In the summer of 2002, with the Philadelphia Eagles poised to go to training camp as the chic pick of most pundits to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXVI, it was impossible to peruse the offerings at any local newsstand and locate a preview magazine that didn't feature the smiling mug of Donovan McNabb on its front.
Two years later, and with a résumé that now includes three straight conference title game defeats, the Eagles star quarterback could be forgiven if he preferred undercover to on the cover.
His national presence aside, McNabb has locally become a symbol for throaty fans and hyperbolic radio talk-show hosts of the Eagles' inability to get over the title-game hump. He is a player described in gilded adjectives, yet with the damning but ..., as in "... but he hasn't won a Super Bowl," the disclaimer that concludes almost every appraisal. To his credit, McNabb is keenly aware of why he's in hot water with those who suggest he and his teammates have underachieved over the last couple of seasons.
And he understands as well that, while coach Andy Reid is an easy target for the Eagles' shortcomings, he, too, is a convenient lightning rod.
"I've played this position long enough to understand what it means in terms of credit and blame," said McNabb, the most accomplished of the five quarterbacks selected in the top dozen picks of the 1999 draft. "It's a back and forth [existence], really, and you better understand that going in. It's just part of the territory."
The problem that McNabb's detractors have with him is that he has yet to lead the Eagles into the territory that is football's land of milk and honey and Super Bowl rings. And the perception is that the Eagles and McNabb, losers by just five points at St. Louis in the 2001 NFC title game, have actually slipped further away from a Super Bowl berth in the past two seasons.
Indeed, last season's ignominious conference title game loss ended with an ineffective McNabb tethered to the sideline nursing a rib cartilage injury and watching helplessly while another dream evaporated. That injury, the lopsided defeat, another uninspiring performance from McNabb and Philadelphia's offense, conspired to once again fan the flames of criticism.
And so, while Reid enters his sixth season on the hot seat, McNabb also goes into his sixth season with flames tickling his feet. Never mind that, no matter what was going on inside McNabb's head last year at the height of the Rush Limbaugh incident, the quarterback demonstrated incredible public aplomb. Forget the good deeds he has done for the city off the field.
Fans want a Vince Lombardi Trophy mounted on the back of a flatbed truck, and tooling down Broad Street as part of a Super Bowl parade in February, and they expect the quarterback to be the guy who delivers it.
Said former Eagles running back Duce Staley, who left the team this summer to sign with Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent: "When you're as talented as he is, and so much in the limelight, I guess it's only natural people are going to try to tear you down or look for [imperfections]. I mean, right or wrong, people there expect him to be the savior. There is no way, no matter what he ever does, he can live up to all the expectations. That's maybe not fair, but it's the way things are."
There is no denying that, in part because of the NFL's propaganda machine, the bar has been set a bit higher for McNabb. Ironically, there are teammates who will tell you that McNabb, while clearly commanding respect, is not a particularly vocal or challenging leader.
His critics outside the Eagles family, armed with more statistics than an actuary, claim that, in terms of stardom, McNabb's numbers don't add up. In some ways, they are right.
In an era in which quarterbacks regularly complete 60 percent of their attempts, McNabb has never been above 58.4 percent, owns a career mark of 57.0 percent and a miserable postseason level of 47.7 percent. The former Syracuse player has never thrown more than 25 touchdown passes in a season and, in fact, averaged just 20.7 in the three years in which he started all 16 games. For a player almost as well known for his abilities outside of the pocket, McNabb has been sacked an average of 42.3 times in those three full seasons.
His accuracy, which he addressed this week, has consistently come under fire. And truth be told, McNabb struggles mightily at times with the short ball. The perception is that he rarely throws the swing pass in stride, that backs are forever reaching back or bending down for the ball, and that by the time they recover, a tackler is in their faces. Of course, Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw had the same problem with the swing pass for most of his career, but that deficiency was overshadowed by four Super Bowl victories.
Eagles coaches acknowledge McNabb might never post a 65 percent completion rate and that he remains, even after five seasons, somewhat a work in progress. Offensive coordinator Brad Childress, though, is quick to point out that McNabb takes care of the football with great regularity (the Eagles offense set a franchise record in 2003 with onlu 22 turnovers, including only 11 McNabb interceptions), and that he operates well within the framework of the Eagles' design.
"And the most important thing," said Childress, "is that he wins."
McNabb's 43-21 record, in fact, gives him the best winning percentage among all active quarterbacks with at least 60 starts. And his interception percentage, with just 49 pickoffs in 2,117 attempts, is second best in NFL history.
But none of those numbers will matter much if McNabb doesn't raise his success rate in NFC championship games to 25 percent this year. Certainly the front office helped in the offseason by dealing for wide receiver Terrell Owens, the kind of lead threat McNabb has never enjoyed in the past. Whether the tandem becomes one of the league's most explosive duos, or implodes the first time McNabb misses a wide-open Owens in the end zone, remains to be seen.
What is clear is that, while McNabb has never been a guy looking for an alibi, there will be no excuses tolerated this season, which is fine with him.
"I know what our expectations are," McNabb said, "so I'm not going to try to [diminish] the expectations of others."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.