Eagles QB flawless in victory

After three straight disappointing NFC title games, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb made all the right moves.

Originally Published: January 23, 2005
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Finally, in an NFC championship game that had tortured him three times previously, Donovan McNabb became the pocket passer who can run, not the running quarterback who can pass. Finally, he displayed the confidence and discipline expected of the supposed West Coast quarterback set in the East Coast freeze.

Finally, in the biggest game of his career, McNabb was McGreat.

McNabb's Eagles dominated Michael Vick's Falcons, 27-10, Sunday because discipline bested improvisation. Give Vick another three years in the West Coast offense and three more shots at the NFC title game, and the roles might be reversed. McNabb was as cool as the minus-5 wind chill. He had ice in his veins. Vick was ice cold, uncomfortable facing a scheme that prevented him from establishing a rhythm.

Donovan McNabb completed 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards with two TDs against the Falcons.
Often in championship games, it's all about the quarterbacks. The Eagles lost three shots at the Super Bowl because McNabb wasn't McNabb in those games. He was a 53.5 percent thrower with one touchdown and five interceptions in those losses. Sunday, McNabb matured into a champion. Vick, in his first season in a West Coast offense at the age of 24, was like a young McNabb, completing only 11-of-24 for 136 yards and a 46.5 quarterback rating.

"You do what you have to do to win a game," McNabb said. "Today, you saw two quarterbacks that just try to win. Michael Vick is a winner. People talk about him running the ball and not throwing much, but he wins. Sure, if you ask some of the passing quarterbacks in the league, if they would love to go 13-3 or whatever their record (actually 12-4) was, I'm sure they'd say 'yes.' You just get excited about this particular game because it was special. It was history."

On Friday, McNabb talked about not wanting to be called a scrambling quarterback, just a pocket passer who can run. The weather conditions fit his still-developing style better than Vick, who makes more plays with his feet than his arm. Mother Nature dumped more than a foot of snow on Philadelphia on Saturday and toyed with the quarterbacks' throws with gusting winds between 26-35 miles an hour.

McNabb established his authority early. He operated mainly out of three- and five-step drops, the benchmark of West Coast efficiency. In his first offensive possession, he completed passes of 13 and three yards to get a positive flow going and looked comfortable in the process. Conversely, Vick looked completely uncomfortable, being forced to run for two two-yard gains in an opening three-and-out.

"He made us feel really good," Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell said of McNabb. "We were real laid back. … We've never seen this side, the side of maturity. Last year, as a whole team, we were playing outside of the offense. We just needed to stay within ourselves to make plays and trust that the game plan that Andy Reid put up would come to fruition."

Finally, after three years of forcing things, the Eagles played like they practiced. On the Eagles' second offensive possession, McNabb drove Philadelphia 70 yards for a touchdown. He hit tight end L.J. Smith with a 21-yard gain to the Falcons' 4-yard line and Dorsey Levens banged through tacklers on the next play for a touchdown. The Eagles looked at themselves as if to say that their biggest enemy for years was themselves.

On the next series, McNabb just executed Reid's game plan like he would in practice. He'd drop back and follow the progressions. In three previous NFC title games, McNabb got worse instead of better. After completing 60 percent of his passes against the Rams in 2002, he completed 52 the next year and 46 the year after that. He hadn't thrown a touchdown pass in a title game since 2002 and his interception total capped out at three last year.

Against the Falcons, he waited for his receivers to get open, but if they were covered, he'd run. They were smart, effective runs.

"Well, I got out of the pocket so I gave people a smile to let them know I'm running it again," McNabb said.

Without Terrell Owens, McNabb completed 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He ran 10 times for 30 yards, including a couple of kneel downs at the end of the game. His defining series came in the second quarter, though. On a third-and-11 at the Eagles' 38, McNabb patiently waited for his receivers to get open. They didn't. Still, McNabb kept his feet, avoided the Falcons pass rush and stepped to his right to complete a 13-yard pass to Mitchell.

On the next play, he took a long shot downfield into the wind to Greg Lewis. The wind held up the pass, enabling Lewis to slow down and catch a 45-yard pass on cornerback Jason Webster. Two plays later, McNabb hit tight end Chad Lewis in the right corner of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown pass to open a 14-3 lead.

"The wind helped it, but if it wasn't for the wind, it would be a touchdown," Lewis said. "I think Donovan came out with the mindset that he wouldn't let a loss happen to him again. We bought into that mindset and we followed his lead. He's the captain of this ship, and we just jumped on board. In the West Coast offense, it's all about timing."

McNabb had the timing. Vick didn't, and that's not surprising. He's in the first year of his re-learning curve. McNabb was 25 in his first NFC title game. That gap was noticeable Sunday.

There's no relief, really, for me. I have relief after the Super Bowl. I set a goal to win the Super Bowl, and that's where I'm going with it.
Eagles QB Donovan McNabb

"I think Michael's extremely close," Falcons coach Jim Mora said of Vick compared to McNabb. "I think he's already knocking on the door. Michael Vick accomplished some tremendous things this year for a 24-year-old quarterback in his first year in the system. He ran, including the playoffs for over 1,000 yards and he led this team to 12 victories. There are a lot of things as a team that we have to improve on, not just Michael Vick, but as a team."

While McNabb was oblivious to the Falcons' defensive strategy, Vick got caught up and chewed up with what the Eagles defense did to him. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson studied the scouting reports and on Monday made left defensive end Jevon Kearse line up at right defensive end. Vick feels most comfortable scrambling to his left. Kearse, the Eagles best pass-rusher, made only two tackles and a sack, but his presence took away Vick's left tendencies.

"I think it took him out of his comfort zone because I don't think he even thought twice about scrambling to that side," Kearse said. "Basically, we knew we had to get upfield and not give him any step-up lanes. That's it, just keep him in the pocket. When he gets outside the pocket, he has the ability to make plays running the ball or throwing the ball."

Vick never got into a comfort zone. Even on his best series -- a 17-play drive in the second quarter -- the defense stopped Vick on a third-and-goal from the 3, forcing the Falcons to settle for a field goal. Instead of running for 100 yards, Vick ran for 26. Combined with the low passing numbers, that loses championship games.

"The Eagles had Jevon Kearse on one end and another good defensive lineman (Derrick Burgess) on the other end keeping good containment and making sure that I didn't get outside of the pocket," Vick said. "I think that was their first priority. They did a great job of doing it. The coverage in the secondary didn't allow our receivers to get off blocks and get downfield. They just played a complete game, and I got to take my hat off to them."

Sunday's NFC championship game was a tale of two quarterbacks. McNabb has matured into a champion. Vick is a winner who still has to advance to that championship level.

"There's no relief, really, for me," McNabb said. "I have relief after the Super Bowl. I set a goal to win the Super Bowl, and that's where I'm going with it."

At the Super Bowl, he faces Tom Brady, a two-time winner. Winners aren't total winners until they complete the cycle. McNabb held back the tears as he accepted the NFC championship trophy, but he still realized something. There is more work to do.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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