“He never won a Super Bowl.”
It is the number one criticism against Donovan McNabb. It is the sore thumb that stands out in what was otherwise a terrific career. One less costly interception in Super Bowl XXXIX in February 2005, one less upset stomach in that game, or even a fully healthy Terrell Owens, and McNabb could be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and this might not be much of a debate.
McNabb and head coach Andy Reid delivered a decade of football excellence never before seen in Philadelphia. No other quarterback/coach combination in the history of the franchise won with more consistency than Reid and McNabb did. Now, one of the hottest sports debates in the wake of his official retirement from the NFL and his number 5 jersey, is whether Donovan McNabb belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame.
After being booed on draft day in 1999 by Eagle fans who wanted the team to select running back Ricky Williams, McNabb started a few games down the stretch during his rookie year before breaking out in 2000. He flipped the Eagles’ record of 5-11 in ’99 to 11-5 in 2000 and won his first career playoff game. He also finished as the runner-up for MVP to St. Louis’ Marshall Faulk. Each of the following three seasons (2001-2003) saw McNabb lead the Eagles to the NFC East title and the NFC Championship Game.
Each championship game ended in heartbreaking defeat, however, especially the last two when the Eagles were heavy favorites.
In 2004, McNabb utilized the addition of Terrell Owens to take the NFL by storm and lead the team to a 13-1 record before resting after securing home-field advantage. That year, McNabb and the Eagles got over the NFC Championship hump in their 4th attempt by defeating Michael Vick and the upstart Atlanta Falcons. They then went on to Super Bowl XXXIX vs. the New England Patriots.
Despite throwing three touchdowns, McNabb also threw three costly interceptions. That plus terrible clock management in the fourth quarter cost the Eagles what would have been their first Super Bowl win.
Terrell Owens splitting the locker room along with an array of injuries doomed the 2005 Eagles. McNabb played well but couldn’t stay on the field for a full season in either 2006 or 2007. He led the Eagles on a magical December run in 2008 after his infamous November benching. For the fifth time, he led the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game where they came up short again, this time in Arizona. 2009 was McNabb’s final season with the Eagles despite making the Pro Bowl for the sixth time and leading the team to an 11-5 record. The Eagles fell flat to Dallas in both Week 17 and the Wild Card round. Due to McNabb’s expiring contract after 2010 and Kevin Kolb’s status as the future, McNabb was shipped to Washington on Easter Sunday 2010 for a pair of high draft picks.
McNabb and Mike Shanahan never saw eye-to-eye and the season was a rough ride for both men until McNabb was benched in Week 15. Things didn’t improve for Donovan in Minnesota in 2011, and he was on the bench by Week 7 for rookie Christian Ponder. It was a dark finish, and that is the last time he suited up in an NFL uniform. So, what is McNabb’s legacy? Surely somebody with the accolades he earned in Philadelphia would be in line for a Hall of Fame opportunity, right? Or do his shortcomings with the Eagles and his disastrous final two seasons negate his Hall of Fame credibility?
Call me biased, call me delusional (feel free to leave comments in the comments section below), but I believe Donovan McNabb should be a Hall of Famer. He might not be first ballot, but he eventually deserves his place in Canton, even if a 60-year-old Donovan McNabb takes the podium in 2036. Simply put, McNabb has bona fide Hall of Fame credentials.
Statistically, McNabb holds virtually every Eagles franchise passing record. McNabb ranks 17th all-time in passing yards, ahead of the likes of Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jim Kelly. Only twelve quarterbacks in the history of the game won more regular season games than Donovan McNabb. All twelve are either in the Hall of Fame or will be someday (ex. Brady, Manning). These twelve include quarterbacks who have NOT won a Super Bowl such as Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino. Despite the two disastrous seasons at the end of his career, McNabb managed to post a .612 career winning percentage. McNabb has the fourth-best touchdown to interception ratio of all time, throwing interceptions in only 2.2% of his passes. He is also only the third quarterback, joining Hall-of-Famers Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton, to throw for 35,000 yards and run for 3,500 more.
More importantly than all-time statistics, Hall of Fame quarterbacks transcended the era in which they played. They were an elite quarterback consistently throughout their tenure. McNabb burst onto the scene as not only a proficient passer, but an electric runner. During the decade from 2000-2009 only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Brett Favre won more games or threw more touchdown passes. In that span, McNabb also led the Eagles to nine playoff wins, five NFC Championship games, and an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIX. Many will argue that nobody did more with less; as McNabb had the likes of Todd Pinkston and James Thrash to throw to before Terrell Owens arrived in 2004. When discussing elite quarterbacks of the 2000s, Donovan McNabb is right there with Brady, Manning, and Favre.
In addition to his on-the-field accomplishments, Donovan is the type of individual the NFL would want enshrined in their Hall of Fame. He has never been in any trouble off the field, and has been a phenomenal ambassador for the game. His resilience and leadership in times of difficulty is something fans and more importantly those who played with him will always remember. There are few people in McNabb’s class when it comes to class. Being a terrific role model on and off the field by itself does not earn a place in the Hall, but it helps to round out his resume.
Donovan did have his tragic flaws. He was unable to win the big one, so to speak, and often failed under pressure in those games. He was infamous for oftentimes throwing at receivers’ feet or behind them on crossing routes. Toward the end of his career, McNabb’s conditioning became an issue and he became hard to coach in Washington and Minnesota. This caused his career to end more prematurely than many, including himself, anticipated.
However, through all of the ups and downs, Donovan McNabb deserves a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The quote that best sums up McNabb’s career is this: “He may not have won THE big game, but he won a lot OF big games.” This statement also applies to Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Warren Moon, and Jim Kelly (especially Kelly and his four Super Bowl losses). Based on statistical comparison to current Hall of Fame quarterbacks, his elite status throughout the entire 2000s, and his personal standing in the NFL, Donovan McNabb belongs in the Hall of Fame. He may not be elected in his first year of eligibility in 2017, he may not in 2018, he may not in 2025.
But someday, Donovan McNabb belongs among the greats.