Donovan McNabb stood alone on the sideline Sunday, hands on his hips, a headset in his ear. For the second year in a row, one of the most talented quarterbacks in a generation again was a backup, this time replaced by an unproven rookie for the punchless Minnesota Vikings.
Replacing McNabb was Christian Ponder, representing all the talent and potential that, 13 years ago, McNabb showed when he entered the NFL. And under center for the Green Bay Packers was Aaron Rodgers: the Super Bowl winner, the top quarterback in the league, the universally respected team leader, the epitome of what McNabb wanted to become but never did.
When Ponder tossed a 72-yard pass on his first play Sunday and capped it with a two-yard TD on his second pass, there stood McNabb, clapping politely, saying words of encouragement yet not breaking a sweat, an odd final chapter for a career that could go down as one of the most enigmatic, bizarre and difficult-to-define in NFL history.
McNabbs career can be summed up by the 2011 Vikings: full of talent and promise, always falling just short, eventually leaving fans wanting much more. Thats McNabb. That was the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, bolting to a seven-point, first-half lead over the defending Super Bowl champions and then wilting in the second half of a 33-27 loss.
Yet in the days before McNabb again became a second-stringer, there was something else a tweet, in fact that said as much as anything about the current sorry state of McNabbs once-electrifying career.
McNabb had been acquired as a veteran placeholder for the young rookie. But Vikings fans had expected more. And so as the Vikings headed to another loss a week ago, the rookie made his debut, and Warren Sapp, the former Pro Bowl defensive tackle, noticed something: The rookie knew the offense better than the 13-year veteran.
Did Anybody Else Notice That Christian Ponder (Rookie) Entered The Game Ran The Offense And Didnt Have a Wristband!!, Sapp tweeted. DamnShameMcNabb.
Damn shame because McNabb six-time Pro Bowl selection, one-time NFC player of the year, 13-year veteran didnt know the offense as well as the rookie, who had no offseason program and limited work during training camp, yet who didnt need the play-call wristband that McNabb used all season.
Damn shame because complaints about McNabbs lack of preparation last year with the Washington Redskins followed him to Minnesota this year, where talk has swirled about McNabb showing up late for meetings and practices and failing to grasp the Minnesota offense.
Damn shame because a career that once seemed destined for the Hall of Fame has veered off the rails and will be remembered for more almost-theres (see: four NFC championship game losses, one Super Bowl near-miss) and more controversies (see: Rush Limbaugh, 2003; Terrell Owens, 2005) than for stunning downfield lasers, many times playing through injuries or any fourth-and-26 conversions in the playoffs.
Sapp might have coined the perfect nickname: Donovan Damn Shame McNabb.
It should be noted that Ponder was wearing a play-call wristband Sunday against the Packers. But McNabb knows this league and should know his offense. When Sapp saw Ponder come into last weeks game and not need that crutch, it told him a lot: When a guy looks you in the eyes in the huddle, Sapp said, and conveys the confidence that he knows exactly what hes doing, that hes not reading something off a wristband, its a signal to his teammates that hes in charge.
And whats transpired with McNabb the past several years traded from Philadelphia to a division rival; then run out of Washington, and now benched in Minnesota makes you wonder whether McNabb ever really was in charge.
On the sidelines Sunday, there stood the postmortem for a career of not-quites and almost-theres from a quarterback with all the talents but none of the intangibles: not the work ethic, not the locker-room presence, not the run-through-a-wall-for-me gravitas that marks the greats.
Damn shame because the guy always was so damn likable. You wanted McNabb to win. You liked the guy, liked his smile, liked his take-the-high-road reaction to controversy. And there was plenty of controversy: Limbaugh saying in 2003 McNabb was overrated because the liberal media so wanted a successful black quarterback. A Philadelphia NAACP leader accusing McNabb of playing the race card in 2005. And of course the locker-room spat between McNabb and Owens, the malcontent wide receiver who criticized McNabb for running out of gas in the Super Bowl.
Yet in the end, McNabb didnt seem to have it the killer instinct, or the intangible locker-room skills, or the work ethic, or all three.
Warren Moon, the Hall of Fame trailblazer for black NFL quarterbacks, believes McNabb ought to be in the Hall of Fame, yet even he finds McNabbs leadership skills and response to adversity lacking.
My only criticism of Donovan is that hes taken too much and hasnt fought back to some of the things said about him in a more stringent way, Moon said. But thats not his personality. Hes a guy who takes the high road. But you wish in some instances, with the T.O. situation or with the (NAACP leaders comments), that hed come back stronger.
McNabb has throughout his career engendered stronger reactions than any middling quarterback does. And the fate of a Ryan Leaf or a JaMarcus Russell huge potential, never realized angers fans, sure, but theres not nearly the emotional attachment as with a McNabb.
He was, ultimately, a tease.
For 11 years with Andy Reid in Philadelphia McNabb was Reids first draftee, the No. 2 overall pick in 1999, the man Reid built a team around the Eagles were always in the thick of it. Only two teams, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, had more wins in the first decade of the 2000s than McNabbs Eagles. Yet McNabbs legacy is still very much in doubt. Only five teams scored more points than the Eagles during that decade as McNabb piled up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, the most eye-popping being the scramblers 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Even this year, McNabbs quarterback rating in pressure situations is tops in the NFL.
Perhaps those numbers are Canton-worthy. Yet theyre all tempered by McNabbs 1-4 record in NFC championship games and a loss in his only Super Bowl.
Hes probably the best quarterback in modern-day Eagles history, said Anthony Gargano, a Philadelphia sports radio host for 94 WIP and FOX Sports Radio. But in the end, he comes with broken hearts. . . . You go to all those championship games and your season ends on an interception almost every time: 01 against the Rams, ended with pick; 02 against the Bucs, pick to Ronde (Barber); 03 he was knocked out of the game. And the Super Bowl 04 ends with a pick.
If he wins it in 2002, its a whole nother story, Gargano continued. He could be Pope of Pattison Avenue. Instead hes a very good quarterback who in the end just couldnt get it done.
And perhaps McNabbs was a story scripted from the very beginning. Philadelphia sports radio lobbied hard that the Eagles draft running back Ricky Williams. When McNabbs name was called the most exciting moment in this young mans life the television cameras focused on Eagles fans, and . . . they were booing. Loudly. Never mind that the quarterbacks drafted before and after McNabb Tim Couch and Akili Smith turned into two of the biggest busts in history. Never mind that only two players in that draft made more Pro Bowls than McNabb.
We remember that he got booed.
There was disconnect from the start, and that never totally healed, said Phil Sheridan, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There was a rupture there. He shouldnt have had to come in with a negative buzz.
Maybe that boo-filled welcome party got to him. Or maybe it was just McNabbs nature, an aloofness that could be felt in the locker room as well. Because when outside forces piled on, McNabb never hit back with as much vigor as youd expect.
If youre not that kind of street fighter, then you dont go there, said Fletcher Smith, McNabbs longtime agent. He remained true to who he is. ... Maybe some people want him in the gutter, say whats on his mind, but he always stays professional.
Its not fair to blame McNabb for something Limbaugh says. Nor can you blame McNabb for comments like those earlier this year by Philadelphia-based boxer Bernard Hopkins, who pointed to McNabbs privileged childhood as reason why he wasnt tough enough or black enough. But you can find fault with McNabbs less-than-forceful reactions, which indicated a leadership vacuum. Which could explain why, after Ponder was named the starter, there wasnt even a peep out of the Vikings locker room.
The decorated, veteran QB signed to breathe life into Minnesotas last-gasp shot at a Super Bowl and maybe a new stadium was benched before Halloween and no Vikings player uttered a word of objection. In Indianapolis, receiver Reggie Wayne stood up for Curtis Painter when the Colts signed Kerry Collins before the season. In Minnesota, the silence spoke volumes.
Donovan brought it upon himself, said J. Whyatt Mondesire, McNabbs NAACP critic and the publisher of an African-American newspaper in Philadelphia. He never really was close to the African-American community here in Philadelphia. He chose not to be. He didnt show up at events sponsored by African-American churches, community groups, youth groups. He just did pretty much what the team told him to do.
His career was about lost promise, Mondesire continued. He failed to connect. And in many ways hell probably leave the game embittered. He didnt achieve lasting fame on and off the field, and off the field he was no ones hero, the way a Walter Payton was in Chicago where they still talk about him in reverential terms, or Jim Brown in Cleveland. That was not Donovan. He was aloof. Hes going to go out a no man. Hes going to go out an asterisk. It really is quite sad.
It really is a damn shame.
Despite the possibility that Reid formed a cocoon around McNabb and his stints in Washington and Minnesota exposed him, there are still plenty of McNabb apologists around the NFL. Their kind words, however, are often leavened with a but.
Hes not a dynamic leadership-personality type of guy, but hes a very solid human being, said former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil. You compare wins for quarterbacks who played at the same time, hes in the top four or five quarterbacks of his era.
If you study history, how did Johnny Unitas end? said Charley Casserly, former Redskins and Texans general manager and now a commentator for CBS Sports. When you see the last year, it sometimes doesnt look pretty. But when you get away from it for a number of years, you look at the body of work and you can appreciate it for what it was, and thats what you have to do with McNabb.
Its been an interesting turn of events here lately, said Cris Collinsworth, the former Bengals wide receiver and current NFL sportscaster. The team you took to the Super Bowl trades you within your division, that raises eyebrows. Hall of Fame coach Mike Shanahan has you for a year and decides its not working, that raises more eyebrows. And now . . . hes going to give way to a rookie quarterback.
And thats exactly what McNabb did on Sunday in the Metrodome: He passed a torch. McNabb was only a placeholder anyway, so there wasnt much pomp and circumstance around this almost-there career finally grinding down to has-been status.
In warm-ups, McNabb smiled and stood next to Ponder as the two tossed spirals. When Ponder threw his first career touchdown pass, McNabb thrust his arms in the air, then smacked Ponder on his helmet. When Ponder threw his second interception of the day to Charles Woodson, McNabb walked up to the rookie, patted him on the back and gave him some encouraging words.
He was just telling me to let it go, its gonna happen, Ponder said of McNabbs encouragement. Hes been there before, and there will always be ups and downs in games and in seasons. And just put it behind you and move on.
Yet it was all an odd feeling, seeing the Talented Mr. McNabb watching a rookie do his job. A damn shame, really.
I thought he played well today, McNabb told me and another reporter in a brief private moment inside the locker room. You want to be able to give a guy his space. Yes, I talked to him (on the sideline), then its up to him to go back out there and play ball.
In the quiet, disappointed Vikings locker room, a media relations guy shielded the rest of the media away from McNabb. He would not talk today, the Vikings rep said.
Not of any of it: Not of his replacements debut, not of what it felt like to be demoted two years in a row, not of the accusations about his work ethic, not of his leadership skills or his future or his legacy.
Instead, McNabb pulled on a sharp brown suit and wing-tips. He walked over to the food table in the middle of the locker room. I trailed him, trying to glimpse inside his head.
Im gonna get outta here, he told me, shaking his head. Im not even going to start on it today.
An army of media gathered in a press room, waiting for Ponder. But McNabb just wanted to go away, just wanted to not talk about what looks like the end of his career as a starter.
Instead, Donovan McNabb grabbed a chicken sandwich and two boxes of small DiGiorno pepperoni pizzas. He walked past Ponder, walked past the assembled media, and walked out of the Vikings locker room, all by himself.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter (@reidforgrave) or email him at email@example.com.