterback, and he had several top picks in front of him. 1999 was supposedly extra deep in great young quarterbacks coming out of college. Reid decided on Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb. Tim Couch (KY) was chosen first by the Browns, Akili Smith (Oregon – remember him?) went as the 3rd pick to the Bengals. Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown followed at picks 11 and 12 to Minnesota and Chicago, respectively, for a total of five quarterbacks taken in just the first round of the draft. Of all five, McNabb unquestionably had the longest and best career in the NFL.
Picked No. 2 overall, McNabb was infamously booed by Philly rowdies. They were not booing McNabb, per se, but rather the pick. These fans had fallen in love with the flash and sizzle of running back Ricky Williams and fully expected the Eagles to swoop him up. Coach Reid instead went for the meat and potatoes of a promising rookie quarterback, dashing those dreams. McNabb was not booed, the lack of Ricky Williams was. Still, the booing of McNabb is all that anyone would remember, especially Donovan McNabb.
Coach Reid also knew that a quarterback is only as good as the offensive line in front of him, and so spent two more high draft picks there: Doug Brzezinski (G) and John Welbourn (T).
At the Lehigh training camp that year, I remember watching the quarterbacks warming up. Doug Pederson was the named starter, brought out from Green Bay by new head coach Andy Reid. He was competent, threw a nice ball, certainly on target (given the lack of any defensive pass rush). Then the backup Ty Detmer warmed up, and was singularly unimpressive. Finally, it was the rookie’s turn. ZIP. He threw a bullet so fast that if you blinked, you missed it. As I watched him, I believed that I was watching a thoroughbred among the plodders, someone who was born to be an NFL quarterback. (I don’t overstate – I was amazed.)
The 1999 season saw Doug Pederson start out 0-4, with the rookie McNabb seeing limited action in the second half of the second game. After 0-4 became a 2-7 record, Coach Reid, deciding that the season was lost anyway, finally threw McNabb in as a starting quarterback in game 10 against the Washington Redskins. Even with a poor passing performance, McNabb would win the game 35-28, and the legend of Donovan McNabb was born.
After his rookie season, McNabb and the Eagles would put together a string of amazing years. In 2000, the Eagles went 11-5, won a Wild Card playoff game, then lost in the Divisional round. In 2001, another 11-5 record, and then all the way to the NFC Championship Game. They lost, but the fans didn’t really expect a win that year. 2002, 12-4, and another trip to the NFC Championship. This time, we fully expected the Eagles to go on to the Super Bowl, but the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who “never win in cold weather”) would surprise everyone. Okay, then in 2003 another 12-4 record, and another NFC Championship Game. This time, for sure. But no, the stinkin’ Carolina Panthers – the PANTHERS – would beat the Eagles and end their season. Great. Finally in 2004, the Eagles ran up a 13-3* record, FINALLY got over the NFC Championship Game by beating the Atlanta Falcons (with Michael Vick), and went on to a Super Bowl appearance. Of course, the AFC was represented by the New England Patriots, and although the Eagles were in the game the whole way, they could not steal a win. (*The Eagles could actually have gone 15-1 that year, but for resting starters in their final two games, once home field advantage had been sewn up. See “The Myth of Terrell Owens.”)
That five-year stretch, as historically amazing as it was, defined McNabb’s tenure in Philadelphia. The four NFC Championship appearances should have been joyful, but were actually very frustrating and defeating for the fans. It seemed we would never “get over the hump,” and then when we did, we couldn’t “seal the deal.” As Philadelphia fans, we could make fun of the Buffalo Bills fans – their team was in FOUR STRAIGHT Super Bowls, but could never win one of them. We would have traded places with them gladly, but that was until we tasted consecutive defeats, ourselves. The fans soured on McNabb.
Donovan McNabb would go on to break almost every record (if not every record) by Eagles quarterbacks. His four straight appearances at the NFC Championship Game was an historic achievement for the Eagles, however frustrating, and his trip to one Super Bowl put him in the pantheon with Ron “Jaws” Jaworski (both lost). His head coach, Andy Reid, should have been as beloved in Philadelphia as the previous coach to take an Eagles team to the Super Bowl, Dick Vermeil. (Both coaches have an “ei” combination in their last names. Coincidence? I don’t think so.)
For Eagles fans who hadn’t seen a championship team since the pre-merged-NFL 1960 game at Franklin Field (so long ago that Lambeau Field was still called City Stadium), just “getting to” a Super Bowl was legend. Ron Jaworski lost a Super Bowl, but probably still can’t buy a drink in Philly with his own money. Dick Vermeil burned out and left coaching to broadcast college football games for 15 years, before finally getting back into coaching with the St. Louis Rams (won a Super Bowl) and Kansas City Chiefs. Even so, he is beloved by Eagles fans and will always be known as an Eagles coach.
One wonders what McNabb’s legacy would have been, had he retired after the 2004 season.
2005 was the Year of the Terrible Terrell, in which wide receiver Terrell Owens threw a hissy fit and destroyed the chemistry of the team. In 2005 through 2007, McNabb suffered a series of injuries that put him on the sidelines for long stretches. During this time, his backup, Jeff Garcia, became a Philly folk hero, A.J. Feeley became the Next Great Hope, and even the upcoming rookie Kevin Kolb (NOT the “quarterback of the future”) saw some playing time. After three subpar seasons, McNabb returned to form in 2008, and the Eagles once again made it to an NFC Championship game. But that would prove to be the denouement to McNabb’s career in Philadelphia, and he would ultimately be traded to the Washington Redskins in 2010.
Andy Reid would play merry-go-round with quarterbacks Jeff Garcia, A.J. Feeley, Kevin Kolb, and then finally settle on a reconstituted Michael Vick going forward. But he could never recapture the gold of the early years, and the Eagles would suffer diminishing returns from 2009 through Reid’s last year 2012.
Hanging over McNabb always was the hurt of having been booed and the constant fan appraisal that he “didn’t have the fire,” didn’t burn to win. He was a more cerebral quarterback than we were used to, less emotional. Like his coach, McNabb’s press conferences were almost always a flat monotone, with hesitant, considered answers, and we related this to his style of play. Even though McNabb and the West Coast style of offense kept winning and winning, it was, in the final sum, boring. This was dry, technical football, devoid of the highs and lows, by comparison, of the Buddy Ryan teams that Philly loved. And when the team could no longer put together a drive toward the Super Bowl, the love affair was over.
Football is, after all, entertainment. If it’s not fun to watch, it stops being entertaining.
McNabb would move on, and Andy Reid would hang around a few more years too long.
Jeffrey Lurie always found one reason or another to keep Reid around for one more year, but eventually had to cut ties with him after the 2012 season.
That year, all of the talk was about the Greatest College Coach of All Time, Chip Kelly. Lurie entered the lottery of teams trying to sign him and eventually did. Unfortunately, over the course of three seasons, Kelly would completely dismantle and lay waste to the Eagles football team. His act wore thin quickly, and three years was enough for Lurie. The personnel moves and coaching style were far too questionable for the owner and the fans, and so Kelly had to go.
So now we return to the Andy Reid school, and his offensive coordinator (and former Eagles quarterback) Doug Pederson is now strolling the sidelines in Philadelphia. In a bit of deja vu, Pederson maneuvered his way to the 2nd pick overall in the draft and chose his own quarterback, Carson Wentz. The pick made Eagles fandom say “huh?” as Wentz comes out of a Division I (FCS) school, not even the FBS level division, but I don’t think it was booed. Luckily, Wentz starts out with a fairly good offensive line in front of him. He played so unexpectedly well in his first game that his No. 11 jersey became the best-selling NFL jersey over the following week and the Monday Night Football crew in Game 2 couldn’t stop praising his name to the heavens. (Thankfully, he played just as well on MNF!)
Time will tell whether Pederson and Wentz can come close to duplicating what Reid and McNabb accomplished in Philadelphia, but they’re off to a good start. Mighty big shoes to fill.
Donovan McNabb compiled 16 playoff games, including (5) NFC East division titles, the (5) NFC Championship appearances (1 win), and a Super Bowl appearance. His career stats and achievements, including Eagles records held, are at Wikipedia.
McNabb was inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame and his No. 5 jersey was officially retired.
New England’s Tom Brady, no matter what he may or may not have done, will go into the Hall of Fame the day after he finally hangs up his cleats. He is arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. A case can be made either way as to whether Donovan McNabb, without a Super Bowl win, deserves to be inducted. But I keep saying that McNabb had better make it into the Hall of Fame, because if he doesn’t, then Tony Romo, the greatest quarterback to never win a damn thing, has NO shot.
(I should also point out that another nominee for the Hall this year is our old friend, No. 12 Randall Cunningham. I’d like to see him in there, as he defined the “entertainment” of football.)
The Eagles players nominated for induction into the Hall in 2017 include 1st-time nominees Brian Dawkins (a shoe-in) and Donovan McNabb. Also includes previously nominated and instantly recognizable players Terrell Owens (finalist in 2016), Eric Allen, Seth Joyner, Ricky Watters, Troy Vincent, Sean Landeta, and Brian Mitchell.