by Mike Tanier
My Aunt Ginny went to her grave a Donovan McNabb Denier.
She was 77 years old when she died, but still vibrant and ornery. She followed sports habitually after my Uncle Paul died. Ginny and I had our last in-depth conversation in April 2008. We talked about my writing career and she brought up Donovan McNabb, whom I defended as the Eagles' best chance of winning the Super Bowl in the upcoming season, slim as that chance was. She was livid. "Don't you see that he chokes in every big game?" she demanded. "Can't you see that he's not a good leader?"
I tried to remind her respectfully that I was a professional football writer and that she should defer to my expertise, just as I deferred to hers about family genealogy or the proper way to cook spaghetti. That argument never works with anyone, especially not a 77-year-old Italian woman who used to change your diapers. So I promised to keep an open mind about her opinions, which I assured her were shared by many people.
Ginny died on January 11, 2009, the day the Eagles beat the Giants 23-11 to advance to the NFC Championship game, the day McNabb overcame a slow start against a great defense (two interceptions, a bogus intentional grounding safety) to lead three late scoring drives, throwing for 217 yards and one fourth-quarter touchdown. I don't know how much of the game she saw. I'd like to think that she delighted in the Eagles win, recognized that her criticism of McNabb was a little harsh, then commended her soul unto heaven. More likely, she arrived at the pearly gates right after the safety, meaning at least that she died as she had lived, cursing the quarterback's name.
My beloved aunt died in 2009, but the McNabb Denial movement is still going strong. Some call fans like Aunt Ginny "McNabb Haters," but hatred isn't strong enough a word. They are deniers, like evolution deniers, moon landing deniers, and other deniers who I don't want to mention here. McNabb Deniers don't just denigrate his accomplishments in Philadelphia, they try to erase their very existence. They spent the last decade writing a revisionist history of Eagles football as it happened. Now that McNabb is in Washington, they are shoveling dirt over everything that's left, recasting the most successful decade in Eagles history as an era of failure and scandal. The McNabb Deniers have taken typical Philly pessimism to a new level: It's not just spleen-venting, but a salted-earth pogrom of collective memory eradication that would make Orwell proud.
McChoke and the Next Montana
It's mid-July, and Angelo Cataldi sounds like a baby without his binky. Talk radio discussion in Philly is always slow in summer, even when the Phillies are very good, but Cataldi sounds lost without his favorite plaything. In the absence of anything substantial to say about Philadelphia or national sports, all discussions on his highly rated morning show seem to travel back to McNabb.
When the subject of basketball Hall of Fame speeches comes up, the morning team muses about whether Michael Jordan will launch into another self-serving rant before introducing Scottie Pippen. They joke that McNabb would give a similar airing-of-grievances speech, given the unlikely opportunity. "Boy, that's our only chance of getting mentioned in a Hall of Fame speech," Cataldi muses, inflating his importance as McNabb's primary antagonist. A few days later, a caller just back from Washington reports that he saw McNabb's image painted on a city bus. "Was it the same bus he threw his teammates under?" Cataldi asks, referring to an incident which never occurred.
As summer wore on and Eagles camp started, Cataldi became even more intense in his disparagement of McNabb. As for Kevin Kolb, Cataldi said often that he had "such a great feeling" about the new quarterback, in contrast to the old. In fairness, Cataldi wasn't alone in his McNabb bashing and Kolb fluffing. On rival sports station 97.5 FM "The Fanatic" (an ESPN affiliate) one weekend personality compared Kolb to Joe Montana while callers expressed their joy about a season without "McChoke." It was more than a talk-radio phenomenon. Writers from suburban papers asked loaded questions at training camp, baiting players to make them say something negative about their former quarterback. An unconventional wisdom arose that Kolb would do things McNabb never did -- hit receivers in stride so they can make plays, open up the pages of the West Coast offense that were closed for the last decade. Meanwhile, Kolb was still waiting to lead the Eagles first-team offense to a preseason touchdown.
There was probably some more measured McNabb discussion somewhere on the dial or in the papers. Barring that, there must have been some Eagles discussion that didn't hinge on the wish-fulfillment fantasies of McNabb Deniers whose opinions of Kolb were really just reactions to McNabb, not informed scouting judgments. But the level heads were shouted down and crowded out in Philly years ago. To defend McNabb is to learn that he's "your boy," that you are just defending him out of some personal loyalty or naiveté.
The tone of the conversation keeps rational people away who might want to debate McNabb's real merits or his legacy. Frank Ward of DailyPhiladelphian.com learned this when he wrote a pro-McNabb editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer in January. "I took the stance that McNabb wasn't appreciated by many in this city and boy did I get ripped in the comments and e-mails that came my way," Ward told me. "However, to my surprise, I received just as many e-mails supporting McNabb and saying it was about time someone stood up for the guy."
That environment has held sway in sports bars and around the water cooler since long before the Super Bowl loss. McNabb Deniers are always at high volume and full throttle. They control the discussion, and it almost takes an act of courage to disagree with them.
Of course, much of what Cataldi and the others do is just rabble rousing for fun and profit. Say something controversial. Get the callers riled up. Preach to the base. Cataldi has a background in hardcore football journalism, so he probably has a handle on McNabb's true value, and his shtick can be hysterical when he's bashing the Cowboys or Yankees. There's a place for all of that -- the sports world would be boring if every media outlet were Football Outsiders. The sports world needs a little trash talk and a little homerism. A little vilification of the guy who just left, and some overheated support for the new kid, is also understandable.
But it stops being fun when we stop recognizing the truth, when we start tarnishing legacies, when we start our attack five months before the guy takes the field and don't stop until many months after he's out of town. And it stops being funny when it's all you've got, when camp is in session and the baseball team is in the pennant race, and the only way you can get a reaction is by talking about a player who has already left. Cataldi didn't invent McNabb Denial, but he's become it's legitimizer and public voice, the man who spent a decade with his stick on the hornet's nest and shows no interest in letting go.
A Difference of Opinion
As mentioned earlier, there are McNabb Lovers (I guess I'm one; I guess he's "my boy") and there are McNabb Haters. That's all this is about. A simple difference of opinion.
"When McNabb played in town, there were only two factions for Philadelphians to join -- the group that loves McNabb and the one that doesn't," John Gonzalez wrote in the Inquirer on August 25, just after McNabb admitted to GQ that he would have liked a little more support from the organization during the Terrell Owens saga. Gonzalez mentioned a new third group, one that wants everyone to stop dwelling on McNabb and focus on the present. He called them the MoveOn(fromMcNabb).org contingent, and believes they have become louder and more petulant than the lovers and haters. "The irony seems to be lost on them," he said.
Articles like that show how the Deniers are winning. The newspapers are now "teaching the controversy." The facts have somehow become irrelevant. It's the kind of journalistic detachment that's irresponsible on important subjects but just embarrassing in the sports field.
This isn't some liberal-versus-conservative conundrum we are talking about. There is an objective reality in place, and there are those who either accept the facts (branded as McNabb Lovers, whatever their respect level for the player might be) and those who deny them, marginalize them, or denigrate them, usually with ad hoc and contradictory criticisms. These aren't complex, geopolitical facts that can be interpreted a dozen different ways, They are wins, touchdowns, interceptions, yards, DVOA, and other ratings, most of which are simple enough for anyone to analyze. The facts are as follows:
- The last decade of Eagles history has been the most successful of any in anyone's recent memory, and McNabb's play has been one of the primary reasons for that success.
- McNabb is the greatest quarterback in Eagles history by any reasonable measure. He holds every meaningful record, has won the most games, and has had the most playoff success of everyone in modern history but Norm Van Brocklin, whose three-year Eagles career ended 50 years ago.
- McNabb was, conservatively, the fifth or sixth best quarterback of the decade of his prime. He's obviously no higher than third, but after Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, he belongs near the top of a group that includes Brett Favre (excluding 1990s accomplishments), Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Hasselbeck, Steve McNair, and a few others. His productive career completely engulfed those of players like Hasselbeck or Daunte Culpepper, who may have had higher peaks but didn't play at a high level for more than a decade like McNabb did.
- McNabb was never arrested or accused of any wrongdoing, never conducted himself unprofessionally on or off the field, and always worked hard to project a dignified, team-centered demeanor, even when roped into controversies generated by notorious attention seekers.
The Denier agenda has its own set of facts:
- McNabb was a choke artist who never won a big game. He put up some good numbers, but he couldn't hold a candle to Ron Jaworski (whom we also booed), Randall Cunningham (whom we ran out of town), or Tommy Thompson (my grandfather saw him at Franklin Field in 1948). If he wasn't so tied to Andy Reid's apron strings, he would have been benched in favor of Jeff Garcia, A.J. Feeley, or Kolb after the Ravens game in 2008. He was a numbers guy. He was an athlete playing quarterback who was only effective when he ran. He puked at the Super Bowl. I saw it with my own eyes but the league offices erased the tape, even sending a signal that erased it from my Tivo of the game. Every single one of his passes hit receivers in the feet. He couldn't execute the West Coast offense properly. His record-setting interception rate was the result of his unwillingness to take chances. He didn't know the overtime rules, which isn't just an isolated boneheaded incident but proof of his utter incompetence and disregard for the game.
- And here's the best part: that dignified, team-centered demeanor was all just a front for a secretly selfish, passive-aggressive individual who didn't care about the game and took all of our helpful, constructive criticism as fans directly to heart. McNabb was a mama's boy who never got over the fact that a talk-radio host decided to ruin the greatest day of his 22-year old life by coaxing a bunch of angry drunks into booing him at the draft. All he cared about was his paycheck -- just look at how he laughed after incomplete passes -- and no one on the team had any respect for him whatsoever. The jerk.
You see? It's just a difference of opinion, valid points on both sides. If you think one side makes more sense than the other, well, it just means that McNabb is "your boy."
You probably think I created a straw man argument above. And yes, I may have exaggerated the Denier Agenda slightly. Try walking into a Philly taproom and striking up a conversation about McNabb. Chances are, you'll hear five or six of the criticisms I just presented.
Big Brother isn't Watching
First baseman Ryan Howard is perhaps the luckiest great player in Philly sports history. He arrived on the scene when there were many other local players -- great, controversial, and both -- for fans to obsess over. He helped his team to the World Series relatively early in his career. He has taken his share of criticism during slumps, but he's never been subjected to the full assault of the local media, and it's possible that he never will be, thanks to that championship ring.
Howard has always been philosophical about the Philly sports media because he could afford to be. A few weeks ago, he offered 76ers rookie Evan Turner some advice. "He said you gotta' compare Philly to, like, a big brother," Turner said of the conversation. "Some days he's gonna like you and some days he might not like you, but he still loves you, and it's all about what you do and how you do things ... but it's always having the support, no matter what."
I have lived here almost 40 years, and I have a big brother. I get it. I get it when I see people rush up to Jaworski for autographs, when I see standing ovations for Mike Schmidt. These guys were booed mercilessly, then embraced. Fandom, like brotherhood, can be harsh.
What's happening to McNabb isn't booing. It isn't fraternal criticism. It's character assassination. Booing is an in-the-moment impulse, a seat-of-the-pants judgment. I've screamed at McNabb, hurled my kids' toys across the room, stormed out of bars cursing his name, sulked through Audibles at the Line with nary an Eagles comment after his poor games. Criticism, right or wrong, implies thought and perspective. McNabb had an awful delivery on out-routes. His ball security, in recent years, was terrible. He had slumps. He should have known the damn overtime rules. McNabb "lovers" are capable of criticism.
McNabb, more than Jaworski, Schmidt, or anyone before him, has become the victim of a smear campaign, one that connects the dots between real and perceived faults, plays very fast with the facts, and ignores all the evidence that doesn't fit. In other words, a denier's agenda. That agenda forces dissenters into trench-warfare argument tactics that grind us into surrender.
That 23-11 win against the Giants in 2009, the last game my aunt ever saw? It never happened, you see, because McNabb was a choke artist who never won a big game. Ever. OK, so it happened. But it wasn't a big game. Playoff games against the Giants aren't big, right? Big games are defined as games lost by McNabb.
Even if you concede that win was "slightly" big, well so what? He lost the following week. McNabb lost, not the Eagles. What? He threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns in the game? Yeah, but he's a numbers guy, not a guy who can lead a comeback. What? The Cardinals led 24-6, but McNabb threw three touchdowns to take a 25-24 fourth quarter lead? You better not suggest that the defense was to blame for that loss. Brian Dawkins was playing for that defense that got burnt for four touchdowns, and Dawkins is a warrior, not a choke artist like McNabb, who chokety-choke-choked that game away just like every other big game.
What about fourth-and-26? That was just a Packers defensive lapse. Wins over the Vikings and Falcons to reach the Super Bowl? What, are you one of those Pollyannas who is content to come in second? No wonder McNabb's your boy, he didn't care about winning or losing either, as long as he looked good and didn't get sacked too much.
The Victimless Crime
No one really gets hurt, right? McNabb is wealthy and successful. Cataldi is well paid, his audience entertained. McNabb Denial isn't evolution denial; it's not going to hurt our children's education or our standing in the modern world. A little McNabb bashing takes no money out of Mike Tanier's wallet. Just the opposite: I spin it into jokes that I can sell to media outlets, use it to write articles like these and to frame the arguments of my book. I profit from it just as much as anyone.
Did it hurt Aunt Ginny? We know most 77-year-old aunts don't form their own sports opinions. She got hers from Uncle Paul, who formed it with his buddies, who formed it from the synergy of media coverage, personal prejudices, and 70 years of Philly sports viewing. Ginny tuned in every week to love the Eagles and hate the starting quarterback. I think she deserved to watch a player she liked every week. And I think McNabb is a player she would have liked, if not for the incessant drumbeat of the Deniers, the knee-jerk pessimism and relentless criticism that marked most of McNabb's tenure.
And that's the rub, because something really does get hurt. The fan experience gets hurt. When you don't want to say something positive about your own team's starting quarterback at a party or in a tavern because you don't want to risk an argument with a loudmouth Denier, it hurts. When you start to doubt your own joyful sports recollections, when fourth-and-26 is deleted from your mind and overwritten by implanted memories of a Super Bowl puke which never happened, it hurts. When you see the next kid set atop that precarious pedestal, and you know that he's got a year or two, maybe more, maybe less, before the talk radio entertainers and permanently dissatisfied booers and lassaiz-faire "that's just what the populace thinks" journalists flick him off, it hurts. It robs us of the joy of watching the games. As history is re-written, it robs us of the joy of even remembering them.
So that's all that's at stake -- the fun of watching the game. The thing that gets me, Cataldi, and McNabb paid. Otherwise, McNabb Denial is a victimless crime. No one dies immediately when the well is poisoned, we all just get sick for a long time.
And with that, Walkthrough is now a No McNabb zone for the remainder of the season. I may write some McNabb-Eagles-Redskins hype in the weeks to come, but not in this column. Also, I ask that all comments stick with the subject at hand without bringing up any controversial "denial" movements with political implications.
Reno, Nevada 2054
LenDale White: Matt? Matt Leinart? Is that really you?
Matt Leinart: Oh my gosh, LenDale White! I'm glad you made it to the reunion. Is that Reggie with you?
Reggie Bush: Mmmph.
White: Yeah, that's him. He can't talk since they melted down his Heisman and recast it as a ball gag for him to wear for all eternity. Reggie, can I give you another piña colada IV?
Leinart: Lendale, you remember J-Wow, right? I started dating her back in the '40s. Wow, honey, I could use a drink. Hold this funnel really high while I open a six pack.
J-Wow: Not now, dear. I have to adjust the winch and pulley on the back of my support bra.
White: Never mind those beer bongs, buddy. I am drinking Patron infused with those worms the astronauts found on Europa.
Leinart: I heard those worms burrow into the back of your neck and turn you evil.
White: At $200 a bottle, they better.
Leinart: Gosh, seeing all the old faces reminds me of the good old days, back when the University of Southern California had a football team, back when there was a Southern California, before global wa ...
White: Careful, Matt. President Swift has microphones everywhere, and she doesn't like that kind of talk.
Leinart: Hey look, it's Lofa Tatupu! Lofa, come sit with us! Lofa! Lofa? Oh well, I guess he didn't want to sit at our All Offense table.
White: More like he didn't want to sit at the loser table. Look at our careers, Matt. I ate, drank, and smoked myself to the point that I was just injury-prone roster fodder. You became such a liability that you lost your job to Derek Anderson, for heaven's sake. And Reggie, well he had some highlights and won a Super Bowl ring. But he never came close to his potential, and he played so fast and loose with agents and the booster club that it brought the NCAA hammer down on the whole school. And even though the NCAA wasn't as powerful back then -- they hadn't taken over the Middle East yet -- it was still enough to doom the program. Right, Reggie?
White: At least Lofa and some of the other guys had good NFL careers. We can only look back on a national championship that got stripped from the record books, wins that are stricken from history. When scuba divers excavate the campus, they can't even find any mention of us.
Leinart: Not everything is lost. I still have my Heisman!
Tatupu: Hey guys, sorry to interrupt. An NCAA archivist found evidence that a member of the 2004 fencing team accepted an Applebee's gift certificate from a booster whose wife once dated an agent. If Matt doesn't surrender his Heisman in 20 minutes, they'll launch a tactical missile strike against this hotel.
Leinart: Bummer. Oh well, at least we have our education, right?
White: I'm gonna pour another drink and forget you ever said that.