Reporting from Ashburn, Va.
Donovan McNabb, in his 12th NFL season, has seen just about everything over the course of his career.
Everything, that is, except the visitors’ locker room in Philadelphia.
“I’m sure it’s probably small, congested, probably not clean,” the Washington Redskins quarterback said Wednesday, smiling. “But that’s what you do to opposing teams.”
And now — strange as it still seems — McNabb is the opposition.
Sunday is the day circled on a lot of calendars along I-95, which connects Washington and Philadelphia. It’s the day McNabb makes his first return to face the team that in April brazenly traded him to a bitter division rival, the Eagles parting ways with a player who led them to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.
“I never did ask to be traded,” said McNabb, standing at a podium and surrounded by a crush of reporters before the first practice of the week. “It was a decision that was made, and I’m here in Washington.”
Understandably, McNabb already is trying to make this week business as usual — there’s no sense in heaping additional pressure on the 1-2 Redskins, who could claim a share of the NFC East lead with a victory. He conceded, though, that he’s looking forward to the end of questions about going back to face the team that made him the No. 2 selection in the 1999 draft. He also admitted the matchup gives him “an added chip” on his shoulder pads.
A question he has already heard in various forms: Do you think the fans will boo or cheer you?
On that, McNabb is optimistic. He thinks — hopes? — the notoriously raucous Philadelphia fans will applaud him for his years of service, his six Pro Bowls, his franchise records for passing yards, completions and touchdown passes.
Not all of his Redskins teammates share that rosy outlook.
“Knowing them, they’ll probably boo him,” center Casey Rabach said. “They boo everybody up there. They booed him when he was winning games for them.”
Sure enough, there’s a warm Philly welcome in the works. Angelo Cataldi, a talk-show personality and the leader of the so-called “Dirty 30" — the 30 hardcore Eagles fans who led the boos at Madison Square Garden when the Eagles drafted the Syracuse star over Texas running back Ricky Williams — has organized a “Boo McNabb” parade featuring sign-carrying boo birds, a juggler, some strippers, and a guy on stilts. It remains to be seen if any of them will actually make it to Lincoln Financial Field for the game.
Jamie Lynch, a producer at Philadelphia’s all-sports WIP radio, said there’s “no gray area” on the McNabb issue, something that has been obvious with this week’s callers. That said, he expects the same fans to both cheer and boo the Redskins quarterback.
“The majority of callers say he should be cheered at first,” Lynch said, “but then once that’s out of the way, he’s a Redskin, so he should be booed.”
The game would have had a different feel — a direct referendum on Coach Andy Reid’s decision to trade McNabb, in fact — if Kevin Kolb were starting for the Eagles. He had been groomed for three seasons to take over the starting job, and the Eagles felt good enough about him to send McNabb packing.
But Kolb sustained a concussion in the first half of the opener against Green Bay and, although he has been cleared to return, hasn’t taken a snap since the second quarter of that game. Michael Vick filled in admirably for him in the loss to the Packers, then played very well in beating Detroit.
That’s when the Eagles made the somewhat startling decision to stick with Vick, a choice further solidified by his play in Philadelphia’s 25-point rout of Jacksonville last Sunday.
“Mike and I have been very good friends for almost about 15 years now,” said McNabb, who hosted him on a recruiting visit to Syracuse before Vick eventually chose Virginia Tech. “I’m just happy that he’s had this opportunity. He’s really kind of flourished in it. He’s understanding his role and what they expect from him, and he’s doing well.”
McNabb wasn’t universally popular in Philadelphia, so he had his detractors even when he wore Eagles green. But he didn’t request a trade, and this isn’t a situation akin to the one in which Terrell Owens came back to face the Eagles as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Before that game, fans staged a mock funeral in the parking lot and disposed of their Owens jerseys by tossing them onto the casket.
This is likely to be closer to when hugely popular safety Brian Dawkins returned to play the Eagles last season as a member of the Denver Broncos.
“I’ve been blessed to sign — I don’t know if I should say blessed — but I’ve been asked to sign jerseys for people’s loved ones who died and want to be buried with one of my jerseys,” Dawkins, who played 13 years in Philadelphia, told the Denver Post before that game. “I’ve been booed, absolutely. But if you stay strong and persevere, Philly fans will welcome you into their home.”
Dawkins was the last of Denver’s defensive starters to be introduced for that game, and he made a grand entrance. He dropped to a knee, pointed to the sky and flexed. He then somersaulted, and turned a reverse somersault into a handstand. He was wildly cheered, and throughout the game pointed and waved to his old fans.
Chances are, McNabb will skip the gymnastics. He’s hoping to feel the love, though.
“The organization means a lot to me,” he said of the Eagles. “The coaches mean a lot. The success that I’ve had, it’s not just because of myself. It was because of the players that surrounded me and the coaching staff. The coaches put me in a great position.
“Eleven years is one that you just can’t forget about it in a day, a week or a year.”