It's common at this stage of the playoffs for neutral fans to rally around a star they deem deserving of winning it all. It happens in every sport. It could be for his personality; for a history of near misses; a career achievement kind of thing. Given the choice, people pull for the good guy.
John Elway. Ray Bourque. Kevin Garnett. Peyton Manning. Jerome Bettis. And so on.
McNabb wasn't always smiling this season.
(Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)
Donovan McNabb isn't there yet, but these playoffs have the potential to tilt that way.
He leads his Philadelphia Eagles into their fifth NFC championship game in eight seasons Sunday at Arizona riding a surge of goodwill momentum that, while impossible to measure, at least seems palpable.
After years of failure and frustration, controversy and comments, and even a midseason benching and admission of not knowing overtime rules, McNabb has taken on the heart-warming survivor's role. He's a bit of the bumbling everyman (who hasn't screwed up at work?) in what may be his last real chance at a career-defining championship.
Along with Kurt Warner, whose lengthy roller-coaster career, great back story and public displays of faith make him popular, McNabb is the prime candidate to become the nation's darling.
Yet there's a strange juxtaposition with McNabb. (And with him, isn't there always something?)
He's a sympathetic and popular figure all across America. Except in one town – Philadelphia
Elway, Bourque, Garnett, Manning, Bettis and the others were legends in their home cities as they chased their elusive championship. They could do little wrong – in Garnett's and Bourque's case with multiple fan bases. Bourque was so beloved in Boston, the city threw him a rally after he won the Stanley Cup for the Colorado Avalanche.
With those players, it was the country that warmed to them after they established a devoted following in their hometown.
McNabb, on the other hand, is doing it in spite of his local reputation. While he certainly has supporters – far more than is generally acknowledged – there is a portion of the Eagles fan base that still doubts and debates him.
"I'm gonna get ripped," McNabb told Yahoo! Sports Sunday following his playful phone antic late in the divisional victory over the Giants. "That is the story of my life. It's something to talk about: 'Donovan, what an idiot.' "
Philadelphia fans get a bad rap. They're painted as unreasonable and nasty when intense and demanding is more accurate. They are forever dealing with the day back in the 1960s when some people booed Santa Claus (who may have been drunk and deserved it).
Whatever. If you're going to label Philly fans dogs, then at least acknowledge that while they can be as mean as pit bulls, they're also as loyal as golden retrievers.
The Eagles would never need extra time to sell out a playoff game to avoid a local blackout as Arizona did two weeks ago. Never.
Being tough on sports figures isn't necessarily wrong. The fans aren't naïve. They expect the great effort and results.
They shouldn't apologize for calling out McNabb for too many interceptions, poor decisions or fatigue in a Super Bowl loss. Not playing well is the main reason people get on him. If he doesn't deliver a victory against the underdog Cardinals, he can expect more of the same.
Yet it's that very "Philadelphia-ness" that has endeared McNabb to a country that seems confused by the Eagles' fan base. From day one, they've seen this likeable, talented guy under fire. He was booed as a draft pick, questioned as a starter and nearly run out of town this very season.
Some of it is a result of his on-field mistakes. Some is just absurd – T.O. doing sit-ups in a driveway, Rush Limbaugh labeling him a liberal media creation.
Somehow, McNabb always seems to stoke the flames.
(Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)
Through it all, McNabb has kept his composure about as well as could be expected. He didn't ask for a conservative radio host to thrust him into a national debate on race.
These things happen to McNabb, though. He's somehow had to defend himself for both being black and not black enough.
Through each knockdown he has gotten back up. Each setback he's returned to try to do better. Each controversy he's tried to handle with class. He still has his sense of humor. He still has his humility.
He's still standing.
In Philly they understandably want the bottom line. If McNabb is a nice guy, that's fine. It's not like he's coming over to the house to be your friend, though. He's paid to win a Super Bowl.
That makes perfect sense to them. Less so everywhere else, where part of McNabb's appeal is to stick it to the very Philly fans who, in actuality, want him to succeed the most.
The situation is unlike just about anything you've ever seen.
Had Elway or Bettis or Manning failed to win a title, they still would've been iconic figures in Denver, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. The love affair between athlete and fan was too tight to be broken by bridesmaid status.
Victory vindicated, not defined, that relationship.
For McNabb, in Philly, it's about getting two more victories. And for different reasons, fans local and national are rooting for him to succeed.