Four years ago, Donovan McNabb got off to a lousy start and Rush Limbaugh said the media propped him up because it was “very desirous” to see black quarterbacks succeed.
In an interview recorded almost three weeks ago but aired Tuesday, McNabb said people wanted to see black quarterbacks fail.
Both, if the benchmark is a disgruntled few; neither, if the sample is larger than that.
Whatever opinions the rest of us harbored about the topic were pretty much exhausted a decade or so ago, around the time black quarterbacks became commonplace in the NFL.
It’s a measure of progress that most of us understand a coach would play Satan at quarterback with the tacit approval of everybody from the team owner to the team chaplain if he thought it improved his chances to win.
We also understand the opposite is true, that Eagles coach Andy Reid would yank McNabb the moment he found somebody he believed could run the offense better.
So maybe the better question is why McNabb decided to wake up those ugly echoes.
He started life in the NFL as a guy with a chip on his shoulder pads, which made sense when you remember McNabb was booed on draft day in 1999 by a busload of Philly fans who rode up to New York for just such an occasion. And in those first few seasons, no matter what the Eagles lacked a consistent ground game, game-breaking receiver or tenacious “D” McNabb seemed determined to prove he could overcome it all by doing more himself.
Then came success: the Pro Bowl selections, the string of NFC Championship games, a strong supporting cast and a very different McNabb. He cut down on reckless runs, quit forcing throws into tight spots and became the model of consistency. His high school coach watched McNabb play a game back in Chicago early in 2004, the season the Eagles finally reached the Super Bowl, and pronounced the transformation complete.
“It’s like everything else in life,” said Frank Lenti, who has sent a half-dozen players to the NFL from Mt. Carmel High, “it takes a while to get comfortable in your own skin.”
Problem is, the feeling doesn’t last forever.
The Eagles were humbled 20-12 by Washington on Monday night and booed by the hometown fans throughout. The quarterback who led them looked anything but comfortable, playing on a surgically repaired knee that hasn’t completely healed and commanding an offense sorely lacking balance.
For some reason, Reid decided to call 46 pass plays and give Brian Westbrook only 17 carries, which seems curious for a team that has mustered just one touchdown in two losses.
“I thought we saw a great thing with Donovan as we got through that fourth quarter,” Reid said Tuesday. “Some of that rust came off and it looked like the old Donovan there. So, that’s a very positive thing coming out of this game.”
McNabb might disagree he missed receiver Kevin Curtis on an easy touchdown throw at the end that would have forced overtime but chances are he’s too proud to say so. He was undermined by Terrell Owens throughout T.O.’s brief stay in Philly, then criticized by the head of the local NAACP chapter for a lack of leadership, so he understands quarterbacks are held to an unreasonable standard anytime a team falters.
Perhaps McNabb knew what fans in Philadelphia are just finding out, that the Eagles are just a so-so team in a beefed-up division, and maybe he was just looking for some breathing room when he taped the HBO interview. Or maybe he was smarting from all the fawning those same fans did last season over his backup Jeff Garcia, who rescued the Eagles when McNabb injured his knee and led the team into the playoffs.
Either way, it was disconcerting to hear McNabb say, “Because the percentage of us playing this position, which people didn’t want us to play … is low, so we do a little extra.”
A “little extra” is something McNabb has been doing his entire career, going all the way back to college when more than a few recruiters tried to convince him to switch positions. To deny race hasn’t played a part in the controversies that have swirled around him in the past is just plain wrong.
But it has nothing to do with his current predicament, and so McNabb did himself no favors by raising the issue, ahead of any criticism that would inevitably follow an 0-2 start. Especially when he was far from full strength.
He should have learned long ago that timing is everything. In this case, his timing couldn’t have been worse.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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