We've seen the last of Donovan McNabb. Let that sink in. The most polarizing quarterback of the last decade-plus is gone.
Lost in the hype of trade deadline day was the news that Christian Ponder will replace McNabb at quarterback for the Vikings. It makes sense. Minnesota's going nowhere, so why delay the future? Even if something happens to Ponder, you'll see Joe Webb under center before McNabb makes it back there. In fact, you'll see Fran Tarkenton calling signals (and giving computer software advice at the same time) before that. From a football standpoint, McNabb is just done. His mobility is not what it was, which is what made him such a good player to begin with. His footwork is questionable, and his accuracy is suspect. Hey, it's just his time. Everyone hits the wall at some point, and this was McNabb's turn. Andy Reid ain't gonna trade you to a division rival if you have anything left in the tank. Who's going to sign him to be a starter next season? He was bad in Washington and worse in Minnesota. No one will think he's the answer anymore. If he wants to hang around as a backup, sure, he can. But after all he's gone through in his career, my gut tells me he's going to walk away rather than go that route. So he's gone.
What does he leave us? Every quarterback who starts for a decade and measures a good level of success leaves a legacy to the NFL. And it's not just the stars you can say this for. Trent Dilfer taught us that you could win a Super Bowl with a caretaker QB. Marc Bulger showed the public that quarterbacks with OK talent can succeed in the right system. Vinny Testaverde? If you can throw the deep ball, you'll always have a place in the game. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, so it goes.
McNabb? Donovan simply made the NFL what it is today. And that's both good and bad. Because his mark was made in how the game is now covered, reported on and consumed by fans. Um, yeah, that's a lot.
Party over, oops, out of time
There's two real periods in modern NFL history. There's pre-1999, and 1999 and beyond. Pre-1999, criticism of athletes was limited to what transpired on the field. Quarterbacks always got their share of blame, but it was mainly about whether or not he threw too many interceptions or lost too many games and had to be replaced. It was rampant, but it was in a box. On. The. Field. That's where conversations stayed, what newspaper columns were written about. Did we ever talk about players' personal lives? Joe Montana was a legend. Dan Marino couldn't win the big one. Jim Kelly couldn't win the big one. Steve Young? Finally wins the big one. Troy Aikman? He wins the big ones. And the Cowboys "White House" issues were dismissed as rollicking guys having fun. Then the No. 2 overall selection in the 1999 draft was announced. And Donovan McNabb was booed by Eagles fans who wanted Ricky Williams. Suddenly, he was a story before he threw a pass in the NFL. Was it his race? His talent? His first issue was an off-the-field one. And it ushered in an era of making personal issues fair game for everyone to chew on.
This time coincides with the rise of the internet and instant information. Or rather, the time when DSL and cable modem became the norm and you could go online and get information instantly. You didn't have to go through dial-up nor worry that someone in your house was going to pick up the phone and break the connection. ("Mom! I was just about to get that forward to reveal! Thanks a lot!") The internet was and is the format made for conversation and controversy. After all, you can get tired of debating the merits of someone's statistics, but getting booed at the draft? That was something everyone could weigh in on, and they did. For months and months. The number of syndicated sports-talk radio stations doubled at the start of the aught's, helping to give more fuel to fire like this. Want an alternative to ESPN Radio? Turn on FOX Sports Radio. Or Sporting News Radio. Or One on One Sports.
McNabb played on broken ankles and got to Pro Bowls and yet in his first five years, what was the biggest story? The Rush Limbaugh controversy in which the then-ESPN analyst called McNabb overrated and said he got great treatment from the media because they were "desirous of a black quarterback to do well." Being a national sports-talk radio host for the past 10 years, I remember the lightning rod that story became, and how it lingered for weeks. Now McNabb's skin color became Topic A. And he had nothing to do with this. I remember watching his press conference to talk about this and I felt like he had no idea what to say. I couldn't blame him, because he got dragged into it. But here's controversy No. 2, and I can tell you from first-hand experience the things you talked about with McNabb were 1) Limbaugh 2) The draft 3) See 1 and 2. The Limbaugh thing was a watershed moment in the sports industry, because of how long that topic stayed front and center. You could almost hear every sports producer, editor and program director saying "Wow, let's keep talking about this. Everyone's fired up about it." Which is true, because it's much easier for fans to latch onto human stories that they can understand rather than how McNabb was able to beat the Cover 2 on a game-winning drive. Suddenly now, it wasn't limited to McNabb. Off-the-field became the new on-the-field. The Baylor basketball/Dave Bliss coverage stretched over two months. Mike Price and the strip club. Larry Eustachy and the college co-ed party. Kobe Bryant and Eagle, Colo. Stories like this became the life-blood of sports coverage. But it was McNabb's situation that gave birth to this phenomenon.
And so it goes.
In sickness and health
He got to NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl, and still, the story that went just about the entire offseason following the 2004 season? How McNabb and Terrell Owens didn't get along despite their success together. That McNabb got sick during the loss to the Patriots in XXXIX and was called out by T.O. afterwards. Freddie Mitchell (FredEx!) said he had to call a few plays in the huddle because McNabb was too ill. The Eagles denied it, but admitted McNabb was tired. How tired? How sick? We didn't know. But we talked and blogged about it from February until April. By this time, McNabb was the shining star of personal critique. Yes, other people were getting their turns in the spotlight, but McNabb was a guy you could count on every few months for one of these stories that didn't revolve around wins and losses. The Godfather of modern-day sports fodder.
He came back months ahead of time from a torn ACL in 2007 to play lights out. But that didn't matter. You know the story now. He said he didn't think he'd be back in Philadelphia after the drafting of Kevin Kolb. He asked for the Eagles to bring in more 'playmakers' on his blog, and called out his team for underperforming and of course, he didn't know the NFL rules for overtime following a tie with the Bengals. He got to the NFC title game again in the 2008 campaign but his benching earlier in the season was a bigger story. He played well in 2009 and was told he'd be the Eagles' QB for 2010. Three days after Andy Reid gave him that vote of confidence he was traded to the Redskins. It was supposed to be a fresh start. Why would Philadelphia do this? Hey, we're going to pay attention to McNabb on the field again! That is until he was benched for not having the stamina to lead a two-minute drive, and Rex Grossman was the answer. He wasn't even the answer when the Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2006. Seriously? Stamina? Hey, media firestorm. After this McNabb was an ex-Redskin. And now, he's the ex-starter for Minnesota.
And so it has gone.
Chances are, you know these stories about McNabb better than his passing stats, the number of times he got to the NFC title game, or even where he went to college. Chances are you know more about Michael Vick's dogfighting scandal than you do about his best statistical seasons. Face it, you know more about every star player's life off the field than on it. Peyton Manning's commercials, Tom Brady's wedding, Tony Romo's Cabo vacation, and Jay Cutler's knee. This would have happened eventually -- the segue from between the lines to outside it -- but every revolution needs a starting point, and McNabb was responsible for this. It's too bad -- because getting to five conference championship games when you're the only constant from those teams is incredibly impressive. It's just not as tongue-wagging worthy as your mom being in a soup commercial.
See Jason Smith on NFL Fantasy Live, airing Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET on the Red Zone Channel, and Tuesday-Friday on NFL Network at 2 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET/9 p.m. PT. He writes Fantasy and other NFL pith on NFL.com daily. Talk to him on Twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.