Donovan McNabb; a Defense of an Unappreciated HOFer and the Greatest Eagles QB Ever

Lot’s to talk about, but I’m going to limit today’s post to Donovan McNabb.  Given his “retirement” and the fact that others are running McNabb columns today, I figured the time was right to finally put my thoughts about McNabb into post form.  As I’ve alluded to before, I believe McNabb is the greatest Eagles QB ever AND a Hall of Fame caliber player. 

As usual, I will not be rehashing all the draft-day stuff or the TO event, you can go elsewhere for that.  Here, I’ll just give you what I believe is often missing from McNabb discussions: CONTEXT.  I have much more to say about all the external crap, but I’m already at 1500+ words, so that’ll have to wait.

The Stats

Given all the noise and drama surrounding McNabb’s career with the Eagles, it’s almost understandable that many commentators/fans don’t fully appreciate how good #5 was.  Here are some major statistics, followed by the comparable numbers for other QBs.  Again, just trying to provide objective context.

- Career Record (regular season): 92-49-1, .647 win percentage

P. Manning with the Colts – .688 win percentage

B. Favre with the Packers – .632 win percentage

J. Elway with the Broncos – .641 win percentage

- Passer Rating with the Eagles: 86.5

D. Marino – 86.4

B. Favre with GB – 85.8

J. Kelly – 84.4

T. Aikman – 81.6

- 9 Playoff Wins

P. Manning – 9

J. Kelly – 9

D. Marino – 8

- 2.16 TD/Int Ratio with the Eagles

P. Manning – 2.08

D. Brees – 1.96

J. Montana – 1.71

D. Marino – 1.66

Donovan McNabb’s career with the Eagles was among the best QB/Team runs of ALL-TIME.  Look at the names above and how McNabb with the Eagles compares.  My guess is that, if asked, most fans wouldn’t place #5’s run in this company.  However, it EASILY belongs, and in some cases exceeds the statistical greatness of some legendary players.

So what’s the problem?

I’m guessing most people don’t consider McNabb a HOFer because of the ridiculous concept of his “big-game” performance.  McNabb did not win a Super Bowl.  NFL writers typically cling to this criteria when measuring greatness, despite its obvious outrageousness.  First off, this is not basketball, one man can not win a ring single-handedly.  This should be obvious, but the importance of winning titles is so ingrained in hack-writing that it’s frequently glossed over.

Ascribing such importance to titles is how you get fans seriously arguing that Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman are among the best QBs ever.  It’s a complete joke, yet it will probably lead to a HOF that includes Eli Manning while excluding McNabb (also a complete joke).

However, regardless of how stupid I think it is, playoff performance is an important criteria for evaluating a QBs career.  Let’s look at McNabb’s.

“Big-Game” performance

As I showed above, McNabb has more playoff wins than Dan Marino and just as many as Peyton Manning and Jim Kelly.  Despite that, people cite McNabb’s “clutch” performance as among his biggest weaknesses, pointing to him throwing up in the Super Bowl and his empty ring finger as evidence of his shortcomings.  Once again, though, we need to put his performance in the correct context.

Donovan McNabb lost 7 postseason games.  Lets look at a few of them:

2001 – Eagles (11-5) lose to the Giants (12-4) by a score of 20-10.

This was McNabb’s first playoff lost, in his second playoff game.  The Eagles had defeated  the Bucs the week before.  In this game, McNabb passed for just 181 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.  Not very good numbers (though not terrible either).  How about that context?

- The Eagles rushed just 14 times for just 46 yards.  BTW, McNabb had 17 of those rushing yards.

- The Eagles offensive leaders (other than McNabb) were Charles Johnson, Brian Mitchell, and Torrance Small.

- The Giants went to the Super Bowl that year, losing to the Baltimore Ravens (the historically great defense).

2002 – Eagles (11-5) lost to the Rams (14-2) by a score of 29-24

Donovan McNabb passed for 171 yards, with 1 TD and 1 Int.  He also ran for 26 yards and a TD.  Not great numbers, but again, we need context:

- The Eagles had a lead at halftime.

- Kurt Warner passed for just 212 yards and 1 TD that day, meaning McNabb and Warner had extremely similar statistical games (McNabb had 1 more TD and 1 more Int).

- St. Louis fumbled the ball twice, but recovered both of them.  The Eagles fumbled once, but lost it. (LUCK!!!)

- Putting up 24 points in a playoff game is a pretty good performance.

- The Rams were historically good on offense that year, scoring more than 500 points.  Warner, Faulk, Bruce, Holt, Hakim, etc…(as compared to McNabb, Staley, Buckhalter, Lewis,…)

- The Rams had the best point differential in the league that year and went to the Super Bowl, losing by 3 points to the Patriots, in what would mark Tom Brady’s arrival.

2003 – The Eagles (12-4) lose to the Bucs (12-4) by a score of 27-10

This is a VERY important game in the McNabb/Eagles canon.  The team, playing at home,  only put up 10 points.  Clearly a very disappointing game, and the finger was pointed directly at the offense, and obviously, at McNabb.  However, this game, more so than any other, is misunderstood.  McNabb went 26-49 for 243 yards, no TDs, and 1 interception.  He also fumbled twice.  A bad game, no way around it.  HOWEVER, the context:

- The 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs allowed just 196 points and are among the greatest defenses in recent NFL history.  The Bucs were 44% better than league average on defense that year, second only to the previously mentioned Ravens defense for the BEST in the last 12 years (likely longer than that as well).

- The Bucs defense had 5 Pro Bowlers that year and 3 1st-team All-Pros.  The roster included Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, as well as Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly (who had 8 INTs and 21 passes defensed that year).

- Against this defense, McNabb’s “weapons” consisted of Duce Staley, Todd Pinkston, James Thrash, and Antonio Freeman.  For the 2002 season, those were the Eagles leading offensive players.  Brian Westbrook was on the team, but did not yet feature in the offense.

Suddenly McNabb’s 243 yards and no TDs doesn’t look so bad.  The Eagles only chance in this game was for the DEFENSE (+31% that year) to shut down the Bucs offense as completely as the Bucs did to the Eagles.

This did not happen.

The Bucs did score on the 92 yard Int return by Ronde Barber, but neither of McNabb’s fumbles turned into Tampa Bay points.

Blaming McNabb for this loss is ridiculous.

2004 – The Eagles (12-4) lose to the Panthers (11-5) by a score of 14-3. 

This is the bad one.  This loss is the ONLY time during the “Peak” that the Eagles lost to a clearly inferior team.  McNabb passed for just 100 yards and had 3 interceptions and no TDs (obviously).

No real contextual mitigation here.  McNabb played terribly.  His supporting cast sucked (as usual), but that excuse doesn’t go anywhere near as far as would be needed to absolve #5 of his performance. UPDATE: I forgot that McNabb was injured during the 2nd quarter of this game and missed a play.  He remained in the game until midway through the 4th quarter.  Note that all 3 of his interceptions occurred after the injury.  

If you want to denigrate McNabb’s career, this is THE game to point to.  As I’ve shown above, the other losses aren’t nearly as bad as people remember them being.  This one, depending on how much leeway he gets for being injured, may be worse.

2005 – The Super Bowl.  The Eagles (13-3) lose to the Patriots (14-2) by a score of 24-21.

This, along with the previous 2 losses above, form the bulk of the anti-McNabb “evidence”.  McNabb threw up at the end of the game, and didn’t more the offense as quickly as the situation demanded.  That’s true.  However,

- McNabb threw for 357 yards.  He had 3 interceptions, but he also threw for 3 TDs.

- The Eagles rushed for just 45 yards, meaning McNabb was the entire offense.

- The Patriots had a point differential that year of +177, the 11th best measure over the past 10 seasons (out of 320 teams).

- The Patriots allowed just 16.2 points per game that season, the Eagles scored 21 against them.

- In the playoffs that year, Peyton Manning and the Colts put up just 3 points against the Patriots.

- The Patriots may have cheated (Spygate!!!).

Conclusion

After looking at McNabb’s statistics, with the context I provided, it should be clear to any objective observer that #5’s career was remarkable and deserves to be celebrated to a much greater extent that it is.  The “big-game” performances that McNabb takes hits for were not as clear-cut as they seem.  As far as I can tell, there is just one game where McNabb clearly performed far below expectations (Carolina).  Just as evaluating an entire career based on Super Bowl wins is ridiculous, so is ascribing any more meaning to one playoff game versus all the rest.  Remember, I only covered the losses (most of them).  The only ones I excluded were the loss to the Cardinals (the Eagles scored 25 points and lost, again, to the NFC Super Bowl rep) and the 2010 loss to the Cowboys (which was an awful defensive performance and included some Mike Vick).

The man had a Hall Of Fame career, regardless of whether the hack-writers recognize it.   If you had the type of career #5 had and received the same amount of shit for it, you’d be bitter too.  I wish McNabb’s personality was more affable, but everything he’s upset about is 100% justifiable.  He doesn’t get the credit he deserves; not everyone (very few in fact) can be magnanimous enough to ignore that.

Look at the stats, watch the highlights; you’ll see an All-Time Great.  It’s time for everyone to agree on that.

Lastly:

 I’ve used this before, but here is Hall of Famer Jim Kelly compared to Donovan McNabb:

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 1.14.05 PM

Tell me how Kelly is a HOFer and McNabb isn’t?

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17 thoughts on “Donovan McNabb; a Defense of an Unappreciated HOFer and the Greatest Eagles QB Ever

  1. McNabb was hurt in the Panthers game when he was hit while on the ground. I think it was in the first quarter. It clearly affected him, and he was eventually pulled.

    • True statement. Forgot about that. He was injured with about 4 mins left in the first half, left for one play, then came back in and played until about 10 mins left in the 4th quarter. All 3 of his INTs occurred after that play.

  2. Thank you for this. In 2004, it seemed like McNabb was on the HOF track, but the ugly close to his career and jaded public persona have sealed his fate. If he somehow gets in, I will be overjoyed as an Eagles fan – but I am skeptical that it will happen.

    Re: McNabb’s big game performances

    Though you provide a very balanced context for each game, I think the interceptions paint a very negative picture, particularly for a quarterback who is lauded for his ball control. Unfortunately, many of his interceptions were “signature plays” of the particular games you highlighted, even if they occurred on late-game drives with the team trailing (the 4th down pick to Aeneas Williams in St. Louis, the Pick 6 to Ronde Barber, the Ricky Manning Jr. interceptions, the Rodney Harris game-sealing interception).

    • You’re welcome. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that McNabb had a GREAT postseason career, only that it was a lot better (and his losses more understandable) than most people realize.

      I do not think McNabb gets into the HOF, just saying that he deserves it (assuming you use the people already in the HOF as the bar for which new inductees have to clear).

      Overall, I think all the public persona and extraneous stuff has made it tough for people to view him with the proper perspective. I kind of wanted to say a lot more about t (I did mention it in the article), but McNabb is somewhat justified in his bitterness. Of course I wish he handled it all better, but that’s a very high standard to hold anyone to (one I am sure most HOF voters would not clear themselves).

      On Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 2:45 PM, Eagles Rewind

  3. Hey Brent! Long time no talk (off season siesta). I have the distinct pleasure of being completely unbiased in the McNabb controversy based on the fact that I have never watched an Eagles game with McNabb at quarterback (I only started watching football in 2011). Anyway, I am looking at the same exact statistics you are and seeing a quarterback who is not HOF material.

    First, QBR has gradually increased over time (about .6 per season). That cancels out the Aikman, Kelly, et. al. comparisons except for Farve, who is also currently not in the HOF. I also discount winning percentage and playoff games, because football is a team sport. McNabb’s TD/Int percentage is fantastic, but he was famous for worm-burners which is reflected in his abysmal completion rating (especially when adjusted for inflation). The ratio becomes pathetic (5TD/ 9Int) when we isolate based on your highlighted playoff games. It goes to 24/17 when factoring in all playoff performances, but that is still not a particularly impressive number.

    Let me update your QB comparison with an alternative analysis. Rank the following six quarterbacks, in their prime, based on who you would like leading your team in the superbowl: Brees, Brady, P. Manning, Warner, Farve, or McNabb. All played during the same football era as McNabb. No more than 10% of the league starters should go to the HOF. Please pick three.

    • Welcome back! As far as your comments, I have nothing specific to disagree with, only to say that now we’re firmly out of objective analysis territory.

      This gets at the heart of Absolute vs. Relative performance evaluation. Should McNabb be penalized because he played in an era with astounding QB play? Obviously, each of the guys you mentioned, in their prime, would get picked before #5 (off-hand I might make a case for McNabb over Brees (early career), but probably not).

      However, the formula for QB Rating hasn’t changed, so I don’t think there’s a big issue with inflation-adjustment. The adjustment you made just means the league in general is better than it used to be. It doesn’t change the fact that McNabb played better than Jim Kelly (by that measure).

      The 10% comment certainly sounds reasonable, but it’s also completely ridiculous. I agree that the HOF should be extremely exclusive (I would actually have a much higher bar that wouldn’t admit McNabb), but it is what it is at this point, and we need to evaluate players on that basis. Keeping a guy like Brees out because he just happened to play at the same time as Manning/Brady doesn’t seem right.

      At the same time, if you’re doing that type of comparison, then you have to account for offensive talent, a category in which McNabb lacks just about every great QB of the era. Tough to quantify, but its certainly worth some credit.

      The playoff win and win percentage is certainly not the fairest way to evaluate, but it seems to carry a lot of weight with the actual HOF deciders, so I included it here.

      Also, I didn’t include any rushing statistics, which certainly benefit McNabb (and include a lot of TDs).

      The biggest issue I have is that I really don’t think this would be much of a debate if McNabb had won a Super Bowl. Ascribing that much importance to something McNabb was 1-2 plays away from accomplishing seems extremely cruel to me.

      On Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 9:17 PM, Eagles Rewind

      • You keep saying the league is better, there was astounding QB play and the formula for QBR never changed so therefore you feel comparing his stats straight up w previous era QBs is valid. The problem is you fail to take into account drastic rule changes on how WR were able to be defended which opened up the passing game tremendously and inflated all stats for QBs who played in McNabbs era. This the comparison is not valid. You must compare McNabb to the QBs if his era, who played under the same rules and against the same teams.

        Overall, McNabbs first 5 years were tremendous and if he kept that pace he’d be a first ballot hall of famer, without any argument. However, he followed those first 5 yrs with: horrendous play in an injury plagued 2005, poor and inconsistent QB play in an injury shortened 2006 in which the team performed better without him, a below average barely mediocre 2007 as he recovered from acl surgery. 2008 started w horrendous QB play that got him benched mid season -then the team got hot and made a deep playoff run with decent offensive production and really stellar defense. 2009 was inconsistent throughout followed by being shut out two weeks in a row by the cowboys and being embarrassed in the playoffs. 2010 he gets benched for Rex grossman and looks awful. 2011 he looks even worse and gets benched/released for Christian ponder. It’s the Hall of FAME not the hall of context sensitive stats from the first half of a career. That is not the arc or a Hall of Fame career regardless of what stats you trot out, sorry.

  4. A couple of observations…

    – You omitted the 2008 NFCCG. McNabb had a difficult first half followed by an exceptional second half followed by a failed drive at the end of the game. I would put his overall performance as “neutral”. Our defense really let us down, But again, and I agree this is subjective, McNabb didn’t appear to rise to the occasion.

    – I think the era argument is valid. The rules are different. The player’s are now bigger and faster. There is another round of playoff games to win. Kelly was clearly a top five QB in HIS era. I am not so sure about McNabb.

    – I agree that QBs like Griese, Aikman and Eli are (or will be) in Canton solely because of their SB success.

    • I mentioned the 2008 game (Cardinals) towards the end, though I didn’t go into detail. In that one, McNabb passed for 375 yards and 3 TDs (1 Int), so I’m not sure how he could have played any better. He did fumble once (lost), but still, 375 yrds and 3 TDs is a pretty good game.

      The era argument is an interesting one, though I have to take a deeper look before discussing.

  5. Well written and a good read. Finally some actual facts to shed some light on the ignorance that is the general public’s opinion of Mcnabb. It still amazes me how many Eagle fans trash this guy like they don’t understand how good he truly was.

    • Yep, amazes me too. The Eagles have a HOF-worthy QB and fans aren’t getting behind him. However, I think with more time people will rally and forget about the personality defects. Maybe a few more years of mediocre QB play would help as well (not that I’m hoping for that).

  6. The Carolina loss was the game that changed the rules for defensive holding of receivers past the 10 yard area…or something like that. Pinky was mugged the entire game and McNabb was throwing balls to guys who were not where they should’ve been due to the muggings. Still a poor performance, but it was a good defense and a mugging.

    In the Tampa loss, instead of seven to get back into the game at a late point, Barber read Mac and jumped the route to give them seven and sealed the win. What a defense…with Lynch who worked the tents in Jacksonville at our Superbowl.

    The fans who even think about bringing up Mac’s name for blame in the Superbowl are pure clowns. He threw for four TD’s against a very good dime defense with absolutely no run support and a hobbled TO……and he broke a Super Bowl passing record while having the snot (and guts) beat out of him. The Harrison pick in the end zone was a severe wind tunnel issue). He had one bad pick. One of the best QB performances in a Superbowl.

  7. being bitter at a man for not winning a superbowl shouldn’t stop us from celebrating a great career. i know i miss the excitement number 5 brought year in and out and wouldnt change any of it for any other qb.

  8. I agree with everything you say and have found myself making many of these points myself. If I disagree with anything (and this is a very minor complaint), I don’t necessarily think his career was quite Hall of Fame caliber. He unquestionably belongs in what Peter King calls “the Hall of Very Good”, but in my opinion, his performance, while great for the better part of a decade, was a hair below the other greats of his era. The Jim Kelly comparison is compelling, but he was from a slightly diferent era…. and you would be surprised at just how different the numbers are if you compare quarterback performance during Jim Kelly’s prime and McNabb’s prime even though they were literally only a few years apart.

    Regardless, this is all good stuff. I enjoyed reading.

    • Thanks. Take a look at the post I put up yesterday. In that one, I accounted for the different eras by looking at how each QB compared to league average over his career. I think you’ll find it interesting.

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