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Friday, December 12, 2003
Updated: December 18, 11:32 AM ET
Donnie Football leads campaign trail

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

The political war of Donovan McNabb, unilaterally declared by Mr. Rush Limbaugh via unexpected verbal blitzkrieg after the Iggles stumble-bummed out of the gate and started 0-2 at home, is now over.

D-Day was last Sunday. Eagles 36, Cowboys 10.

Field General McNabb's campaign HQ declared victory with 13 of 16 precincts reporting. McNabb had wins in 10 of his last 11 games, including the last eight, assuring a runoff (known as a "playoff spot").

Donovan McNabb
Rain, wind, snow, or injured: Donnie Football has found a way to win in 2003.

In the manner of all influential political pundits and other jackals, Limbaugh had piled on, gone for the jugular of what seemed to be mortally wounded prey -- McNabb was and is working without a net, i.e., little in the way of wideouts, compared to say, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Francisco, St. Louis, etc. McNabb's opposable thumb had stopped opposing so well due to a painfully chipped bone. He also had muscle pulls in both legs. But that just made it a Horatio Alger kind of story, athletically speaking, of course. McNabb became a political football. Pro football is full of political footballs.

And since football is the national pastime, so are we.

* * * * *

Like politics, all football is local, starting with the person in the mirror, then moving out to the local landscape and constituency. People like to root for people who look like them, act like them, live like them, or where they live, or, at the very least, claim to represent their interests, tacitly or overtly. We root in football. We care. Sure, we follow baseball and basketball. But football is the master of the public mood swing. One referendum per week.

Rush Limbaugh was catalytic in the politicizing of Donnie McNabb -- pundit says to audience, tacitly or overtly, "You're getting screwed! You're getting screwed!" and us human political footballs getting our psyches kicked in, think, "Hey, I'm getting screwed! I'm getting screwed!" We can't wait to tune in for more, clinging to this notion that some agitators, political opposites and basically everybody except our own selves -- heaven forbid that -- are degrading us. Thus we become the continuum, and suckers too, because all of us ain't getting rich for doing nothing but talking.

McNabb, through no fault or desire of his own, was positioned not as being the overrated field general for all the citizens of Philly but as being an African-American-only rep, an affirmative-action baby who was being propped up by the NFL and liberal media. He was slated to appear in a lot of upcoming TV campaigns that have since come up. I mean, a lot of TV campaigns, league-related, and charity-related and and commercially-related. He was going to be everywhere as a face of the league, touting outerwear -- "Only McNabb could have made that play!" -- or reading, or throwing the rock around with kids, or sharing Chunky Soup with a GameBoy with whom he good-naturedly argued: "I'm McNabb." "No, I'm McNabb." "I'm McNabb -- it's my house and I'm McNabb."

Donnie Football brought it all off pretty flawlessly. But even he couldn't possibly also bring off representing an entire class of people for which he couldn't possibly take any kind of collective responsibility. Hard enough to overcome the limitations of James Thrash. How could a man perform with such an albatross around his neck, while smiling, joshing, saying nice-nice, and taping so many spots? Who could carry that and the Eagles' offense too?

Well, not all men could.

A thoroughbred responds to the whip.

Donovan McNabb
McNabb has 2,500 yards passing and over 300 rushing.

A mule bucks and sucks.

Was McNabb performing under pressure? Was he being severely judged? Aren't we all? And if you think you're not susceptible to this sort of propaganda and campaign sloganeering, think again.

I could see it in the body language of supposedly "objective" broadcasters, show hosts, anchors, color analysts, commentators ... and I could certainly read between the lines of many written comments. Not all, certainly not, but certainly in some few, and I could name them, but I won't, because it's not their fault that they looked crushed when McNabb played, not well, but pointedly over the last three months. They might have secretly agreed with Rush, purely on an athletic basis. They just didn't think McNabb could play that well. But this evaluation damns their expertise, not his, with faint praise that ignores the basic strength of McNabb's game and his on-field capes. As we've written in this space before, not even talking about Favre, Manning, or Brady, even among only the browner QBs, McNabb is certainly no more gifted than Culpepper or Steve McNair and not as gifted as Michael Vick. But that is not what McNabb's game is about. It's about will, cunning, acumen, passion -- then about physical abilities, which is why I find the Jackie Robinson analogy so very apt for McNabb.

He just does whatever it takes.

By way of example, I give you his bad-weather game in Green Bay against the Pack on November 10. Both he and Favre had wounded thumbs, and were trying to throw a wet, frozen ball around. Both had the ball slip on them plenty. But on the key play, a third-and-goal at the 5-yard line for the game-winner at the end, McNabb was shrewd enough to put both hands on the ball when he pump-faked a slant route, and then somehow held on and perfectly guided an out throw under those conditions so that even the likes of Todd Pinkston could not drop it. If Jackie Robinson had QB, it's probably what he would've done.

No, Donnie McNabb isn't the first starting black quarterback, but he damn sure is the first one to get called out on national TV by a national political icon and said by that icon to be overrated and propped up by the league and the media. Not even Jackie Robinson dealt with that. McNabb's calm in the resulting media storm and his play since under the silence of pointed observation bely the fire he must have in the belly, to lift the Eagles' receiver-deprived offense off the mat. McNabb and campaign manager Andy Reid instead concentrated on what the Eagles' did have -- a good O-line, even if banged up, and a deep core of functional running backs.

That O-line, those three backs (Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley), McNabb, and their own version of the blitzkrieg on D, may now end up taking the Eagles to the Super Bowl -- just as we had it at the beginning of this season -- although the Rams will be a semi-formidable roadblock. (Also, to give the devil, or merely the political opposition, his due, Mr. Limbaugh, prodded by his inside sources, was on the Patriots early, and baby, look at them now.)

* * * * *

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson hasn't been able to lift the Bucs on his shoulders.

Now, some NFL QBs don't have that fire in the belly you need to respond when asked to run for political office of this type. Take Brad Johnson, for example. The Tampa Bay quarterback won the Super Bowl last year, was the comfortable incumbent, and has been pretty much made of Teflon in this, his honeymoon year.

The Bucs tanked, of course, in the most desultory manner. In the way of politics, and the NFL, the head coach and the quarterback usually catch most of the heat for failing in the hustings and the primaries, just as the candidate and the campaign manager take the fall in politics. But Johnson's name hasn't really come up. If it did, it was in the form of Keyshawn Johnson. Keyshawn and Warren Sapp are sort of the Willie Hortons of the Bucs' current campaign; Jon Gruden's lack of experience of handling personnel, or the lack of Mike Alstott, or the requisite Super Bowl hangover -- all have been given as quiet reasons for the Bucs' demise, but no one has come forth saying Brad Johnson is being propped up the league and the liberal media, even though he has yet to take the bull by the horns in any one game and whip the troops into shape by force of his will and dint of personality or game. Howard Dean he ain't, though he may have a resemblance to either Jeb Bush or Al Gore, I can't figure out which; and this is not a bad thing if you're Brad J.

* * * * *

Steve McNair, on the other hand, started out as the People's Cherce this season, after years of laboring in the fields and vineyards.

Those same People pulled all manner of groins and hamstrings jumping off the Air bandwagon after that ESPN magazine cover and two losses in a row to the Jets and the Colts.

There was much spec by analysts I truly admire, as much as one can admire analysts, saying that Peyton Manning, a Clintonesque people-manueverer who is basically, on balance, and in depth, admirable, persuasive, extremely competent, cooperative and friendly, and, moving to the specifics, a man who can throw every pass on the tree, had now taken the lead in the race for election of the league MVP, after Peyt's Colts beat the Titans (and for the second time), 29-27, in Nashville, at that.

Steve McNair
The Colts must respect the presence of Steve McNair.

Peyton has 3,611 yards, 23 TDs, 9 picks, a "rating" of 97.4 (QB ratings are like polls -- take them for what they are worth, which is, on balance, nothing -- except votes) and a 10-3 record.

McNair has thrown for 2,947 yards, 22 TDs and six picks and a 102.4 rating. Throw that out. The Tites are 9-4. Anybody who watched that Titans-Colts game last Sunday knows who the MVP is. Look at it this way. For some reason, Jeff Fisher, after having de-activated kick returner Jake Schifino, had inserted one Eddie Berlin as kick returner. Eddie couldn't even get the ball up his own blocking wedge. He ran like a crab. He had the ball carjacked from him -- stripped is too kind a word -- twice on returns, in the second and third quarters. Counting the second-half kickoff the Colts also received, Manning's Colts ran off 36 offensive plays in a row to the Titans' zero. Indy outscored the Tites 16-0 during this hour. The score was 29-13, Colts, well in the fourth quarter. Just enough time for three Titan possessions. Maybe. The measure of McNair's ability and value to his team, and presence, is this: at that point, in spite of having no one resembling a Marvin Harrison, or Edge James, in spite of having his biggest, most physically gifted receiver, rooke Tyrone "Manos de Piedra" Calico, benched for the game, R-Dub the political analyst, thought, without any regard to skin color or party affilaition, only proven skill:

"OK -- now it's a ballgame."

And so it was.

McNair got his left leg rolled up earlier -- even the way he gave with blow, the way he rolled with it, was impressive -- and was limping, due to that and his dinged right calf, but that's when he starts to play. The thoroughbred responding. McNair whipped the Titans down the field and threw a short TD pass into a space the size of a breadbox on the right sideline end zone corner to RB Robert Holcombe. Then he ran -- and I mean put a move on -- to score the two-point conversion on a quarterback draw. He whipped them down the field again and threw a TD pass to Derrick Mason in the only possible place the ball could have been thrown, at the back of the paint to make it 29-27 with less two minutes left.

McNair's got this thing he does that Elway did, where he'll take his drop -- you can see the ability even in the drop -- and give the rushers a point; and then, when they nearly get there, he will change that point, move to another point he already had in -- I don't want to say "in mind," because it's that and more -- instinct, that which is innate. He moved to another point, re-angling coverage. Earlier he had made this move and threw the ball 50 yards down the right side; it would've been a TD, but Mason, disbelieving Steve could be wounded, escape, and then be able to throw a ball that far, stopped running, then re-started, and couldn't catch up to it. McNair is what I'll pay to see, basically. Only a knocked down pass on an attempted two-pointer by Dwight Freeney, then another fumbled kick, this on a punt by Justin McCareins (he can play, though) with 36 ticks left, kept McNair from trying it again.

Now McNair and the Titans are dark horses, and have been thrown out of the "politically correct" (that's not a real phrase: that's a total oxymoron) stagecoach to be trampled by wild analysts. Just where they like it, I imagine. We took the Titans at the beginning of the season. And despite Chiefs, Colts and Pats --- we'll stay.

Tom Brady
Hey, wouldn't you be laughing if you were Tom Brady?

* * * * *

The QB candidates are almost like déjà vu of the '80s, only in the end, not of this season, but their entire political careers, they may be better. Peyton Manning is like Dan Marino, a passing fool, and now here comes Eli. McNair is the Elway of the group, no doubt, the five-tool one; you don't even have to keep score to get enjoyment out of watching him. Brett Favre is like Jim Kelly. Tom Brady is like Joe Montana. Oh yes, I definitely mean that.

One reason I like Brady, outside of his Montanaesque game abilities; he's like the Shadow, he has the ability to cloud men's minds, but also to empty his own, which makes him calm under fire. He doesn't telegraph anything. He's just better than he looks like he is. And he's definitely bigger than you think he is. Just add it all up. He beats out Drew Henson, only maybe the best athlete in the history of the state of Michigan, keeps him on the bench for Big Blue. He wins a Super Bowl. He causes Kraft & Bellycheck Belichick to trade Drew Bledsoe, who attained going to the Super Bowl himself. Brady oudueled Air McNair this season. Tom's got the skins on the wall already, and he's only just starting his run.

But I also like Tom Brady because he is almost impossible to label, thus to limit. Teflon doesn't do him justice. He's a shape-shifter, all things to most people, most things to all people, everybody's uncle, best friend, kid brother. He comes off as anti-intellectual, yet somehow you get the feeling he's doing you the favor by even talking to you, yet he always stops to talk to you anyway. You can see the high regard his teammates have for him. He's either Elvis or Matt Damon or the future junior senator from California.

Either way he can play Cube. I mean, he can really play.

* * * * *
Michael Vick is, as Sean Salibury keeps insisting, one of the great athletes on earth. How that translates to quarterback remains to be seen. It also worked for Bob Waterfield -- but only up to a point.

But politically, Vick's not different from the rest of us. He's just a football. We've seen how marketing salivates every time his name comes up. The first politican to try and take political advantage of his native and commercial abilities -- well, after Dan Reeves, who caught a bad break when Vick, the Man-Chew-He-Run Candidate, broke his lower leg in the preseason -- was one Deion Sanders, who tried (and for all I know is still trying), to pull an Al Sharpton and become an (gasp!) NFL head coach, just as Sharpton wants to be (gasp!) president, if he can work it in between Satuday Night Live appearances and his appointments for a wash-and-set.

Is the world insane? Or are they?

No. They are animals! Relax. I mean political animals.

They may or may not be insane, But they are definitely shrewd.

Deion spins it beautifully. "Hey, look, Ralph -- if Brett Favre was reitred for a few years and then happened to catch the Packers a 1-and-8, would it be wrong for him to throw his hat in the ring?"

No, D. I guess not. All politics and football are local. Neon Deion is rooted in Atlanta. He has people down on the ground there. An infrastructure. He knows the turf. Many Johnny-come-lately ticket buyers at Georgia Dome are AfAms there to glom Vick, and black or no, everybody in Atlanta remembers Deion. "It's my house!" he said. No, it's not "Four more years!" It's better.

Never underestimate the fire in the belly. Deion sees what kind of candidate Vick can be. His highlight reel precludes a need for fiery stump speeches. I don't know if Deion gets the head coach (read campagin manager) job with the Falcons or not. I would tend to doubt it. But politically, I understand why he'd run like hell for it.

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.