This week at SB Nation, we’re shining the spotlight on the NFL’s most underappreciated — from our favorite underdog stories to the most overlooked players and teams. Now’s the time to give them their due.
It looked like fate. The 2003 Philadelphia Eagles had been the NFC’s bridesmaid after losing back-to-back conference championship games. Now they stood one game from the Super Bowl thanks to a miracle fourth-and-26 completion that turned a fourth-quarter deficit into a thrilling overtime win over Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers.
Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb stood on the cusp of the league’s elite after dragging third-option wideout Freddie Mitchell into the spotlight with him, and a decidedly clutch team appeared to be more powerful than ever before.
It wasn’t meant to be. One week later, Philly dropped its third straight NFC title game, losing as favorites at home to Jake Delhomme’s Panthers. The only lasting impressions from the team’s improbable win over Green Bay in the Divisional Round were years and years of extended debates over McNabb’s legacy on Pennsylvania sports radio and a decade-plus of ignoring Mitchell’s pleas for attention.
To have your triumphs washed away by some bullshit is extremely on-brand for McNabb, whether it was on-field screwups or manufactured drama off it. He was the centerpiece of a team that stood out as a perennial contender; a player who led Philadelphia to 59 wins in his first five seasons as a full-time starter. But every step of that journey was booby-trapped by “what about”-isms, most of which could only be definitively answered with an NFL championship.
That never happened, and McNabb’s never-was dynasty was effectively paved over in the hearts and minds of casual football fans.
So what happened? First, you’ve got to examine the blueprint that made the Eagles great in the first place.
McNabb helped make Philadelphia very good (but not great)
From 1991-99, the Eagles made three playoff appearances. In that span, they had seven different players who led the team in passing yards for a given season — a long list of journeymen quarterbacks ranging from Jim McMahon to the Detmer brothers (Ty and Koy). This winding line of mediocrity ended in 2000 when McNabb, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, took the reins behind center and pushed Philly to five straight seasons with 11 wins or more.
The young quarterback was the most recognizable face behind one of the league’s most potently balanced teams. Although his accuracy wasn’t great — he completed more than 59 percent of his passes in only one of those seasons — his ability to make plays through the air and with his legs helped the Eagles outgun NFC East rivals. If he couldn’t outshoot opponents, he had help. Stalwarts like Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins, and Lito Sheppard made Philadelphia the league’s second-best scoring defense in three of those five years.
For all his solid play in the regular season, McNabb had fatal flaws that shined brightest in the playoffs. In his first five years, he averaged 19 fumbles and interceptions combined per season. His first four trips to the postseason saw him throw 11 touchdowns, but also nine interceptions. He ran for three more scores, but got sacked 32 times in just nine postseason games, fumbling nine times in the process — all numbers that eclipsed his totals during the regular season.
This seemed to change in 2004. Bolstered by offseason acquisition Terrell Owens, McNabb set career highs in completion rate (64 percent), touchdown passes (31), yards per pass (8.3), and passer rating (104.7). The Eagles stormed through the regular season with 13 wins in their first 14 games before easing off the gas in Weeks 16 and 17.
This is all an odd combination to create a Super Bowl underdog, but Philadelphia hit that Conference Championship Weekend with a whole host of concerns to put to bed. The Eagles had been defeated in the last three NFC title games and were facing a Falcons team that had thrashed the Rams by 30 points the week before. With the defending champion Patriots and a 15-1 Steelers team waiting on the AFC side of the bracket, the Eagles were still a shaky bet.
McNabb withstood the Falcons and set up a date with the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. Facing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, McNabb had the ball in his hands and the opportunity to write his own Hollywood ending was within reach.
Instead, his time at the mountaintop was spent, perhaps apocryphally, vomiting.
This historic string of high-profile failure overshadowed an impressive run in an NFL constructed on the tenets of parity. The Eagles were the first team since the 1995 Cowboys to reach the conference championship game in four consecutive seasons and only the fourth team in league history (Buffalo, Dallas, and New England are the others) to ever accomplish that feat.
While we recognize the 90s Cowboys and the 2010s Patriots as dynasties and the early 90s Bills as the ultimate never-was, the Eagles’ near-excellence has gone widely unrecognized. The only Hall of Famers from those Eagles teams are Dawkins and Owens, the latter of whom only played 22 games in green and white. The lack of Super Bowl appearances is certainly part of the oversight, but Philadelphia’s vulnerability when it came to getting consumed by its own drama and some terrible injury luck played a role as well.
And, just like on the field, it all swirled around McNabb.
McNabb’s final years with the Eagles had their ups and downs before his time ended unceremoniously
McNabb and Reid nearly willed Philadelphia back in Super Bowl 39, but some baffling clock management ultimately gave way to New England’s third Lombardi Trophy in four years. While that left some lingering questions about the Eagles’ ceiling the following offseason, they’d overcome the specter of being the NFC’s perpetual runner-up by breaking through to the Super Bowl, and there was still room to continue their upward trajectory.
Running it back proved tougher in 2005 than it ever had before. Players like Douglas, Corey Simon, Derrick Burgess, and Jermane Mayberry retired or left in free agency. McNabb missed seven games due to injury. Sheppard missed six. Brian Westbrook missed four. The defense fell to 27th in points allowed, and the club lacked the personnel to win the shootouts it needed to overcome this deficiency.
There were problems beyond attrition and injury concerns, too. McNabb and Owens, the two most visible stars on one of the league’s most successful teams at the time, frequently butted heads as a friendly partnership quickly turned into full-blown beef. This rift could have been easily been patched up by winning, but the aforementioned problems left Philly spinning out in the midst of a 6-10 season.
Owens would be suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team” and deactivated after that, ending his tenure in the City of Brotherly Love.
Owens’ departure appeared to take the missing ingredient that propelled the team to the Super Bowl with it. McNabb went 5-5 as a starter the following year before a torn ACL ended his season. Jeff Garcia’s five-game winning streak to finish out the year pushed the Eagles to the playoffs and sparked breathless debate over just how valuable McNabb was to the process in Philly.
This was not especially surprising. Eagles fans had doubted McNabb from the moment he was drafted, booing him lustily after he was announced as their pick.
Garcia’s play only emboldened the vocal contingent who wanted McNabb gone, even if that sentiment wasn’t especially logical. McNabb played through the 2000s in Philly with more reported injuries than any other quarterback in the league and still managed to deliver on an annual basis.
Entering Week 2, his chest was busted up so badly that he had to wear specialized shoulder pads. It was kind of ridiculous. He looked like a 10-year-old whose older brother tied pillows on him and told him to go jump off the top of the staircase.
That day, McNabb threw for 342 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. In terms of passer rating (155.4), it remains one of the 20 most dominant quarterbacking performances since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970.
As his chest healed, a groin injury surfaced on his injury report. It was later classified as a sports hernia, which meant two conflicting muscles in his groin were playing tug-of-war until one of them started to rip away. By all accounts, this is an absolutely miserable experience. McNabb’s numbers dipped, but he continued to play through the hernia until Week 9, when he ripped his groin beyond all utility while trying to make a tackle. It’s sort of a wonder to me that he made it that far at all.
And this only seemed to enrage some fans rather than endear himself to his biggest critics.
Three more good seasons and a 27-16-1 record as a starter followed, including one tie in which it became apparent McNabb wasn’t especially well versed in the rules of overtime.
But as good as McNabb made the Eagles, he could never break through to greatness. He went 9-7 in the playoffs, but finished with just an 80.0 passer rating in those games. His nadir came in 2010 when he completed just 51 percent of his passes and was sacked four times in a lackluster 34-14 loss to division rival Dallas in the Wild Card Round — the first time McNabb had ever gone one-and-done in the playoffs in his career.
Reid went into that offseason adamant McNabb would remain his starting quarterback after another statistically solid season had ended in heartache. This commitment lasted until April 4, when Philadelphia traded its longtime quarterback to Washington in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and a conditional mid-rounder the following year. After all he’d been through, the Eagles didn’t think enough of McNabb to even trade him out of the NFC East.
Neither side flourished after the breakup ... for a while
Philadelphia churned on with Michael Vick. Despite his promise as a dual-threat rehabilitation project, he failed to reach McNabb’s standard of postseason success. Two straight Wild Card losses pushed the franchise into a spending spree in free agency as the 2011 version of the team made an overhyped effort to bring back the franchise’s almost-glory. It was a major flop.
Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Brent Celek headlined an offense that should have challenged the 2007 Patriots for scoring supremacy, but instead barely cracked that season’s top 10. High-priced additions like Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha failed to create a punishing defense. A potential “Dream Team” finished 8-8, portending the Eagles’ first two-year playoff drought since 1999. They did not win a playoff game over the five seasons that followed.
McNabb’s fortunes were even worse. His play dropped off significantly in the nation’s capital. He threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14) in his first season in Washington and limped to a 5-8 record as a starter before being demoted to see what Rex Grossman brought to the table. He was traded to Minnesota that offseason in exchange for a 2012 sixth-round pick and a conditional sixth-rounder in 2013.
The former Eagle was supposed to be the salve that soothed the burn of Brett Favre’s Viking tenure. Instead, McNabb went 1-5 and got benched in favor of Christian Ponder. He was released in December and watched as journeymen like Kyle Orton, Jake Delhomme, and Josh McCown each signed with needy teams while he languished in free agency.
More than three years after being traded out of Pennsylvania, he’d return to Philly to sign a one-day contract and retire an Eagle.
The Eagles got the championship validation they craved in February 2018, when Nick Foles delivered the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory in a win over the Patriots. Only two players who’d played with McNabb — Celek and left tackle Jason Peters — got the chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy that February.
While McNabb never got to football’s promised land, it wasn’t as though he spent his 11 seasons in Philadelphia wandering the desert. The former first-round pick was the heart of one of his generation’s most successful teams. He pushed a receiving corps mostly led by starters like zero-time Pro Bowlers Todd Pinkston, James Thrash, and Mitchell to a consistent spot in the league’s final four. He made a Rod Dowhower offense look good, which is nearly impossible.
The Eagles quarterback did this all while serving as one of the league’s most-battered passers. These were no small feats, but McNabb was rarely hailed after these heroic efforts. And even if he doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring to flash his legacy at bystanders or a gold Hall of Fame jacket to wear for his trips back to eastern Pennsylvania, he’ll always have fourth-and-26.