McNabb lets the good times roll
The key to the revival of Donovan McNabb and the Eagles this season? They remembered to stay loose and have fun, writes Jeffri Chadiha.
McNabb basically is teaching us the same lesson that New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning taught us during his team's Super Bowl run last season: You never really know when a quarterback is going to heat up. McNabb was clearly at the lowest point of his career when Eagles coach Andy Reid benched him midway through a 36-7 loss to Baltimore on Nov. 23. Now look at McNabb. He has led the Eagles to an NFC Championship Game meeting with Arizona and has lost once in his past seven games.
The Arizona Cardinals defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC Championship Game.
Granted, McNabb doesn't deserve all the credit for the Eagles' run. But it's his revival that exemplifies the spirit of a suddenly happy-go-lucky team that was 5-5-1 just a few weeks back. As McNabb said after the Eagles' 23-11 NFC divisional playoff win over the Giants on Sunday: "I've always believed that we're a better team when we're loose. That's something we had to get back to, and that's what you've been seeing from us over the last few weeks."
McNabb actually had plenty of things on his mind when he started slumping around midseason -- he completed only 47.3 percent of his passes during a three-game stretch -- including the impending birth of twins by his wife Roxie in early December. What he also recognizes is that the key to his improved play is the confidence he has shown in his supporting cast. The Eagles' offense always has come down to the performance of two players: McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook. These days it clearly has more diversity, and McNabb is better off as a result.
You could see the faith McNabb had in his teammates in that win over the Giants. It was there in the way he went back to wide receiver Kevin Curtis for critical catches after Curtis dropped a perfectly thrown deep pass early in the game. It was there again when McNabb sought out rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson midway through the fourth quarter. McNabb found Jackson streaking down the sideline for a 48-yard reception, and that play set up a David Akers field goal.
McNabb clearly understands the value of letting other people carry the load in this offense. "One thing I tried to do earlier in the season was to let guys know that I trust them," he said. "I can do that putting the ball up in positions where they can go compete for it. I can do it by going back to a guy after he's dropped a ball. The one thing you don't want is for guys to start losing their confidence."
McNabb obviously knows plenty about maintaining one's self-esteem. He was booed on draft day and questioned after three losses in NFC title games earlier in his career. He's had to deal with serious injuries in each of the previous three seasons, along with the team's decision to draft his eventual successor, Kevin Kolb, in the second round of the 2007 draft. And we can't forget about his issues with Terrell Owens four seasons ago. McNabb deserves some kind of medal for how he handled that highly publicized drama with the former Eagles and current Dallas Cowboys wide receiver.
This season offered one more chapter in the career of a quarterback who has faced more struggles than any Pro Bowl-caliber signal-caller in recent memory. McNabb's benching in the Ravens loss seemed to indicate that it was time for him to move on from Philadelphia. Instead, he reminded us how mentally tough he is when he threw four touchdown passes in a 48-20 win over Arizona the following week. McNabb's next six games reminded us of something else: how effective he can be once he really gets locked in.
Just as Manning did last season, McNabb is playing efficiently while reveling in the fact that so many players around him are coming up big. If it's not Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel picking off an errant pass, then it's Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins forcing a fumble on a blitz. You also can't forget Westbrook's 71-yard score off a screen pass in an NFC wild-card win over the Minnesota Vikings."You're seeing guys who are supposed to make plays who are doing just that right now," said McNabb, who has 11 touchdown passes and only four interceptions since that benching. "When you see that, it takes a lot of pressure off other guys in key positions, because they can just go out and do their jobs."
What McNabb is saying is something that has become quite apparent in the postseason: You can't advance if your stars don't produce. The Giants' loss to the Eagles is a perfect example of what happens to a team when enough stars are either injured (Justin Tuck) or unavailable (Osi Umenyiora, Plaxico Burress) in the playoffs. The Cardinals, on the other hand, exemplify what can happen when a high-profile player (Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald) decides to elevate his game to compensate for the loss of another comparable weapon (fellow Pro Bowl wideout Anquan Boldin). They beat the Carolina Panthers last week largely because Fitzgerald was unstoppable.
The Eagles now have that same dangerous look to them because of McNabb's revival. He might not admit it, but he knows there is a special story evolving as he moves closer to the Super Bowl. The last time the Eagles became Super Bowl participants, during the 2004 season, the popular belief was that Owens helped McNabb become a better quarterback. That has always been one knock on the quarterback: He couldn't play his best without a big-time receiver to aid him.
In reality, all McNabb needed was what he has now: a disruptive defense, reliable special teams, a solid supporting cast and a coach who is far more committed to a balanced offense than ever before. It also hasn't hurt that McNabb has learned to have fun again. At 32 years old, he has let us know that his best days are far from over. In fact, it's starting to look as if he has a few more good times left to celebrate in a year that once seemed destined to end in disappointment.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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COLUMNS/FEATURES• Wojciechowski: May the bitter team win
• Chadiha: McNabb lets good times roll
• Football Outsiders: Numbers Crunching
• Sunday Countdown: Predictions and more
• Clayton: First and Goal
• Garber: This Philly Story seeks proper ending
• Clayton: Peaking Steelers should advance
• Chadiha: Eagles will soar in desert
• Wojciechowski: Book Eagles for Tampa
• Football Outsiders: Any Given Sunday
• Football Outsiders: Quick Reads
CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES (Jan. 18)
Steelers 23, Ravens 14• Polamalu's INT return secures win
• Playoff page | AFC North blog
Cardinals 32, Eagles 25• Fitzgerald leads Cardinals to first Super Bowl
• Playoff page | NFC West blog ... East
DIVISIONAL ROUND (Jan. 10-11)
Steelers 35, Chargers 24• Walker: The Bus sparks Parker
• Williamson: Bolts need season-long urgency
• Recap: Steelers knock out Chargers
• More | AFC West blog ... AFC North
Ravens 13, Titans 10• Graham: Battered Ravens pass physical
• Kuharsky: Titans failed to answer critics
• Recap: Turnovers doom Titans
• Zoom Gallery
• Fleming: Can anyone stop the Ravens?
• More | AFC North blog ... AFC South
Cardinals 33, Panthers 13• Sando: Desert bloom for Arizona's faithful
• Sando: No denying Cards' makeover
• Yasinskas: Carolina's big plans fall apart
• Recap: Delhomme's 5 INTs doom Panthers
• Zoom Gallery
• More | NFC West blog ... NFC South
Eagles 23, Giants 11• Wojciechowski: Book Eagles for Tampa
• Mosley: Giants lost to better team
• Recap: Defense smothers Giants
• Zoom gallery
• Chadiha: Eagles' defense hitting stride
• More | NFC East blog
WILD-CARD ROUND (Jan. 3-4)
Ravens 27, Dolphins 9• Wojciechowski: Scary Ravens' D
• Recap: Ravens' defense overpowers Dolphins
• More | AFC North blog ... AFC East
Eagles 26, Vikings 14• Mosley: Eagles' run continues
• Recap: Westbrook, big plays carry Eagles
• More | NFC East blog... NFC North
Cardinals 30, Falcons 24• Sando: Cards' winning identity
• Recap: Strong second half powers Cards
• More | NFC South blog ... NFC West
Chargers 23, Colts 17• Williamson: 5-6 Sproles comes up big
• Recap: Chargers shock Manning, Colts in OT
• More | AFC South blog ... AFC West