The Mystery of Donovan McNabb

by G.D.

A few weeks ago, I was in D.C. and hopped off the Metro or whatever cute little name Washingtonians call the subway, when I looked up and saw a giant billboard emblazoned with the image of Donovan McNabb, who had been the longtime signal-caller for my beloved Eagles, peering over his shoulder in an ad for the Washington Redskins. I'd gotten used to the McNabb trade chatter that reliably bubbled up every offseason, but the Eagles brass went from publicly declaring that he'd be their starter before the draft to trading him to a division rival within a matter of days. It had been a hot minute since the trade, but looking at 5 in Redskin colors still felt like a punch in the gut.

Not that that sentiment would've been a universal response among Birds fans. He was famously booed the day he was drafted for not being Ricky Williams, starting his career as the latest entry in a long line of supremely talented, polarizing Philly sports stars (Wilt, Schmidt, Cunningham, Barkley Iverson...) who struggled to win over the city's fans. My cousins and I got into long arguments at Thanksgiving over McNabb. Like a lot of folks, they wanted him gone. They complained about his tendency to throw balls in the dirt and away from his receivers. They thought he was a showboat and aloof, that he made bad decisions with the ball. I'd point out that he played in a maddeningly unbalanced offense that asked him to throw the ball 65 to 70 percent of the time, that he played years with special-team caliber players on the outside, got hit a ton, and still went several games at a time without throwing a pick. (He has the second-best TD-to-INT ratio ever.) But it was like we were watching different players. My boy, a Giants fan who saw dude make his team work twice a year, used to ask what all the hate was about. I never knew how to answer him. I honestly didn't know.

Last weekend, the Inky ran a story detailing what happened behind the scenes before the trade, and it's a lot less dramatic than trading the face of the franchise might seem from the outside; the Birds liked what they saw from Kevin Kolb, and with both his, McNabb's, and Vick's contracts up next year, felt like they had to secure their future and couldn't run the risk of both leaving for nothing. The younger guys liked him, but not fond of the fact that it was more or less his team. Fair enough. But playing quarterback in the N.F.L. is so toweringly hard, that even people who play it competently but unspectacularly have long, lucrative careers (see Kerry Collins). But McNabb has had a borderline Hall-of-Fame career, and is still one of the five or six best QBs playing. In my football-watching lifetime, few teams have successfully replaced a franchise QB with his franchise understudy seamlessly (Montana/Young; Bledsoe/Brady, maybe Brees/Rivers).

My friend and blogmate Joel, a native Houstonian, said he never got over seeing Warren Moon in another uniform after he parted ways with the Oilers. Real talk: I feel like McNabb got such a raw deal from Philly's fans over his career that it wouldn't be terrible if he lit up the Birds up twice a year for the next few seasons. I'm not saying I'd cheer for the Redskins. That would be distasteful, and my family might disown me. I just wouldn't be broken up if the Eagles took Ls in those games.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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