McNabb, Eagles get back on track

Donovan McNabb still looked rusty, but he was good enough to get a win for Philly.

Updated: October 26, 2003, 11:05 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- For the first time this season, Donovan McNabb could give himself a "thumbs up" for his performance on offense.

Donovan McNabb
Tim Shaffer/ReutersDonovan McNabb and the Eagles improved to 4-3 on the season.
McNabb claims he's not a stats guy and that's a good thing. He entered Sunday's 24-17 victory over the Jets with a 51.1 quarterback rating and having completed only 47.9 percent of his passes. McNabb has been McBad and he's trying to move past that.

But a lot of things came together for McNabb on Sunday to enable him to complete 17 of 23 passes for a modest 141 yards and one touchdown. For one, the Jets' defense stayed in a vanilla "Two Deep" zone that opened his options as a passer and a runner.

His biggest advantage, though, was actually being able to see his right thumb. It has been under a wrap since he hit it on a helmet in a victory over the Bills a month ago. He admitted there is a small chip in bone and a deep bone bruise. Thanks to an extensive week of treatment with the trainers, McNabb felt good and it showed on the field.

"Today, I was able to go out and just play football," McNabb said. "We've been strengthening the thumb all week. It's not 100 percent. But with the tape off, I was free to do a lot of things. Normally, you try to grip the ball on the shorter throws. I was able to get a quicker release.

"I'm not going to sit here and say the reason I was playing bad was because of my thumb," McNabb said. "You are not looking to hear that from me. I'm just going to continue to fight. Guys are looking to see how I handle things. People want to see how you overcome adversity."

Which is why Sunday was a "Thumbs up" for McNabb and the Eagles. For one thing, they are playing a little smarter. Andy Reid is calling more running plays. Those are needed because the offensive line is having its worst pass blocking season in years. Reid unleashed a three-headed backfield Sunday, hoping to get one back hot.

Correll Buckhalter led a 194-yard rushing day for the Eagles by getting 100 yards on 15 carries. His timing couldn't be any better because last week's Eagles star -- halfback Brian Westbrook suffered a high ankle sprain and could be sideline for a couple of weeks.

The running game opened a lot of things for McNabb. For one, the running game kept him from being hospitalized. In the final two possessions of the first half, McNabb was sacked four times in six plays. He was sacked five times overall, increasing his season total to 26.

Part of the problem was a smart strategy by the Jets, using what was called a "mush" rush.

The Jets used the "mush" rush to counter McNabb's ability to throw quick "check off" passes to running backs. Defensive ends John Abraham and Shaun Ellis would rush McNabb with their hands raised and the interior tackles would also try to block McNabb's passing lanes with their hands.

Opponents know how difficult it has been for McNabb to get the ball to his wide receivers. Coming into the game, McNabb had only 43 passes completed to outside receivers, none of which had gone for a touchdown.

If you take away McNabb's quick checkdowns, the offense should struggle even more. That's what the Jets thought. But McNabb stepped up and played football as though he was having fun. That's a sight that had been missing for the 4-3 Eagles.

McNabb opened the game with two impressive touchdown drives. Buckhalter, Westbrook and Duce Staley mixed in timely runs while McNabb moved the chains for seven- and 12-play touchdown drives and the Eagles led 14-10 with 11:36 left in the second quarter. Eight of his first nine passes were completions even though some of his passes were a little bit off.

"I thought he did a great job of battling," Reid said. "Like any quarterback, I am sure there are a few throws he would like to have back, but he hung in there and made some big time plays. He didn't have his thumb taped and he had some time to get better. He threw it pretty good."

Some of his teammates noted that a little of the swagger was back in McNabb's step. Still, in the future, he needs more from his receivers, who caught eight of his 17 completions. McNabb's best throw of the day came when Ellis jumped offsides, giving McNabb a free throw. McNabb spotted Todd Pinkston on a post route and rifled what should have been a touchdown pass.

Pinkston, however, couldn't stop his momentum and got only one foot down in the end zone.

"There were a lot of things, just gripping the ball period," McNabb said. "The release was a lot slower with the tape on. You try to rush it and sometimes it will flutter or get high on you. Without the tape and obviously having the strength in the thumb, you have a quicker release and put the ball where you want to put it. Like I said, it's not 100 percent, but it feels good."

McNabb made Eagles fans and the coaches feel better by improving his play in the fourth quarter. McNabb completed four consecutive passes following a Chad Pennington interception with 10:43 left in regulation. He ran outside the pocket, making plays with his feet and tossing a 4-yard touchdown pass to fullback Jon Ritchie to put the Eagles ahead, 21-17.

McNabb followed with a field goal drive that opened a 24-17 lead. The running game was going. The passing game was clicking a little.

"We have three good backs, so it's kinda hard to please all three of us," Buckhalter said. "The three of us come into each game and whichever one goes in, we try to make sure we get the job done. We just wait for our opportunities. When the ball gets put in your hands, you take advantage of it."

McNabb didn't care his passing numbers --141 yards -- were much less than the 194 yards rushing.

"I don't even pay attention to the stat sheet," McNabb said. "Anytime you worry about individual stats, that's when ego gets involved. When guys start worrying about getting their catches, getting their completions, getting their sacks, whatever it might be, it takes away from the focus. It's all about winning."

McNabb smiled. There haven't been many of those this year.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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