If the Philadelphia Eagles' signing of Michael Vick(notes) on Thursday told us anything about Donovan McNabb's(notes) prolific, capricious career, it was merely a reinforcement of a reality we already knew: Nothing will ever come easily for the franchise quarterback with the invisible "Kick Me" sign affixed to the back of his jersey.
After an uplifting late-season ascent from the abyss that had the Eagles within eight points of a trip to the Super Bowl, McNabb seemed to have regained the regal status he once enjoyed in Philly. In June he landed a lucrative contract upgrade that could pay him as much as $24.5 million over the next two seasons, and no one was thinking about how close he had come to being permanently displaced on a cold late-November afternoon in Baltimore.
Now Vick, the quarterback McNabb defeated in the one NFC championship game out of five in which he was victorious (the Eagles' 27-10 thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons in January of 2005), will be a looming reminder that nothing is guaranteed. As long as McNabb plays well, he'll be The Man in the City of Brotherly Love. If he struggles, however, the haters will be out in full force.
Isn't that the way it always is with McNabb? Booed on draft day, subsequently blasted by an eclectic group of blowhards (Rush Limbaugh, Bernard Hopkins, NAACP leader J. Whyatt Mondesire), the man with the effervescent personality attracts random potshots with alarming regularity.
Rationally, most Eagles fans would likely prefer McNabb to Vick, who hasn't played since 2006 and seemed to be on a sharp decline after a highly promising start to his career. The supposed sins for which many Philly faithful criticize McNabb – being too quick to bolt from the pocket, struggling with his accuracy when throwing on the run – would figure to be far more pronounced in Vick.
Yet the backup quarterback is usually the most popular player in town, and this may be true even when the backup in question is a convicted felon who ran a dogfighting operation with grisly overtones. A few choppy early-season efforts from McNabb and a two-game deficit in the competitive NFC East, and trust me: plenty of vocal Eagles fans will be putting aside their sensitivity to man's best friend.
McNabb has the power to quell the potential quarterback controversy. It will all fade into the background if he plays as well as he did late last season and keeps Philly among the NFL's elite. Vick's reported contract is for $1.6 million this season with a team option for a second year at $5.2 million. If McNabb has a successful '09 season, the likelihood of Philly paying that much for a backup is slim (especially with the starter due to earn $11.2 million), and Vick will probably turn out to have been a one-year rental.
We know McNabb, who turns 33 in November, has it in him: Were it not for an even more improbable revival by Kurt Warner(notes), who trumped McNabb's NFC championship game comeback last January by guiding the Arizona Cardinals to a late go-ahead touchdown , the Eagles' all-time leader in passing yards (29,320) and touchdown passes (194) would have had a second chance at securing the Super Bowl ring that has eluded the franchise for XLIII years and counting.
Until that happens, McNabb will always inspire skepticism from a significant slice of the Philly fan base. If he's a bit sensitive after Thursday's news – and what star quarterback (including the allegedly retired one bouncing restlessly around his ranch in Hattiesburg, Miss.) doesn't get a little defensive at times like this? – my advice to him is to swallow hard and come out swinging.
That's the way McNabb handled the most precarious moment of his career, the second-half benching in Baltimore that could have ended an era. Coming off an embarrassing tie to the Cincinnati Bengals, after which McNabb admitted he didn't know the rule that regular season games end in a deadlock after a scoreless 15-minute overtime period, McNabb was shaky in the first two quarters against the tough Ravens defense. Coach Andy Reid, once his greatest defender, made a loaded decision.
Though the score was just 10-7, Reid sat McNabb and inserted Kevin Kolb(notes), who the team had picked in the second round of the '07 draft. Worse, Reid didn't even break the news to McNabb personally, delegating that duty to then-quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur. McNabb watched dejectedly from the sidelines as Kolb struggled mightily and the Ravens rolled to a 36-7 victory.
The next week McNabb got his job back and rallied the Eagles, then 5-5-1, to a season-saving four-game winning streak and, later, an impressive road playoff upset of the Giants. But the bottom line is that if Kolb had played even passable football in that second half in Baltimore, McNabb might well have stayed on the bench for the rest of the season and been granted his release shortly after the campaign.
That's how close he came to being displaced, and though his late brilliance gave us the illusion that he'd attained some comfort, the Vick signing clearly proves that was a misguided assumption. The NFL is a brutally fickle business, and even the greatest of players (Joe Montana, Dan Marino) have been told to hit the road by the franchises for which they worked their magic.
I had a good talk with McNabb after his triumphant playoff victory at Giants Stadium last January, and I loved the defiance in his voice as he addressed his ascent from the abyss.
"Trust me," he said. "I can still play."
He'll have to now, or a quarterback with far more talent than Kolb will be standing on the sidelines ready to replace him.
Of course Vick is an Eagle. And of course the team's fan base will embrace him as soon as the starter throws a couple of ugly interceptions.
With McNabb, how could we expect it to be any different?
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