McNabb back in the saddle

PHILADELPHIA – Maybe Andy Reid had been right, not that Donovan McNabb would ever admit it. Maybe the best thing that could've happened was "the benching," when an irritated McNabb stood beneath the hood of his green parka and watched his heir apparent, Kevin Kolb, unsuccessfully try to lead the Philadelphia Eagles out of their second-half morass against Baltimore.

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McNabb was on top of the world after the Eagles sent Dallas packing.

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After all, McNabb was celebrating, wasn't he? Five weeks after one of the lowest points of his career, there McNabb was Sunday night in the players' parking lot outside Lincoln Financial Field, hugging his mother and high-fiving his brother and anticipating his first playoff appearance in what seemed like a lifetime. McNabb and the Eagles had thumped the Dallas Cowboys, the odds, and the critics to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed. As Reid had predicted when he sent McNabb to the bench in Week 12 at Baltimore, McNabb needed to take a step back in order to take two steps forward.

That's the way it ended up, anyway, even though McNabb would never publicly acknowledge that Reid's move had been the right one.

All McNabb saw after that 44-6 win over Dallas – when he led the Eagles to their fourth win in five games with another stellar job of, as Reid said, "managing" the game – was redemption. Sweet redemption.

"I've been kind of revived, I guess," McNabb said. "[The critics have] thrown me out, they ran over me, spit on me, but you know what? I just continue to prevail. I just continue to keep my chin high, stay positive, and just make sure that guys in this locker room understand that if given the opportunity that we will take full advantage of it."

No player in the National Football League has used slights, real and perceived, as fuel more than McNabb has, and that is a major reason why the Eagles have evolved from NFC East cellar-dweller into one of the hottest teams in the playoffs. He won't outright admit it, but McNabb is playing to make a point: He is invaluable to the Eagles today, Sunday, and next season, and without him the Eagles are, at best, mediocre and definitely not headed to the playoffs.

Last month, it didn't look that way. Last month, it looked like the McNabb era in Philadelphia was over. His hands shoved into that parka, McNabb stood alone among his teammates on the Eagles sideline, helpless, humiliated and seething as Kolb futilely tried to rally the Eagles' stagnant offense. The result: A 36-7 loss to the Ravens that dropped the Eagles to 5-5-1 with five games to play.

After proclaiming himself stronger than ever during training camp, McNabb had started the season quickly. He was leaner and more mobile, finally fully healed from the ACL injury that had prematurely ended his 2006 season. As is his tendency, McNabb also was playing with a sizable chip on his shoulder: He wanted to prove to everyone that, at 31 years old, he wasn't past his prime, wasn't too slow, and could turn average receivers into go-to players.

But McNabb, like the rest of the team, was erratic. In part because of injuries to Brian Westbrook, Reid refused to rely on the running game. The defense couldn't get crucial stops, which cost them games against Chicago and Washington. And McNabb was inconsistent, sending passes at his receivers' feet, above their heads, out of bounds and uncharacteristically into the hands of opposing defenders.

After a third straight NFC East loss, against the New York Giants, dropped the Eagles to 5-5, they couldn't beat the Bengals on a blustery day in Cincinnati. The Eagles called an inordinate amount of pass plays – McNabb threw a career-high 58 times – despite the conditions, and the game ended in a tie.

Stunningly, McNabb admitted afterward that he thought the game would continue after the first overtime, as if that excused his poor performance against one of the worst teams in the league.

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The Ravens contributed to McNabb reaching a career low point.

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At 5-5-1 and with fans calling for his job, Reid did the unthinkable the next week at Baltimore: He yanked McNabb, who had fumbled twice and thrown an interception, at halftime with the Eagles trailing the Ravens only by three points. Only Reid didn't tell McNabb. He delegated that responsibility to quarterbacks coach Patrick Shurmur.

"My first reaction was, 'Wow,' " McNabb said.

After the ugly loss, Reid explained that he thought McNabb needed a different vantage point to get back on track – he'd completed 58.6 percent of his passes at that point, with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions – and the next day he reinstated McNabb as the Eagles' starter. Irreparable damage was done to the once-tight McNabb-Reid relationship, but there was an upside. The other players vowed to elevate their play. They had watched their quarterback publicly flogged for their failings. It wouldn't happen again.

"Everybody saw your leader on the field and your main piece on the offense get benched, not just because of how he was playing but because not everybody was producing," offensive guard Todd Herremans said. "So when we see that Coach is going to put Donovan back in, everybody realized, 'All right, step it up, it's not just him.' "

The results were immediate. In wins over Arizona, the Giants and Cleveland, everyone, including McNabb, played well. The defense got stops. Westbrook re-emerged as a weapon. And McNabb steadied, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and one interception.

Despite a setback against Washington that could've cost the Eagles a playoff berth, they regrouped Sunday against Dallas, got some help from Oakland and Houston, stole the NFC's final playoff spot and will face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

As a result, McNabb wants a contract extension. No more questions about his status, or his future, or his backup.

"I think Donovan's in a great place mentally and physically," Reid said on Wednesday.

But was McNabb ready to admit the benching was the best thing that happened to him and the team? Not a chance.

"I was happy then," McNabb said, "and I'm happy now."

Ashley Fox is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.