The Curious Case of Donovan McNabb & the Secret to Success in Philadelphia

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This past weekend in Indianapolis, NFL coaches, GM’s and scouts were poking, prodding and drooling over some of the physical specimens attending the combine that are hoping to achieve their long awaited NFL dream. The performances and physical accomplishments of these young men have already and will continue to impact draft boards across the league. As Chip Kelly and the rest of the Eagles personnel team sat in stands of Lucas Oil Stadium trying to determine how the physical traits of these college football stars translate to success in the NFL, hopefully they realized that, the one trait, that is perhaps, most important, cannot be measured in Indianapolis. That is mental toughness. Mental toughness cannot be measured because it is impossible to define. It can only be evaluated over the course of a career. Thanks to Donovan McNabb and his controversial career, Philadelphia now knows that mental toughness is not just an important trait for its athletes, its a requirement.

As various members of the national media love to point out, Philadelphia is one tough town. Unfortunately for Donovan McNabb, he learned that the hard way when his moment of glory was quickly smothered with a smattering of “Boo’s” from the city of brotherly love. It was no secret, though, that this brotherhood had envisioned #34 with dreadlocks making the Dallas Cowboys his personal doormat for the next 10-12 years. The boo’s were clearly less about McNabb and more about the general void left by the absence of Ricky Williams in Philadelphia. In any case, being booed during the biggest moment of your life cannot be pleasant. McNabb handled it well though, at least initially. In fact, he used it as motivation. In McNabb’s first few years wearing midnight green, he was having fun playing the game he loved and it showed. He didn’t deny that he was upset about the situation that day in Radio City Music Hall in 1999, but he was confident in his abilities and he was letting his play on the field do the talking. In his first full season as starter, he led the Eagles to the playoffs and then to the NFC championship the year after that only to lose to the “Greatest Show on Turf”.

In the 2002 season, McNabb once again led the Eagles through the playoffs, to the NFC Championship only to see the game end with Ronde Barber streaking down the left sideline and into the endzone for the last touchdown to ever be scored in Veteran’s stadium.
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Still though, things were looking up for the Eagles and for McNabb’s career. After a painful offseason, he collected himself and, after tactfully handling some racial criticism from Rush Limbaugh, brought the Eagles back to a third consecutive NFC Championship game against the Carolina Panthers where they, again, came up small. At this point, after losing three consecutive NFC championships and performing poorly in the previous two, a little doubt may have crept up into his mind. McNabb officially had a monkey on his back. The following season, though, brought slightly more success as he was finally able to get the Eagles over the hump and into the big game with the help of the infamous Terrell Owens. Of course, the Eagles lost this game but it was what happened during the last minute of the game that initiated the downward spiral of McNabb’s career. With the game on the line in the final minute, not only was McNabb unable to take his team down the field for a tying field goal, he allegedly threw up in the huddle. In his defense, McNabb is likely not the first player to puke during the Super Bowl and, generally speaking, a Quarterback should not be judged by his ability to control certain bodily functions during a game. For McNabb, though, it was much bigger than simply controlling his bodily functions as the incident ignited the exponential growth of the monkey on his back. He was becoming synonymous with the “choke artist” label and puking on the field in a key moment only gave that label a nice, glossy finish. Unfortunately for McNabb, that label would stick and he would never recover from it.

From that point on, it seemed as if there were new obstacles for Donovan to hurdle every season. In 2005, he dealt with the agonizing drama that the Terrell Owens feud brought. It was this feud that unveiled the first chink in McNabb’s armor. Suddenly, the quiet leader who had become so adept at brushing criticism to the side became immersed in it. He laughed it off during press conferences but it was obvious that it bothered him. He ended the season on injured reserve for a sports hernia while the rest of Philadelphia watched the season melt away in the hands of Mike McMahon. (This picture sums it up quite nicely).
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In 2006, McNabb sent the city into a state of panic by tearing his ACL only to be replaced by “Mr. Do No Wrong” himself, Jeff Garcia, who gave Philadelphia the Christmas gift they will never forget. Then, in the following spring, as if Donovan needed any additional pressure, the Eagles drafted Kevin Kolb. After an uneventful 2007 season marred by constant talk of a QB controversy, McNabb led the Eagles back to the NFC championship in 2008 only to miss a wide open Hank Baskett across the middle of the field in the waning minutes of a another loss, this time to the Cardinals. 2009 was yet another year of moderate success tempered by an annoying acoustic guitar performance by Donovan followed by a pathetic playoff loss to the hated Cowboys. By the following Easter, McNabb was traded to the Redskins ending the 11 year love/hate relationship between McNabb and the city of brotherly love (and hate).

The last five seasons McNabb played in Philadelphia were nothing like the first six. The once cool and collected young leader who shrugged off racially charged criticism from Rush Limbaugh became a sponge for denigration. He soaked it all in and bottled it up inside. He suddenly felt the need to defend himself in the public arena, as opposed to the football field where he previously fought his battles. The criticism from the local media and fans had clearly gotten to him. What detached him further from the fans, though, was not what he said, but what he didn’t say. Being the astute communications major that he was, he never made any bold or brash statements but subtle innuendos intended to shift blame/criticism elsewhere or express his unhappiness with the Eagles organization without ever directly communicating it. He made lukewarm comments about Jeff Garcia and Kevin Kolb. He routinely took “full responsibility” for losses as the QB, then made subtle comments about the youth of the team or about how the offense did “their” part in gaining the lead against the Cardinals in the NFC championship. He repeated the same behavior in Washington. He said all the right things during the season, even after being benched and then opened up the flood gates on Mike Shanahan after being released. And, finally, after a final unsuccessful season in Minnesota, he went on ESPN and named himself the most unfairly criticized QB in the history of the NFL. The man was in desperate need of a vacation.

Donovan McNabb is not the only player in NFL history that has had to endure an enormous amount of criticism, but others had methods to channel it. Donovan did not and in the second half of his career, he began to display it on the field. He tried so hard to look like he wasn’t affected by the big moments and the pressure, but he was only fooling himself. Everyone else in Philadelphia knew that he didn’t have it in him. After his 11 year career, the fans were actually convinced that winning games in the clutch
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only happens in the movies or in New England. If the game ever came down to a two minute drive to tie or win the game, it might as well have been over. When the great QB’s like Brady or Manning find themselves in those situations, they go win the game, McNabb would try not to lose. He grasped the ball just a little bit tighter in those situations which only further burdened him as he was now responsible for the death of millions of worms because of all of ground balls he threw.

The rest of the story is history. Its hard not to think what could have been but the marriage between the city of Philadelphia and Donovan McNabb was not built to last. It’s possible that much of the criticism McNabb endured was unfair. After all, he could be the best QB in the history of the franchise. This was the argument made by many pundits in the national media. That was soon put to rest, though, when those in Washington had their “ah ha” moment about McNabb. Given a few years to reflect, though, the Donovan McNabb story has become a sad one, a story about what might have been. Like any failed relationship, though, there is always a lesson learned.

In the end, it wasn’t his arm strength, 40 time, pocket presence or accuracy that kept McNabb and the Eagles from winning the big one. McNabb could’ve won with his skill set in many different NFL cities, but not in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has an additional requirement for its athletes, mental toughness. Philadelphians require it because they are bred in it. With no Super Bowls to boast about, Philadelphians still show up in masses each Sunday to support their team. And at the completion of each season, they watch another team hoisting that coveted Lombardi trophy, making them a little tougher on the inside. They take some time off and come back louder and stronger the next season. Philadelphians embody the meaning of mental toughness and they expect the same out of their athletes.

Now that the combine is complete and all of the measurables have been recorded, hopefully Chip Kelly and the Eagles find the time to focus on the more abstract side of player evaluation. With the Eagles picking as high as the # 4 overall pick, the fans will be placing a lot of faith and hope in whichever player is selected, to bring them their first ever Lombardi trophy. Whether that player views that as an opportunity or a burden, will go a long way in determining their success in Philadelphia. Donovan McNabb has taught us that.

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