Lightning rod of criticism

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BETHLEHEM, Pa. – It was a typical early August day at training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles, and it had brought the usual summer swirl of media. Amateur doctors by trade, many had passed through to eye Donovan McNabb's surgically repaired knee and ponder whether he was walking with a limp, was looking right, or in some cases, whether he'd ever be the same player again.

That night, as McNabb and defensive end Jevon Kearse flopped down on couches in the players lounge before heading out to a local sports bar, Kearse looked at the quarterback and shook his head.



"Man, I love my job," Kearse told McNabb. "I love the stuff I get. I like the recognition. And sometimes I think I have it hard with little stuff that happens here and there. But you. Man, I could not be you. You get a whole lotta (stuff). I don't ever want that."

Recounted to him later, Kearse's words prompted McNabb to muster a soft laugh.

"Story of my life," he said.

More accurately, this is the story of McNabb's life in the city of Philadelphia. And it is a tome flush with dark, highly publicized chapters. He's been booed on draft day and labeled a "company man" by former teammate Freddie Mitchell. He's been trashed on national television by Rush Limbaugh and incinerated by Terrell Owens. He's even been criticized for his mother's opinion.

Indeed, while all NFL quarterbacks have to deal with the steady burn of the spotlight, McNabb's tenure has been the essence of controversy. Despite being one of the league's most successful signal-callers over the last eight years, he's also become arguably the most consistent lightning-rod athlete in the NFL since the turn of the millennium. But as essayist William Hazlitt one wrote, "When a thing ceases to be the subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest." Framed in that light, McNabb might be the most interesting sports figure the city of Philadelphia has ever seen.


What Frank Lenti can't understand is how one of the most affable athletes he's ever coached has become such a hotly debated entity. When the Mount Carmel High School football coach looks at Donovan Jamal McNabb, he still sees the same bouncing, gregarious kid that he coached on Chicago's south side almost 15 years ago.

McNabb was rarely, if ever, the one to raise the ire of the coaching staff. Playing at an all-boys Catholic high school, he didn't get into any more trouble than any other teenaged kid. Even in the framework of the team he rarely caused waves, patiently waiting his turn as a backup sophomore quarterback on a state championship team, then ascending to a nationally recruited prospect as a junior and senior.

About the only buzz orbiting McNabb in those days was whether he could find a college that would allow him to develop as a pocket quarterback. And even then, once Syracuse was chosen, the only hullabaloo on the coaching staff was a few friendly wagers centering on how long it would take Donovan to draw Heisman Trophy consideration in college.

"He never did anything to negatively attract attention to himself," Lenti said. "He always worked hard and even with his talent, he was always one of the guys. There was never any controversy at all. Never."

Even now, Lenti has a hard time grasping where it all comes from; why McNabb bears the brunt of so much criticism. Maybe he would understand if McNabb were a loudmouth or a basket case or a player who couldn't cut it at the NFL level. But McNabb has been none of those things. Despite the money and stature he's acquired, he's retained a remarkably low profile in his private life.

McNabb was the second overall pick in the '99 draft. (AP)

While the dating and mating habits of Tom Brady and the marital bliss of Brett Favre have been discussed ad-nauseam by the national media, few outside of Philadelphia know that McNabb married his first college love, Raquel. And while Peyton Manning's exploits during Hurricane Katrina became a national headline, McNabb's league-leading work with the United Way and his own foundation to fight diabetes have been a footnote.

This is what Lenti sees. The kid that made good, made millions, and then grew into the man who would visit Mount Carmel High and spend time sitting with Lenti's secretary, Peggy Kienzle, before she passed several years ago. And the same kid that proved he could make it as a pocket passing quarterback despite only Syracuse offering to groom him in that type of system.

In fact, McNabb's success has been almost unparalleled since he entered the league. He's been far and away the jewel of the 1999 quarterback class, a group that included five first-round picks: McNabb, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and Daunte Culpepper. Beyond McNabb and the roller-coaster career of Culpepper, it's a group marked by utter failure.


A little over a week ago, Troy Vincent sat watching Sunday night football on NBC, and couldn't believe his ears. The former Eagles cornerback listened to the broadcast talk about the family struggles of Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid, relating how Reid had been such a successful coach over the years. And then, in what Vincent considered "the same breath," he listened to NBC's analysts question whether McNabb could still be a successful quarterback after last season's torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The next morning, Vincent picked up his phone and called McNabb with a resounding message of support.

"What I was seeing and hearing while I watched that game was that someone was trying to break Donovan," Vincent said. "I heard Al Michaels – and I'm not being critical of Al and John Madden and Andrea Kramer, they're doing what they are supposed to do – but I heard them have so much compassion for Andy Reid and his family and what a great coaching job he's done and how many games he's won.

"Well, let me tell you something. There has been one guy behind the center for almost all of those wins. The reality is No. 5 created a bunch of those wins. … They were basically questioning Donovan McNabb's ability to play. And I was like 'Are you kidding me?' If anybody was listening to that, that's what you heard."

Partially because of last season's season-ending knee injury, his age (30) and the franchise's decision to use its second-round pick during April's NFL draft to tab a future successor at the position in Kevin Kolb, McNabb's ability to successfully get over the injury has been a common theme this preseason.

When Vincent hears the annual criticism of McNabb, it forces him to wonder why the quarterback has never truly gotten credit for the success he has delivered to the Eagles franchise. Such success is undeniable.

In the regular season and playoffs combined, McNabb has won 65.1-percent of the games he has started. That's better than Peyton Manning (63-percent), Brett Favre (61.4), Matt Hasselbeck (57.4), Carson Palmer (54.3) and Drew Brees (53.2). He also has a better winning percentage in the playoffs (58.3 percent) than every other active NFL starter aside from Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.

McNabb had his share of rough moments in Super Bowl XXXIX. (AP)

But, the obvious criticism – and it's something McNabb readily points out himself – is that Brady, Manning and Favre own Super Bowl rings. And for the fans of Philadelphia, little has been more frustrating than seeing the Eagles advance to four straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl, only to walk away without a world championship.

That lack of a Super Bowl ring has typically fallen squarely on McNabb's shoulders. It can be heard on talk radio from angry fans on an annual basis, and it has been blasted at full volume in the Philadelphia media. Despite being the most successful quarterback in the franchise's modern-era history, his greatness has also been as hotly debated as any other.

When the Philadelphia Inquirer unveiled its 75th Anniversary section and named the top 75 Eagles of all time, McNabb barely made the top 10, coming in at No. 9. To put it in perspective, safety Brian Dawkins got a far better nod at No. 5. The reasoning behind McNabb's slot was punctuated by columnist Ashley Fox, who weaved the phrase "And yet …" throughout McNabb's entry. As in, he's got great statistics and a fine winning percentage, and yet he's never won a Super Bowl:

"In 2004, McNabb threw for 3,875 yards and 31 TDs in 15 regular-season games, leading the Eagles to their first Super Bowl since 1980. And yet … Rush Limbaugh. Terrell Owens. The draft. The last few minutes of the Super Bowl loss to New England. The sports hernia. The knee. McNabb is one of the greatest Eagles of all time, and yet his career to date is, as the 30-year-old readily admitted, incomplete."

And yet, such words only begin to sum up why McNabb has continually been a topic of debate since landing with the Eagles.

"Man, that's Philly for you," Kearse said. "He's in a situation where he can't win for losing. Everything that we do, it comes back to Donovan in one form or another, because he's our leader. People here have to put the blame on somebody. And it just so happens that he's always the guy."


Ultimately, it begs one question: How much of the controversy is truly McNabb's fault? He couldn't control it when he was booed on draft day by Eagles fans and then-Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, who in what can now be considered a cringe of hindsight, favored Ricky Williams as the No. 2 overall pick.

And McNabb couldn't be held responsible for the flap in 2003, when Rush Limbaugh said from the set of ESPN's "NFL Sunday Countdown" that McNabb's prestige had been drummed up by media that had "… been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve."

The harmony did not last between Owens and McNabb. (AP)

It was a comment that caused a national uproar and ultimately ended Limbaugh's career at ESPN. And for most players, such a moment would represent the high-water mark in career controversy. But for McNabb, it was destined to be a footnote. Next would come Terrell Owens, and a meltdown that would spew megatons of radioactive innuendo into the atmosphere in Philadelphia.

By the time Owens had come and gone, a number of issues regarding McNabb would be publicly debated. Did he go soft in the final quarter of the Super Bowl against New England? Was he a "company man" who went silent as the Eagles nickel and dimed other players? Had McNabb, who signed a 12-year contract extension in 2002 potentially worth $115 million, insulated himself from the media to protect his own image?

At least some of those issues stem from being the leader of a team with a hard-edged roster ideology. Historically, the Eagles have been very prudent about the players that eat their salary cap dollars. For various reasons – mostly a mix between age and finances – players such as Owens, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas, Duce Staley and Vincent have failed to land the mega contract from the Eagles. And that has typically put McNabb into the line of fire from teammates who expected him to go to bat for them with management.

But Vincent pointed out that there are other franchises, such as the New England Patriots, that have the same ideologies and yet McNabb rarely gets the same consideration as Tom Brady. That's a distinction Vincent draws between McNabb and several other quarterbacks in the league. Brady gets a free pass from responsibility when the Patriots go into cost-cutting mode, Brett Favre gets the benefit of the doubt when he makes demands to Green Bay Packers management, and meanwhile, McNabb stays silent and gets dragged into someone else's debate.

"Can someone please talk about that double standard because it does exist?" Vincent asked. "Brett Favre speaks out. Does he get criticized? Does he get criticized when he says he wants this or that or isn't going to do this or that? Does he ever get criticized? Absolutely not.

"I've got two quarterbacks – No. 4 (Favre) and No. 5 (McNabb). I've got one guy who is 37 and another guy who is 30 and coming off an injury. And you're telling me that Donovan can't play anymore? That he can't operate an offense anymore? Are you kidding me?"

Added Kearse: "Donovan gets into a lot of no-win situations. If he says something, he's getting into someone else's business. If he doesn't say something, he's not sticking up for someone. When he wins, they celebrate him, but if he doesn't win it all, they tear him down. He's damned if he do, and he's damned if he don't."

Perhaps no situation underscored those points like the events of late last season when McNabb was drawn into another controversy when his mother Wilma posted a comment on her blog that fans might "crucify" her son if the Eagles were to win a Super Bowl with Jeff Garcia at the helm. A few months later, the Eagles drafted Kolb to groom as McNabb's successor, and suddenly speculation turned to whether his days with the franchise were numbered.

"In Philadelphia, the head coach and the quarterback are under the microscope, and that's understandable," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "Donovan understands that. He deals with that better than anybody in the National Football League. What happens in this city is the sounding board ends up being the bad ear.

"If you took a poll in the city of Philadelphia, 99 percent of the people, if you asked them who they want as their quarterback, they are going to tell you Donovan McNabb. They love the guy. It's maybe one percent that doesn't support him. And that's the one percent that gets out there."


Of course, Reid has no factual basis to support his "one-percent" theory. But if that is the only place the doubt is coming from, it certainly has a remarkable way of manifesting itself in the national media.

Reid, center, and McNabb are going into their ninth year together. (AP)

If the topic of conversation isn't his record, then it's his health. If it's not his health, it's something he said. If it's not something he said, it's something he didn't say. And if it's none of those things, then it's someone else's opinion that he has to address.

"Early on, I wouldn't say things like that were a shock, but it was something you had to get used to," McNabb said. "Somehow I always seem to be the story. During the year, I'm the story. When the season's over, I'm the story. When nothing is going on, I'm the story. I don't know why. … I never know. And you'll never have the answer. But if it wasn't me, it was Allen Iverson. If it wasn't Iverson, it was Scott Rolen or Jimmy Rollins or Philly's pitching or the Flyers not winning games.

"It's a love-hate relationship in Philadelphia, and that's not a bad thing. You have your 85 percent who love you. You have your 10 percent of the people who say 'He's great, but …' Then you have your five percent who say 'I can't stand him.' It just goes like that. But that's what drives you. Not everybody is going to love you."

Not everybody is going to understand you, either, which is why McNabb has tried to be more proactive about getting his voice to the public – even if it means going it alone. And McNabb has done just that, hiring former Eagles public relations staffer Rich Burg to be his publicist. A relationship which got off to a bang in May when McNabb essentially called his own press conference after the team drafted Kolb. And McNabb raised a few more eyebrows last month, when he spoke candidly about his shock over the team's release of linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. With Kolb in the fold and his prime years dwindling, perhaps McNabb feels it's time for him to be heard more clearly than ever.

"You know why he's that vocal now? Because he's on the outside looking in," Vincent said. "Before, you heard those things about how Donovan was close to management and people were calling him a company man. Well now that things are shifting and all of the sudden you're the guy they are attacking, you sing a different tune. It shows he's more mature now. It shows he understands his own voice. He's always had a strong voice."

Remarkably, despite so many years as one of the league's biggest lighting rods, it was common to hear McNabb's voice last. And undoubtedly it won't be his last controversy. As McNabb said himself, this is the story of his life.

Maybe now he figures it's time he's the one telling it.