- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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DETROIT -- This time last year, Donovan McNabb was answering Super Bowl questions, such as how it felt to finally get over the conference championship game hurdle, how the Philadelphia Eagles planned to go about dethroning the defending-champion New England Patriots, and, of course, all things Terrell Owens.
What a difference a year makes, although some things haven't changed. McNabb is in town this week, and Wednesday afternoon rather candidly answered ESPN's questions about his team's tumultuous past 12 months, his status as the Eagles' leader, the rampant criticism he has endured throughout his career and especially this season, and, yes, all things T.O.
In a wide-ranging interview, the five-time Pro Bowl quarterback for the first time opened up about Owens' attacks on McNabb and the franchise; the stars' relationship and where it went wrong; how the McNabb-T.O soap opera affected the locker room; Owens' claim that the team would have been better off with Brett Favre; his image; and the infamous column by the leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.
"It's been frustrating, it's been disturbing, but it's been a learning experience," McNabb said, summarizing 2005. "It's something that all of us, as men and as football players, not just on the Philadelphia Eagles but across the league, for everyone to understand what is going on and what has happened and be able to move things in a positive direction."
Owens most famously took shots at McNabb during the offseason between the 2004 and 2005 seasons, and on into Philadelphia's 2005 training camp (though after declining his invitation to work out in Arizona, the two did not speak off the field until just before the start of the regular season).
But the one remark that caught everyone's attention was in another Owens interview with ESPN.com during which he agreed with friend and ESPN analyst Michael Irvin's statement that the Eagles would be better off with Favre at quarterback.
McNabb might have, at first, laughed it off when Owens, responding to questions about Irvin's statement, said, "That's a fair assessment, I would agree with that." But McNabb acknowledged Wednesday that Owens' statement hit him hard.
"In that situation, it was kinda like, 'That's unreal.' That's just like me saying, 'If we had Steve Largent, if we had Joe Jurevicius, we'd be undefeated. He'll now have to answer the question for the whole week about me saying it."
McNabb's selection of two white receivers was not by accident. He took Owens' choice of Favre as disrespectful to McNabb as an African-American quarterback.
"It was definitely a slap in the face to me. Because as deep as people won't go into it, it was [a] black-on-black crime. I mean, you have a guy that has been criticized just about all his career and now the last criticism is that I'm selling out because I don't run anymore, by an African-American [J. Whyatt Mondesire, the NAACP chapter president who ripped McNabb in a column that appeared in the Philadelphia Sun].
"And to say if we had Brett Favre, that could mean that if you had another quarterback of a different descent or ethnic background, we could be winning. That's something I thought about and said, 'Wow.' It's different to say if we had Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper, Steve McNair, Aaron Brooks, Byron Leftwich. But to go straight to Brett Favre, that slapped me in the face, like what I've done and what I set out to do "
McNabb said the reactions by teammates to T.O.'s comments in that interview mirrored the growing unrest in the Eagles' locker room and was just another step in the unravelling of the season.
"What that showed to me, guys were in position like, 'Oh no. Here we go again.'
Money and power
McNabb has his theory as to the motives that inspired Owens' behavior, which eventually led the Eagles to suspend/deactivate the All-Pro receiver for the final nine games of the season.
"It was money and power. Obviously, with the whole money situation I have no control over that. That's between that individual and the organization. And the whole power situation of being the face of the team or the recognizable guy -- if it's that he was trying to outdo me or outdo the organization, whatever -- that's what I felt led to what's been going on.
"I don't know what it was. You look back and how it all started and how it all ended, I've never said anything to bring anyone's name into anything, and when it came out that I got tired, you had opportunities to come out and say, 'I wasn't particularly talking about him.' Because when you bring that up, it leads to you're talking about Donovan. Then it goes to talking about me in another situation, calling me a hypocrite, it was just stuff leading into a direction that no one really had an answer for.
"It led to the team being separated. It led to a lot of things happening that was uncharacteristic of everybody. I tried to handle it in a fashion to where everyone understood that you can't let some things bother you. But when it bothers others, it can lead to what happened to us this year. Maybe people can learn from it and be able to eliminate that before it even happens.
"Some things you have to put under your belt a little bit. Some things you blow off your shoulder. That was a particular instance that I definitely blew off my shoulder. Brett is someone I enjoy watching but to say that when things aren't going well for us here in Philadelphia, to say that, I was like, 'Oh my god, are you kidding me?' So you're blowing it off your shoulder. You remember. Always remember. Just like the man says, you forgive but don't forget. I never forget. Everything that's happened, it may look like it doesn't bother me, but I always remember. I'll always remember what happened this season.
Did McNabb ever confront Owens about the Favre statement?
"No. Because the thing about it is, I like to talk as men. But that was never presented. Us being a block away, if you have a problem with me, come talk to me. You know where I live. You've been to my house. Come talk to me. I've never had a problem with Terrell. Never come out and said anything bad about Terrell or any of my teammates. But for me to see that, that shows that you have a problem with me. Is it jealousy? The commercials I'm in? Me being the franchise quarterback?
"I have no answers, but I could be real familiar with the situation if he talked to me. It shouldn't be that I have to wake up or before I go to bed look and see what he said next, or to hear maybe in the locker room what he may have said in the paper. Just pick up the phone and call me."
McNabb said Owens' attitude and approach spread throughout -- and ultimately divided -- the team. The result was a different group in terms of chemistry and camaraderie than the one that went to four consecutive NFC title games from 2001 to 2004. For example, McNabb's annual dinner party for the offense was scarcely attended compared to past years, with several starters skipping the event.
"What I've come to realize, what I've come to see, especially since I've been hurt," said McNabb, who spent the final seven games on injured reserve with a groin injury resulting from a sports hernia and underwent surgery soon after, "[is] seeing guys not trusting the guy next to them. If they're not talking about you publicly or what you're doing or not doing, then 'I'm in the clear.'
"Instead of saying, 'I need to pick my game up. I need to uplift my game to make this team better. I'm going to put it on my shoulders,' it was more, 'I'm going to wait and see what he does. He should be doing this. I'm out here doing this. If he steps his game up, we'll be fine.' It got to some points where people were talking about, 'If Donovan gets out of the pocket more and pick up the yards instead of trying to throw it here he can't just sit back there.'
"This is the whole team [criticizing me]. It's easy to just pinpoint me and Terrell. That's the easy way out. But when you get deeper and see everything, it's not just me and T.O. It was a lot more that [grew] from the Terrell and Donovan situation."
The one-sided feud, McNabb revealed, actually had its roots in Week 12 of the 2004 season, at the end of an otherwise innocuous play against the Giants.
"Not a lot of people would know about this because [Owens] had a great season, everything went well, everybody's smiling and enjoying themselves," McNabb said, "but I believe it was the third play of the game. We had an 'all-go' call, [I] dropped back five steps, looked downfield, at that time I didn't feel he came open, and checked it down to [Brian] Westbrook. It was an incomplete pass."
Alas, it was the beginning of one of the strangest sports soap operas in recent memory.
"He came back, 'Hey, I was open, throw the ball!' Me being into the game, [I said] 'Hey, get in the huddle man.' In different words, obviously. He continued to talk about how he was open, throw the ball. And it [led] to me using some language that's really not suitable for the kids. But I'm into the game. I'm running the huddle. This is my show. I'm going to see you a lot of plays and some plays I won't see you. That led to us talking in the locker room. I don't argue. I feel as men we can talk. Voices are going to get raised. But we can talk as men and when the conversation is over we understand each other.
"I called him a couple of days later just to get back on the same page. I just elaborated to him, 'Hey, if we're going to continue to do this, we're not going anywhere. We have to be on the same page. I brought you here for a reason, for people to understand the chemistry that we have and the things we can do, which will lead us to winning a Super Bowl.'"
In retrospect, McNabb said about Philadelphia's 27-6 win over the Giants, "That's where I feel it all started. If he respected me after that or whatever. That's where maybe he felt like I was bigger than anything. But I'm a competitor. That's my huddle. I'm trying to lead us in the right direction."
Fast-forward to Super Bowl week. Owens had said the Eagles' stance that they could beat the Patriots without him (he suffered a broken leg in Week 15 and missed the first two playoff wins) offended him.
"When questions keep being raised that we won't be the same offense without him, you want to continue to show confidence in the guys that are stepping in his spot, the guys that are out there. So you say, 'We can continue this thing. We can win without Terrell. We've been to three NFC Championship games without Terrell.' So the message I'm sending to the guys is we can still do this thing. And the rest of the team said the same thing.
"So for whoever to feel that when he got hurt we didn't want him to come back, I went to his house when he got hurt. I drove over -- he's a block away from my house -- to see how he was doing. My dad and my mom called and they drove over to see him as well. [They] told him, 'If you need anything, you want a home-cooked meal, you want us to check on you' -- my mother's a registered nurse -- 'give us a call.' We opened up our arms.
"It wasn't like we all turned our backs. To hold that type of grudge and feel that way, again, out of left field."
Near the end of the Eagles' Super Bowl loss, the offense did not operate with the usual urgency of a team that is trailing, and not long after, in an interview with ESPN.com in which Owens spoke about his displeasure with his contract, Owens said, "I'm not the one who got tired in the Super Bowl," a clear jab at McNabb.
For the record, McNabb said he did not tire.
"I didn't get tired. I took a couple of hits. We were trying to get our personnel together. I don't think Andy [Reid] or any of us knew how many plays Terrell was going to be able to play, how he was going to be able to play on the ankle, would he have a setback. At that particular time, we're just trying to rotate guys. It looked like we were unorganized. When people say I got tired or we didn't get our two-minute drill together, that's completely false."
The final straw(s)
In the days after what would be Owens' last game as an Eagle -- a 49-21 loss at Denver in Week 8 back in October -- Owens got into a physical altercation with former Eagle and then-team ambassador Hugh Douglas in the team's training room.
"I'm blown away like, 'I can't believe this is happening,' " McNabb said of the incident. "Hugh came in and I'm like, 'What's going on, what happened?' He's explaining to me what happened. Terrell comes in, people are holding him back, they're arguing, and I'm just sitting there like, 'I can't believe this is really going on.' [Owens] says, 'Anybody got a problem with me, go in the training room!' I'm like, 'Is he talking to me? Oh, I see where this is going.' I let it go. Reports that he came in my face challenging me, that wasn't even the case.
"The way things were going, it was like steps. Once that happened, it was like, this ain't gonna work at all."
McNabb found Owens' two public apologies, the second of which included agent Drew Rosenhaus and took place on Owens' front lawn, more amusing than sincere.
"I thought it was 'The Dave Chappelle Show' all over again. 'I'm sorry Charlie Murphy.' The first apology, that was to the organization and I was just thrown in there. 'If I offended Donovan in any way ' Instead of that, you could have just told me. Come talk to me. The second apology, it went from Dave Chappelle to Kings of Comedy. Stand-up, hardcore. He read his speech and then Drew took over the press conference on the front lawn.
"That was a show. Getting out on your front lawn. 'I want everyone to know where I live. Stand at this particular spot. I'm going to walk down here. I'll have this mike on my lawn. And everybody in the neighborhood can see me.' The whole season was funny and it all started with the basketball shooting in the front lawn [when Owens was sent home from training camp] to the abs and the shoulder press to sitting on the back of the truck it's comedy."
Communication lines down
Even a sincere apology, though, would not have made significant inroads.
"A lot of stuff that he has said or done, don't think it just happened. It was premeditated, I think. It was something that was deep inside that I think he wanted to get out. So for him to apologize publicly, it looks great to people watching, but I see you everyday. Tell me to my face.
"I called a team meeting before the Washington game [Nov. 6]. I said, 'Look, if anybody got a problem with somebody on this team, talk to them as a man. If you've got a problem with me, we can talk about it.' I said this to the whole team. 'If you've got a problem with the guy next to you, talk about it. Don't sit and hold a grudge and feel hatred toward somebody and not even explain to someone why you hate that person.' I wasn't specifically talking to him [Owens] but he's in the room. So I'm saying it for everybody to understand, 'Look man, I'm tired of it. I can only take so much.' When that happened, I didn't get a talk. Nobody talked to anybody else that they had a problem with. Nobody really took on what I said if they had a problem with somebody.
"I was in full control of the situation. I'm the leader of the team. If they see that it's affecting me then they're like, 'Five [as in No. 5, McNabb's jersey number and nickname] can't get it together. Naw. I'm doing what I've been doing -- watch film, work out, doing everything I've been doing."
Super Bowl and bust?
Considering all the turmoil that occurred in the offseason and training camp, McNabb should have known then that the Eagles would have their work cut out for them defending their conference crown.
"The first seven weeks of the season [weren't] really dysfunctional, even with all that was going on," McNabb said. "Believe you me, it was bad in some cases because again, now you've got other guys seeing what's happening, he's communicating with other guys, some guys are following along with him watching what other guys are doing, talking about other guys. After the Super Bowl, it was like that was the worst thing that possibly could have happened to us, going to the Super Bowl."
Mind you, this was the Eagles' first Super Bowl appearance in almost a quarter-century and first after three failed tries in the NFC title game.
"Because everybody turned into superstars. I mean it was a great deal. I enjoyed it. It's what you play for. I've talked to other players that have been to the Super Bowl and about what happened the next year. Everybody becomes stars. Everybody feels like, 'I'm the man.' Some guys don't work hard. Not saying none of our guys worked hard. At times you get caught up in, 'We're the Philadelphia Eagles. We'll be fine. We're gonna get this thing rolling. We'll be straight.' And things just didn't get in order."
McNabb disagrees with the popular sentiment that the blood from the Eagles' season is on Owens' hands.
"I can't say that. And I won't get caught up and saying that. You don't blame one man for killing our whole season. One man may be the root or the start of it, but other people are grown individuals, they have to make their decision. Other people have to follow that path, which led to guys talking about other guys, the trust value not being there, and the team being separated."
Still, McNabb tried to remain positive. "The way I approached it was, how sweet would it be, with everything that's going on, with all this talk -- the so-called rift between me and T.O., the team, nobody wants to take sides but nobody's really speaking on anybody's behalf, so to speak, nobody wanting to get in the middle -- how sweet would it be for us to end up in Detroit and win the Super Bowl? Then what will they say? That was my mind-set. But things change and it didn't change for the good."
A team divided against itself
There was a time when McNabb was the unquestioned leader of the Eagles. But according to him, too many teammates followed Owens' lead this year. Did Owens indeed succeed in taking over the locker room? Did he win the power struggle?
"I think the team was divided," McNabb said. "As far as him taking the team from me, no, I don't think so. I never felt that way. I didn't feel like I lost the team. I did feel like, 'I am the leader of the team,' and I am the leader of the team. But when you see guys talk in little cliques and guys not all being together, and you hear guys talk about somebody else, that bothers you a little bit."
McNabb's message to his team in the aftermath of the Owens-Douglas brawl was simple.
"Everybody talked about the fight for probably the rest of the season. I said, 'We need to focus on what we're doing around here.' This team is gone. Guys are worried about the Pro Bowl, contracts, everything else but what we needed to do to get back to the Super Bowl. It got to the point where it wasn't a focus on winning anymore. It was a focus on how many plays you can make."
Speaking of contracts, McNabb indicated he would have been open to perhaps helping Owens in his dispute with the club over a new deal, what started all of this in the first place. "If it's something you think I can help with. Don't throw a man under the bus, all of a sudden I got tire tracks on my back. Call me. Come see me. Never happened."
• What would McNabb say to Owens if they were to speak now?
"If I talked to him, I want to find out exactly where it started and why," said McNabb, who acknowledged that he could have taken more of an initiative in repairing the relationship with Owens. "Let's start right there. Why? Where did it start and why did it continue on? That would be my question to him. And I would let him talk the whole way. Because it's not what Donovan McNabb is doing or what he's done, it's about why invite me into this whole problem that you've created? Is it money, is it power, is it respect?"
It seemed disrespectful to McNabb as the leader and franchise player when teammates attended Owens' birthday bash in December and when linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and others publicly lobbied for the Eagles to reinstate Owens after McNabb went down for the season. Jevon Kearse even went so far as to call Owens "a good teammate."
McNabb could not have felt good about that.
"It bothered me. Not about the party situation, because a party's a party. It bothered me when you hear, 'He didn't do anything personal to me.' It bothered me when teammates say, 'We can't win without him.' It bothered me in that situation because you're not showing confidence in the guys that are out there.
"Nobody took any pride in it to say, with all that's going on, is this killing our season? And answer it yourself. It was like, 'We're straight. We're all right.' Now with us going 6-10, it's like, 'Man, we gotta get back ' Why do we have to get back to it now when we could have gotten back to it early in the season?"
• Did McNabb take his teammates' showing support for Owens as a stab in the back?
"It put something in the back of my mind that you really learn a lot about people when things aren't going good. Comments, answers to questions, reactions -- you learn about people. I'm not here to call any players out. They know who they are. With this whole interview, people will see that we really need to evaluate the situation. For [Owens] to talk about me, for him to talk about the organization, think about what actually just happened. That's the message I'd like to send. Why is it that we have to go back to the team that we were in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, why say we have to get back to the camaraderie we had when we should have done it this year?
"That nobody really came to my defense, that showed me a lot. That nobody came out to say he's wrong in the media when somebody asks you a question, it was like, 'That's his situation, that's been them, his contract, I think Donovan has handled it well ' Come out and say, 'It should not have happened. That was wrong. This is Donovan's team.' Again, I'll always remember what happened. Two-thousand-five was a beautiful year."
All eyes forward
As McNabb and the Eagles turn their attention to the 2006 season, does McNabb have work to do in terms of not only rehabilitating his injury (he says he's ahead of schedule, by the way) but also repairing his relationship with his team? Does he have to win them back?
"I think they are behind me now. [T.O's] gone. Some jobs are on the line. We need to get back to that team, that camaraderie we had. One thing we can do is, 'We have to get confidence back to Five,' so now everybody's talking to me, or whatever. Which is cool. I work with everybody. But you're definitely starting to see a change with the guys that I've been rehabbing with. Attitudes are a little different. But you're also seeing guys definitely understanding what happened this past year."
McNabb has a clothing line, and he's had shirts made with messages about family, trust, jealousy, leadership, etc. "I think I have to go out and establish myself again as the hard worker, the determined individual, the guy that's going to set the tone. My job. I think that's what I have to do. As far as me trying to win over anybody, I don't think I have to do that. I think sometimes [people] look deeper into things than they need to, like I have to go in and do some song and dance to get everybody laughing again, be back on my side. Maybe get up and tell some jokes or something."
Seriously, the perception is that McNabb's hefty contract and his secure status in an organization that takes a hard line when it comes to players' salaries alienates his teammates, who may view him as an extension of management, as a "company guy."
"I don't make the decisions. I'm not the guy sitting in there going over the contracts, the game plan, who's going to make the team and who's not," he said. "There's going to come a time when I'm going to get released, traded, or whatever it may be. I'm just like the rest of the guys. I'm a little different in a lot of ways, but I'm still a player with a number on his back and if I'm unable to produce, they'll find somebody else to fill my spot."
In a December column in the Philadelphia Sun entitled, "Donovan McNabb: Mediocre at Best," J. Whyatt Mondesire, the NAACP chapter president, as if taking his cue from Owens, called out McNabb for not running as much as he once did, his handling of the T.O. situation, and for, as Mondesire sees it, pretty much not being black enough.
"I thought it was Comedy Central. But when an African-American talks about another African-American's color because I don't run, then you wonder, 'Does this dude know anything about football?' Because I don't run, I don't fit the bill of what everyone else says we are: running quarterbacks. I've done that. I do that if the time calls for me to do that. My job is not to drop back and run the ball every time. Last year, statistically, I had the best season of my career so far. And I'm not black because I don't run the ball? OK, what are we really talking about? African-Americans are [supposed to] support other African-Americans.
"That hurt. That was deep. That was deep."
The Eagles have compiled a 70-42 record, won four NFC East titles, and appeared in four NFC Championship games since McNabb was drafted second overall out of Syracuse in 1999, a selection Eagles fans famously booed on draft day. In the seven seasons since, McNabb has made five Pro Bowls without the supporting cast of other star quarterbacks, played hurt, and conducted himself admirably. Fans, media, Rush Limbaugh, Owens, Mondesire -- for some reason they've gone after him and yet he's handled the controversies with class.
He's managed to turn it around use it all as motivation.
"Michael Jordan was criticized. Barry Bonds was criticized. Some of the greats in every profession have been criticized. Not everything is peaches and cream. Everybody suffers through some type of adversity. Does it make you stronger or does it pull you down? And I never will let any of that pull me down or pull me away from what I've set to achieve."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.
Donovan McNabb spoke at length about his tumultous relationship with Terrell Owens and more with ESPN.com's Michael Smith on Wednesday.