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Donovan McNabb keeps trying to find his spot again

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One of the greats on the field, Donovan McNabb appears to still be trying to find himself off of it.

Donovan McNabb

With the NFL Draft set to start Thursday, I’ve been thinking about one of Syracuse’s biggest stars, Donovan McNabb, and his experiences at the next level. I’ll never forget his being taken with the second overall selection by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999. He was booed loudly from by Eagles fans at the draft. Still, it was seminal moment, with his and Syracuse’s future looking brighter than ever. A lot has changed since then.

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Donovan McNabb didn’t fit in. And it was perfect.

April 1995: This kid out of Illinois brought a little life to an otherwise corpse of a Syracuse spring game. McNabb didn’t exactly zig and zag across and up the field, the way he would do on nearly every snap he handled during his collegiate days, but he at least made the that bizarre-o exhibition interesting at times. Whatever he was, or whatever fans thought he could become, he wasn’t like the other quarterbacks on the Dome turf.

So, given that glimpse of talent and skill, by the time the regular season started the following fall, with a road game at top-25 North Carolina, it wasn’t exactly shocking when then-head coach Paul Pasqualoni named the redshirt freshman starting QB. The Orangemen were coming off two straight lack-luster seasons and, well, Pasqualoni really didn’t have a choice. (I stupidly still held out hope for Keith Downing to be named quarterback. I was as I still am: an idiot.)

Boy did that move pay off for Coach P, McNabb and Syracuse football. There were top-20 rankings, three Big East titles in a row, and invitations to the Fiesta and Orange bowls.

McNabb was a hybrid of quarterback and running back. Different from head to toe and from snap of the ball to end of a play. Someone who could rip a laser 30 yards down the field to a sprinting receiver, or, just as easily, go Barry Sanders on a defense and spin, hurdle and high-jump his way to the endzone. McNabb played the position like Randall Cunningham with a dash of Deion Sanders.

Google “McNabb Virginia Tech” and you’re sure to see the following.

Goosebumps.

But I am dead serious when I write that the best McNabb play against the Hokies came in his first season not his last.

Nov. 1995: The end result was eventually stricken from the box score through no fault of his own. It was because the officials on the field ruled No. 5 had “crossed the line of scrimmage” before he let his arm loose. Sure. Whatever. Regardless of the killjoy zebras, if you saw McNabb dance, freelance, ad lib, and eventually square his shoulders, plant his feet and find Kyle McIntosh for a bomb of a touchdown-pass in Blacksburg, then you knew this guy was special. Flag on the play be damned. I’m positive that McNabb high-stepped back and forth for about ten minutes before he found an open teammate.

There’s no question that his “don’t quit on any play” mentality led to turnovers and some big losses in yardage. Frustrating because such brilliance shouldn’t also come with such boneheaded-ness. But no Orange fan would have changed the four years McNabb had control of Syracuse football. He even got playing time for Jim Boeheim’s hoops teams for crying out loud.

April 2019: It’s kind of funny that I wrote the previous 460 or so words. I mean, who the hell needs a bio of Donovan freaking McNabb? Then I remember: his last game in orange was over 20 years ago. Yes, he did enjoy a mostly spectacular career in the National Football League. McNabb was of course the face of the Philadelphia Eagles, this despite fans booing the team for using its second overall pick in 1999 on the quarterback out of Syracuse.

Draft-day issues aside, exactly twenty years back McNabb was set to take over.

Donovan McNabb

From late in the first season on, McNabb worked to earn the follower’s faith in Philly. He did so in large part by taking the previously hard-luck franchise to four consecutive NFC championship games, and one Super Bowl during his 11 seasons in the City of Brotherly Love. For a short time, back around 2002, McNabb was the NFL. Flamboyant with an ever-ready grin, the Eagles leader was making pro-football players look they were the Temple Owls. His team was winning. He had and Pro Bowls and soup commercials.

It was also weird. Like when McNabb was caught up in a controversy involving Rush Limbaugh.

Whatever you feel about Limbaugh’s comments, his being on an NFL pregame show, his political acumen, or lack thereof, McNabb’s name stumbling into the center of the discussion some 16 years ago was bizarre.

Feb. 2005: McNabb’s Eagles made the Super Bowl after the 2004 regular season, kicking off against a younger Tom Brady and an early version of this version of the New England Patriots. Philly would lose that game in Jacksonville, 24-21, a valiant effort. Or it appeared that way.

Shortly afterward, talk was McNabb threw up on the field during the game. Rumors said he was too fatigued to actually call plays in the huddle. Watching McNabb, with time ticking away in the game, take his time in getting to the line of scrimmage did seem out of character. Didn’t it? Looking back, the moment might have been too big for him.

Then the wheels sort of fell off when teammate and fellow star Terrell Owens decided he was unhappy with the organization. Following the ‘04 season, Owens, and agent Drew Rosenhaus, went off on everyone. A scorched-Earth mentality that eventually burned McNabb. Owens and McNabb had a beef so bad that it turned toxic. It played a part in Owens being deactivated from the roster and sent home. After reaching the Super Bowl in year one in Philly, Owens played just seven more games for the Eagles.

That was strange.

McNabb found more unwanted and unplanned oddities along the way, too: suffering some injuries, some subpar seasons, and watching his franchise draft the potential heir apparent in Kevin Kolb in 2007 and signing the eventual heir apparent Mike Vick two years later. He also claimed to not understand that NFL games can end in ties.

Huh?

His exit in Philly was classically peculiar: traded to division rival Washington. The only professional team he had been a part of, with the only head coach in the NFL he ever had in Andy Reid, sent him packing to a team they’d see at least two times a year.

It was as if McNabb’s time in Philadelphia was unfinished; great semesters with an incompletes on every final exam. That even though he won more often than he lost and was efficient in doing so, he simply somehow overstayed his welcome. It was a trend that would continue.

After Washington and a swing-and-miss in Minnesota, the QB finally called it quits.

Not as popular as in his younger days, McNabb should have been poised to take the throne as King of NFL Talking Heads. He still had that smile and throaty laugh and an overarching personality. There was a feel that McNabb could become a little like what Charles Barkley was to the NBA: A cultural force who could make a game more important just by being a part of the broadcast.

That never happened. He simply never stood out. He never truly fit in. And this time it was a problem.

Sept. 2012: McNabb worked for the NFL Network, provided color commentary for Fox’s NFL coverage, and was involved in on the early days of Fox Sports 1 (remember Fox Sports Live?). He kind of floated in and out of broadcasts. Everywhere but nowhere.

There were personal issues that became public consumption, too. He was twice arrested for DUI, first in 2013 and then again in 2015. Even more troublesome, McNabb was one of six former NFL players who were accused of sexual misconduct by an NFL Network employee. The lawsuit was eventually settled, but McNabb, who had been working with ESPN at the time the accusation surfaced in 2017, lost his job.

Just in the past week, on a far less serious note, the former Eagles great found himself involved in another weird situation. On The Zach Gelb Show, McNabb effectively said that current Philly QB Carson Wentz, who has battled injuries in two of his three seasons in the league, needs to prove himself by staying healthy and taking the Eagles deep into the playoffs sooner rather than later.

“He hasn’t been healthy. He hasn’t really proven to me, besides the year before he got hurt in the his first year, really the MVP candidate, he needs to get back to that mode. And I think, personally, if he can’t get of the second round in the next two, maybe three years, really two years to be honest with you. If he can’t get out of the second round, they (Philadelphia) should look to possibly draft another quarterback, because they just don’t know about his durability.

Hearing someone who had trouble staying on the field himself, and someone who publicly bristled when Philly took Kolb with its first pick in the ‘07 draft, talk about Wentz that way is a little funny. Plus, McNabb was supposed to be a headline maker on ESPN or Fox, not through guest appearances on other radio stations.

But as a former player and as an analyst, McNabb wasn’t exactly wrong in his assessment of Wentz. He just, given his bio, fumbled the wording.

If the 2016 second-overall draft pick has another injury or if the Eagles regress under him, after winning the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, the pressure will be intense. And Philly could very well move on from Wentz in the coming years. That’s not really the hottest of the hot-takes if phrased properly.

Anyway, what was so stunning about it all was the reaction from current Eagles, like Lane Johnson, who channeled in his inner Terrell Owens.

Johnson’s defending his quarterback isn’t the stunner here. The fact that Johnson would A) tweet directly at McNabb and B) write “and you wonder why nobody respects you when you come back!!!” are the surprising parts. There’s a defense of a teammate but also a purposeful lack of respect shown. It was powerful move given who wrote it and the Twitter support it received from Phildelphia fans. A double-edged message sent and received.

Another mystifying moment in a long and strange series of them.

He’s trying, maybe trying too hard, but McNabb just doesn’t seem to fit in.

He’s bounced around the world of broadcasting. He’s been involved in disputes both real and manufactured. He’s apparently burned some bridges in Philly, either through paid critical commentary, or through past behavior — which is far worse. He’s had off-field issues — which are telling. He’s become a nomad roaming for a home of acceptance.

It was last year when he reportedly tried to get a gig as a radio commentator for Orange football games. That evidently fell through. Potentially because of the sexual misconduct lawsuit that was pending at the time. If so, it was a probable right call for the school given the situation.

Maybe even apropos with or without that complicated backdrop, really. Because McNabb’s not fitting in just isn’t working the same as it used to, even at Syracuse.