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Sunday, February 6, 2005
McNabb wasn't brilliant enough

By Seth Wickersham
ESPN The Magazine

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- He tried, you know? The slick tan suit, the snakeskin kicks, the brown vest, the perfect tie, cooling off with a swig of fruit punch Gatorade, rubbing the biceps of a right arm that threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns.

Donovan McNabb looked the part of a winning quarterback after Super Bowl XXXIX. He looked good. Except for his bottom lip. It was bleeding. Bad.

Donovan McNabb
Donovan McNabb threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns, but he also tossed three costly interceptions.
Live, in front of the cameras, there was blood on his mouth. And so as he answered questions after his first Super Bowl -- and first Super Bowl loss -- McNabb's postgame look served well for the game he played. He looked sharp, but for his lip. And he played well, but ...

It's hard to criticize McNabb's exhibition in Philadelphia's 24-21 loss to New England. He played well enough to give Philly a chance to win its first Super Bowl. And he played bad enough to end the best season of his career with the same question that has dogged his six-year career: Is he accurate enough to win a championship?

The numbers show that McNabb completed 58 percent of his 51 passes Sunday, a percentage that is roughly square with his career mark. But it's a rate that's low for a 28-year-old who's played his entire career in a quarterback-friendly offense. McNabb gave Super Bowl XXXIX its best offensive plays. He also gave the game its worst.

Even though McNabb nearly beat the two-time defending champion Pats alone, he was never really on his game. Although it was overturned by a smart replay challenge by Eagles coach Andy Reid, McNabb fumbled on the game's third play. On Philadelphia's third possession, he sliced New England apart with a 30-yard pass to Terrell Owens that gave the Eagles a first-and-goal at the 8. But on first down, Mike Vrabel dropped him for a 16-yard loss. On second down, he tossed an airball into the end zone that Asante Samuel intercepted. Fortunately, he was bailed out by an illegal-contact penalty on Pats linebacker Roman Phifer.

Unfortunately, he threw an even worse pass, seven yards short of Brian Westbrook and perfectly placed for safety Rodney Harrison, who hustled to the ball, stopped, waited, ordered take-out, looked for former presidents Bush and Clinton in the stands, weighed the musical "talents" of the Black Eyed Peas, yawned, and finally intercepted the pass.

"I don't think he got frustrated," said Eagles tight end L.J. Smith. "It just took him a little while to get in rhythm."

When McNabb did, it was brief and spectacular. In the second quarter, he found Todd Pinkston over the middle for 17 yards. Then Pinkston again deeper over the middle for 40 yards. Then, on third-and-goal from the 7, he looked for Owens outside, came back inside, and saw a window to Smith's hands where everyone else saw a wall. The touchdown put the Eagles up 7-0.

But still, it was shaky. At that point in the game, Philadelphia had two turnovers, had outgained New England 149 to 27, but only had a seven-point lead.

"It could have possibly been a blowout," McNabb said later.

McNabb's second half started the same as the first, with Pinkston being overthrown and sacks being taken. Then, again, McNabb settled into a short zone, throwing on eight of 10 plays and hitting seven of them, including a 10-yarder to Westbrook to tie the game at 14. At that point, Reid had all but burned his running plays, electing instead to place the season in the hands of a player who was booed by Eagles fans upon being drafted in 1999.

What beat Philadelphia was that McNabb started getting jittery with his throws, and Reid started getting ditzy with his playcalling. In the fourth quarter, trailing by 10, McNabb hit Owens with a perfect pass for 36 yards. On the next play, he threw to Westbrook, and we use the term "to Westbrook" charitably. That's because with his tailback wide-open in the middle of the field, McNabb threw it high and behind, making it impossible for Westbrook to salvage anything, but very easy for Tedy Bruschi to make a falling interception.

Undoubtedly, analysts will praise Bruschi, one of the league's premier playmakers, for another smart play on a championship defense. But even more of a factor was that McNabb couldn't make a throw that every successful West Coast quarterback makes on the game's biggest stage. And McNabb knows it.

"I'm not going to make excuses," he said.

Still, he had a chance late in the game, finding himself in the same position as Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner before him -- rallying his team in the fourth quarter against the Patriots. But what followed was a strange and lousy drive, if indeed a lousy drive can end in a touchdown. With 5:40 left, the Eagles took over at their 21 down 10, with all three timeouts. Harrison admitted later he was expecting the Eagles to attack with five wide receivers and throw deep on a Pats secondary that lost starting safety Eugene Wilson. But instead ...

McNabb passed four yards to Smith. Then McNabb threw another dump off to Greg Lewis. Then to Owens for another four. Then to fullback Josh Perry for two yards. All the while, the Eagles were huddling up, receivers were walking back to get the play, and as minute after minute disappeared, no one wearing green seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation or the simple math that producing 10 points against the two-time champs is not easy.

Reid, who was calling the plays and wasn't exactly on the field screaming for his players to show more urgency, said later, "We were trying to hurry it up, but things didn't work out that way."

No, they didn't. It was a painful, hair-gouging 79-yard march that McNabb called a "no-huddle" attack even though all 13 plays featured huddles. Even though it ended in a perfectly thrown 30-yard touchdown pass to Lewis, in a very real way it seemed too little too late. And it's as if the Eagles offense knew it. When they got the ball with 46 seconds left, McNabb threw a 1-yard pass to Westbrook. Philly was killing itself softly.

After three successive NFC championship losses, McNabb showed in the Super Bowl that he's able to raise his game to a Brady-esque level for spurts. In a Super Bowl poorly played and devoid of any lingering, memorable, snapshot plays, McNabb took on a defense that had dough-popped Peyton Manning and threw for more yards and touchdowns than Brady. Only two quarterbacks have ever thrown for more yards on Super Sunday. But for the next time -- and McNabb wholeheartedly believes there will be a next time -- the spurts will have to become games.

"He battled his heart out on the field," Reid said.

But the blood -- and the hurt -- followed him off.

Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.