This week, the first year nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame were announced. Among the names on the ballot are guys like Brian Dawkins, LaDainian Tomlinson, Hines Ward, Jason Taylor, and Chad Johnson, among others. Also on the list? Former Syracuse star quarterback Donovan McNabb. So the question now becomes: is Donovan McNabb a Hall of Famer?
The question itself is nothing new. It’s an argument Syracuse fans have been having among themselves for years about the best QB to ever play for the Orange.
Of that list, the guys who, if you had to go with a gut feeling, seem like the guys who will get in the soonest, you’d probably pick Dawkins and Tomlinson, right? I know that’s where my instincts are taking me. After that, though, McNabb has to be near the top of the list of contenders. But is that enough to get him enshrined as the ninth Syracuse alum in Canton?
Let’s do a little test, and see how some numbers stack up against each other. Obviously, statistics don’t tell the whole story, but for our purposes we’ll just look at two players, and go with your gut on which one is the Hall of Fame quarterback.
Player A: 35,467 pass yards / 237 TD / 175 INT / 1,049 rush yards / 7 TD
Player B: 37,276 pass yards / 234 TD / 117 INT / 3,459 rush yards / 29 TD
Obviously, you know who Player B is based on the rushing yards. It’s Donovan McNabb, and the numbers he amassed in 13 seasons (11 with the Eagles) in the NFL. Player A is already in the Hall of Fame: it’s former Buffalo great Jim Kelly.
Like I said, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Obviously, Kelly played in an earlier era in which QBs and receivers weren’t quite so protected. Kelly also spent two seasons in the USFL before joining the Bills, so he likely would have vaulted McNabb’s passing yardage if he’d gone straight to Buffalo out of college.
Kelly also got to four straight Super Bowls, though he never won one. McNabb never won a Super Bowl either, only getting to one (but reaching four straight NFC title games). Of course, there’s a flip side here, too. Kelly had vastly superior offensive talent around him. While he was throwing to guys like Andre Reed and James Lofton, McNabb spent most of his career in Philly throwing to guys like Todd Pinkston and James Thrash.
Nothing against James Thrash, who was a perfectly adequate receiver. But he’s a guy who should never have been more than a high end third receiver. If he’s your top option in the passing game, you’re usually going to be in serious trouble. The Eagles weren’t, however. Yes, they had a strong defense (led by Dawkins), and there was a solid running game, first with Duce Staley and then with Brian Westbrook (who, for a couple years, was arguably the most explosive offensive weapon in the NFL).
But particularly in those early years, McNabb absolutely carried those Philadelphia teams. The Eagles were 3-13 the year before they drafted McNabb with the 2nd overall pick, where he was heartily booed by Philly fans but emerged as clearly the best QB to come out of the 1999 draft (sure, Daunte Culpepper had some good years, but nowhere near the consistency or longevity; not to mention, it helped having Randy Moss to throw to).
In his rookie season, he sat behind new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson for half the year before being thrust into the starting role. The Eagles finished 5-11 that year. The next year – McNabb’s first full season as a starter – Philadelphia went 11-5 and began a streak of five straight seasons reaching the playoffs. That included four consecutive NFC East titles, from 2001-2004. They won the NFC East again in 2006.
But let’s jump back to that 2000 season, which was McNabb’s first year as a starter. Do you know who led the Eagles in rushing that season? It was McNabb. He ran for 629 yards and six touchdowns that year. The next best on the team? Staley with 344 yards, and Darnell Autry with three rushing touchdowns. McNabb’s leading receivers were Charles Johnson and Torrance Small.
Johnson finished his career with 354 catches over the span of nine years. Small had 346 career receptions over 10 seasons.
In 2001, the first season McNabb won an NFC East title, his top pass catcher was Thrash, who hauled in 63 passes. Well, Thrash was tied for first, actually, with Staley. After those two were Pinkston, and tight end Chad Lewis. In 2002, the Eagles went 12-4 with Pinkston as the leading receiver with 60 catches, and Thrash catching 51 balls. The Eagles had the same record in 2003, with Thrash leading the way with – are you ready for this? – 49 receptions. Yes, 49 catches led a team that went 12-4 and won the NFC East.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the Eagles actually gave McNabb a legitimate number one target in Terrell Owens, who caught 77 passes that season (Westbrook caught 73). By the way – everyone seems to want to credit Owens for the Eagles finally getting over the hump and making it to the Super Bowl. And while he was a huge part of that 13-3 season, let’s not forget that TO missed the first two playoff games of that postseason.
In those two games, McNabb threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns (with no interceptions) in a first round win over Minnesota, and followed that up with 180 yards and two touchdowns (again, with no interceptions) in a victory over Atlanta. He completed 38-of-59 passes in those two games (64.4%) despite, again, his receivers consisting of guys like Pinkston, Greg Lewis, and Freddie Mitchell.
No, McNabb never won an MVP award. No, he never won a Super Bowl. Yes, those last two seasons with the Redskins and Vikings put a bit of a stink on his career. In truth, he’d probably be a lot closer to a Hall of Fame lock (eventually) had he just retired an Eagle.
So, will Donovan McNabb eventually find his way into the hallowed halls of Canton?
Honestly, I think he will. At the very least, he’s got a much better case for enshrinement than he seems to ever get credit for.