Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb is off to one of the best starts ever for a quarterback
Before the start of this season, several prognosticators picked the Philadelphia Eagles to finish last in the rugged NFC East division, pronouncing the team's window of opportunity all but closed in the wake of last year's 6-10 record.
Donovan McNabb never got the message.
Maybe he wasn't listening, or maybe he's just had plenty of practice tuning out negative talk. After all, he spent much of last year embroiled in the league's biggest soap opera, courtesy of a certain since-departed wide receiver. That came fairly close on the heels of Rush Limbaugh's confounding absurdities and the characterization that he was simply too tired to finish Super Bowl XXXIX well.
If all that wasn't enough, McNabb suffered a litany of injuries last year, bruising his ribs and chest in the first game of the season and later enduring a painful sports hernia, which he gamely played through for six more weeks before finally being placed on injured reserve.
Through it all, McNabb has weathered the storm and seemingly got stronger for having done so. Now in his eighth season with the Eagles and fully healthy in both mind and body, McNabb appears to be at his strongest – a scary thought given that this is a man who once conjured up the strength to throw four touchdown passes on a fractured ankle.
"The quarterback's great, the quarterback's really great," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden about McNabb. "He's creating so many plays with his athleticism. He's got a cannon and he doesn't take any plays off. Every time he has his hands on the ball, you hold your breath. He's playing that well. I'm really impressed with their explosive playmaking on offense."
How great has McNabb been this season? Not since 1983 has a quarterback (Dan Fouts) completed more passes of 20 yards or greater in his first five games than McNabb has this year. Through six games, McNabb has completed 34 passes of 20 or more yards and nine passes of 40 or more yards. Along the way, he's become the first quarterback in NFL history to start a season with at least 1,500 yards passing, 10-plus TDs and no more than one interception through his first five games.
"I don't know if I'm playing the best ball of my career, but I'm definitely having fun," McNabb said of his mind-boggling numbers. "We're in a great position right now. We just have to continue to get better. Consistency is a word that I kind of go by. We just need to be consistent on a day-to-day basis."
Despite a hiccup last week against a tough New Orleans Saints team, the Eagles offense has been consistently potent behind McNabb, ranking first in the league in six different categories: total yards per game, yards per first down, yards per play, passing yards per game, average passing yards per play and average yards per catch. The Eagles are the only team to lead the league in that many major statistics.
"We've added some different things," McNabb said. "You've got to understand when a new coordinator comes in, he wants to put in his kind of flavor on things. Marty [Mornhinweg]'s done an excellent job. We're just making sure we're prepared and ready to go. Brad [Childress] did an excellent job with that as well, and he's doing it right now in Minnesota. Fortunately, I've had an opportunity to be with three of the best coordinators who I feel have put me in a position to be successful."
Also key to McNabb's success has been the play of his receivers – a group that many considered the team's major weakness going into the season. What a difference six games makes. Taking their turns coming down with McNabb's long-distance strikes are the likes of Reggie Brown, Greg Lewis, Donte Stallworth, Matt Schobel and Hank Baskett. Hank who? That's probably what the Dallas Cowboys were asking in Week Five when Baskett pulled in three catches for 112 yards and a touchdown, including an 87-yard bomb.
"You're seeing different guys make plays every week, and when you have a handful of guys just awaiting the opportunity to catch the ball or make things happen with it, that makes the quarterback excited," McNabb said. "I'm excited about the fact that we are trying to involve everyone. I'm also excited about the way we've been playing. We're not where we want to be right now, but the potential of what we can do if we play our best game – of what it could look like – is pretty tempting."
And that may be McNabb's greatest accomplishment thus far. In a truly Michael Jordan-esque fashion, McNabb's stellar play has made his teammates better. Need more proof? Reggie Brown has 412 receiving yards. Terrell Owens has 277. Heck, even Eagles' tight end L.J. Smith has more yards than Owens so far, and Brian Westbrook and Stallworth aren't far behind – and Stallworth has missed three games. These days, it seems just about anybody in an Eagles uniform with a number in the 80s or the high teens is torching a secondary.
This season the Eagles have nine touchdown drives of less than 1:30 and lead the NFL with seven scoring drives of less than 4 plays – a potentially foreboding statistic against a Buccaneers defense that has given up 15 plays of 20 or more yards to this point.
"I think what we've been able to show is that we have big-play capability," McNabb said. "We just have to kind of get back to the basics again of focusing on the run and play-action. But it's still exciting to see the things we've been able to do. We want to continue on with what we've been doing and just continue to improve as well, week-in and week-out."