This is a make or break season for Donovan McNabb. That sounds like a crazy thing to say about a guy whose team has made the playoffs eight of the last ten years and has won a playoff game in seven of those eight seasons. It is not crazy when you realize that McNabb will not be donning the familiar green #5 of the Philadelphia Eagles this season. Instead, he will wear #5 for their hated division rival, the Washington Redskins. It seems curious to rank such a successful player as the NFL quarterback with the most to prove, but from my vantage point as Optimist Prime, I think he is the perfect case study.
In all my years of watching football, I am not sure that I can think of a more polarizing quarterback than McNabb. Even though he has a 10-8 career playoff record, has been to five conference championship games, and one Super Bowl, the general football fan reaction to McNabb’s name is “That is the guy who choked in the Super Bowl” or “That is the guy who can’t win the big one.” Unfortunately, that is a reputation that stays with you until you do win the big one, even though your game may not have changed from before your big win to afterwards. The rap in Philly was always that Westbrook was the real weapon, or that McNabb just rode the coattails of the swarming, blitzing defense. Although the QB position in the NFL generally receives far too much of the credit and blame for a team’s success or failure, McNabb’s Philadelphia situation was more like receiving most of the blame for failure and just a dash of credit for success.
In an interesting contrast, while the general fan reaction is less positive on McNabb, the general media impression of him is quite positive. Tune into an ESPN season preview show and the commentators will generally laud his leadership qualities, his improvisation in the pocket, and his mental fortitude to play through a difficult fan situation in Philadelphia. Read a McNabb column written anywhere other than Philadelphia and you will generally read compliments regarding his graceful handling of the T.O. situation or various personnel move rumors over the years.
In my mind, this contrast between public opinion and media opinion is what makes this season so critical for McNabb’s legacy in the National Football League (in case Ron Jaworski is reading this, I want to make sure I sound out National Football League for the remainder of this post). McNabb’s move to the Skins is arguably the most high profile move of the offseason, and the national media spotlight will be on him. Combining national attention with a Washington fan base that is desperate for winning football after spending the last several months counting days between Strasburg starts and watching the Capitals flame out in the first round of the playoffs, the pressure on him may not have that biting Philly edge, but it will be intense.
The line between saint and sinner for McNabb this year is quite small. He turns 34 in November, and if he posts a couple of mediocre seasons in Washington I think the best case memory that football fans will have of him is that he was football’s Karl Malone. His worst case is that they will ignore his 32,873 career yards and 2.16-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio, and label him a choker who needed a championship defense to be successful.
However, if he has a season where he throws for 3,500 yards and leads the Skins to a playoff berth, he will be lauded locally and praised nationally. The Redskins are not expected to light the league on fire this year. Their success – and the national impression of McNabb – rides on his right arm this season. I cannot think of a quarterback with a greater chance to clarify his legacy in 2010 than Donovan McNabb.