Quarterback Donovan McNabb's(notes) release by the Minnesota Vikings provides instant intrigue throughout the NFL. The mere thought that a passer with some modicum of throwing talent is available on waivers is usually enough to blow up phones around the league.
Sadly, McNabb is likely to end up in a disarming situation similar to what happened with Kyle Orton(notes) a week ago. As Houston Texans and Chicago Bears fans waited, the Kansas City Chiefs swooped in and claimed Orton. While many of the 23 teams ahead of Chicago in the waiver order don't have a pressing need at quarterback, don't expect McNabb to get anywhere close to going to his hometown of Chicago or playoff-bound Houston. League sources have suggested that teams have been known to call in favors with clubs to block other franchises from making potentially beneficial claims.
But regardless of what happens with McNabb in the immediate future, another pressing thought comes to mind: What happened to this once great player?
At the end of 2009, McNabb was 33 and presumably good to go for another three or four seasons. His résumé was tarnished by postseason failures, but if you considered the entire body of work, McNabb very much seemed like a potential Hall of Famer. Now, that possibility seems very remote.
Measure McNabb's statistical and team accomplishments against Dan Fouts's or Warren Moon's and he's practically a shoo-in for the hall. He might still get in, but that conversation seems to be going up in smoke faster than whoever is at the top of the Republican presidential candidate polls.
In a span of less than 24 months, McNabb has gone from a player on a wildly interesting journey to just a journeyman. The Philadelphia Eagles traded him in April 2010 to the Washington Redskins, where Mike Shanahan grew tired of him after only 13 games. He got shipped to Minnesota for the rough equivalent of a bag of jockstraps and proceeded to flame out in six games, opening the gates to the Christian Ponder(notes) era a year faster than the Vikings really wanted.
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In that time, people close to McNabb have sworn up and down that he was getting himself in shape and felt rejuvenated for a return to glory. Against those declarations, there were more and more stories about how McNabb had become aloof with teammates and unwilling to do the grind work necessary to be great. That's one of the reasons that Eagles coach Andy Reid felt the need to bench him in the middle of a game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. At the time, it seemed like a drastic message. Now, it just looks like a harbinger moment.
Fact is, McNabb has now found his way to the pine in three of the past four seasons. That doesn't happen to truly great players. It might happen once, but then it festers, causing some seething reaction that great players never forget. For all those people who make fun of Tom Brady(notes) for crying about not getting drafted until the sixth round, understand that's part of what makes him great. Brady hasn't let go of the anger.
By contrast, McNabb has taken a much more passive-aggressive approach throughout his career. When Eagles fans wanted the team to take Ricky Williams(notes) instead of him with the second pick in the 1999 NFL draft, he pretended it didn't bother him. When Rush Limbaugh made controversial remarks about his play while agitating the media, McNabb acted above it all. When former teammate Terrell Owens(notes) mocked him for not being in shape during Super Bowl XXXIX against the New England Patriots, McNabb brooded but never truly fired back. He spoke of "black-on-black crime" in 2006 against Owens, demeaning the essence of what the term really means.
When the Eagles were ready to unload McNabb in 2010, the Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders appeared to have been interested. Instead, his disinterest in those teams likely played a role in Philly shipping him to Washington, where he would theoretically have the chance to get revenge by playing the Eagles twice a season. The common theme of all these incidents, particularly the spat with Owens, seems to be that McNabb is looking for sympathy, not admiration. He has played the martyr, not the warrior.
The act has fallen flat, which may be a big reason why, at age 35, McNabb is now a guy without any real control over his career. Instead of seizing opportunity, he has let it slip away. At one time, that opportunity included a chance to one day stand among the greats of the game and be immortalized in bronze.
Today, that seems like, at best, a long shot – roughly the same chance McNabb has of ending up with a real contender by the end of the waiver period on Friday.
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