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McNabb wise to job hunt, but not to fool himself

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Posted June 29, 2012 @ 9:54 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

I don’t blame Donovan McNabb for wanting to come back to the NFL. He told “NBC Sports Talk” that he’s “80 or 90 percent” sure he’ll be in the league this fall and that he’s eying “about three teams” that could be appealing to him.

I can see why he wants back in after the Vikings let him go midseason last year. The NFL was mostly good to him.

Yes, for a star player most of his career, McNabb was sent through the meat grinder a few times. Playing for the Eagles for 11 years will do that. Playing with Terrell Owens for, well, any length of time has that potential, too.

Some of it McNabb brought on himself. He liked being the Alpha Dog for all those years. He enjoyed proving his doubters wrong. McNabb took a certain pride in being questioned and then getting the chance to throw it back in his questioners’ faces. He played that role well for much of his career.

And for such an athletic player, McNabb’s style was not the prettiest, even if he looked cool doing it. Perhaps the signature individual play of his career (other than “4th and 26,” naturally) was the turning, twisting, backtracking, cross-field throw at the old Cowboys Stadium that took longer to develop than some NFL quarters. It was a brilliant mix of improvisation, awkward execution and streetwise athleticism that he built a career on. It was vintage McNabb.

But once Andy Reid sent him packing — trading him to a division rival and a future Hall of Fame coach, nonetheless — it spoke volumes.

That night, Easter evening 2010, was not the night that the old McNabb died. He has passed his prime somewhere in the 12 to 18 months earlier, and Reid knew it. Marty Mornhinweg knew it, McNabb’s teammates knew it, nearly everyone on that Eagles team knew it — except McNabb.

Always the competitor, McNabb once more vowed to show the world he was wronged. But this time he could not.

McNabb and Mike Shanahan clashed in many ways, the QB found himself benched and having to answer questions about his “cardiovascular endurance,” and Washington D.C.-area columnists rejoiced at all the one-liners they could snap off thereafter.

Minnesota proved little better. McNabb showed up post-lockout looking pudgy, he struggled in what little training camp there was and — predictably — struggled. People around the team now wish they never had traded for him in the first place because it probably slowed down Christian Ponder’s progression.

Left looking for work, McNabb remained unemployed the remainder of last season. He publicly wondered why the Bears, his hometown team, didn’t sign him after Jay Cutler was lost for the season. It would have led to the Bears winning down the stretch, McNabb implied.

McNabb likes to question the forces around him. He questioned Reid for trading him. He questioned Shanahan for his handling of the situation. McNabb questioned his benching with the Vikings. He questioned teams he never played for, such as the Bears and the other 20-something clubs that aren’t knocking down his door right now. The guess here is that five to seven years down the road, he’ll be questioning the Hall of Fame voters for why he hasn’t been sent to Canton.

McNabb had a very good career. Fourth and 26 was amazing. Five division titles is quite an achievement. Five NFC title games say a lot. Being the Eagles’ all-time leader in victories, passing yards and passing touchdowns is not to be scoffed at.

But his career also screams Hall of Very Very Good. Tiki Barber. Roger Craig. Phil Simms. Drew Bledsoe. Jimmy Smith. Keyshawn Johnson. HOF? No, sir.

Not McNabb either. He’s remembered as much, sadly, for the sloooow drive near the end of Super Bowl XXXIX as he is for anything else. Bill Belichick clearly tried to take away Brian Westbrook in that game, happy to allow McNabb throw the ball 51 times against single man coverage on the outside. Belichick gambled against a very good player and won that battle. McNabb never could get back to the big game.

Nothing he can do at this point will change his fate for the positive. We’ve seen the best of McNabb.

What this is not is career advice. He should come back if he wants to. NFL players have a limited shelf life, and the way most players find out that they are done is when the phones stop ringing.

If one of these three teams — heck, if any team — comes calling, McNabb should return. He just should know what he’s getting into. It might not be too pretty. Plus, what is he? He’s not a backup quarterback. He’s not someone who is going to go out of his way to help a younger guy out; McNabb wants to join a team where he can poach the kid’s starting job.

“I think teams are evaluating what they have,” McNabb said Thursday. “They are looking at their young quarterbacks, their backup situation. Obviously their starters they feel very confident in, but if things were to go wrong in training camp or maybe the competition isn’t where they need it to be, they would obviously pick up the phone and call.”

The good news here is that McNabb hasn’t lost who is he mentally. He still believes he’s a starting quarterback. He might dance a little, like he used to in the pocket, and make it sound like he’s willing to come in and hold a clipboard, but he’s not. When has McNabb been happy with being second or third string?

That’s a good thing. It means he still has the fire.

When athletes lose their identity, when they deny their DNA, the intrinsic qualities that have helped drive them and get them to great places, they die. Look at a neutered Ochocinco in New England; sure, he had lost aspects of his fastball long ago, but the lobotomized version of the wideout looked lost and hauntingly ineffective.

McNabb’s problems can be linked directly to his body. He has broken down physically. Years of painful and debilitating injuries, not to mention underrated toughness — who can forget him finishing a game on a broken ankle against the Cardinals in 2002? — have stolen his physical gifts.

His toughness was wrongly questioned for years, although looking back, it was fair to call out his questionable conditioning. He bulked up too much in the middle years, put undue stress on his joints and never found a comfortable level of fitness later in his career, when it has become most important.

“Being an older player, I am focusing on strengthening my body as well as my mind,” McNabb said in the interview.

His mind appears fine. His body, though? Been gone for a few seasons now.

McNabb said he’d ideally love to join a team with a “solid running game, weapons on the outside, a defense that’s been playing well and playing well together, and that’s ready to win right now.”

I’m sure he’d also like a fat contract, an All-Pro offensive line, a laissez-faire head coach, a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich. Put it on the Underhills’ tab.

But this is reality here. No one is going to pay McNabb to be a No. 3 QB, and besides, it’s beneath him. The backup role doesn’t suit his personality. And being a starter? It’s just not reasonable to picture a good landing spot where this is possible.

If a job is out there, McNabb should take it. This isn’t a pride issue where we lament an athlete hanging on too long — McNabb missed that window a year ago. This is just to serve as a reminder that he never will be able to relive his old glory or slay any old demons. The things McNabb carries with him today, the ups, the downs, and the in-betweens, the whole muddy mess of it, they’re the things he’ll carry long after the phones stop ringing. And if NFL teams are wise, they’ll lose his number.

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