- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2000

Philadelphians wanted to roast the team when it took quarterback Donovan McNabb with the second pick in the 1999 NFL Draft instead of Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. However, the Eagles needed a quarterback and they already had a top young back in Duce Staley.

McNabb, the Big East's top quarterback for four straight years at Syracuse, wasn't fazed by the reception in the notoriously tough town.

"I was excited coming here," said McNabb, who replaced Doug Pederson as the starter on Nov. 14, 1999. "If you come to an older team, by the time you get settled, a lot of those veterans aren't going to be there. We had [offensive tackle] Tra Thomas, who had been drafted in the first round the year before me. [Guard] Jermane Mayberry was drafted in the first round the year before Tra. We had Duce."

This year, Staley suffered a season-ending foot injury on Oct. 1, but McNabb's performance has made him the toast of Philadelphia. He has guided the Eagles to an 8-4 record, including victories in five of their last six games, and the lead in the NFC East as they head into Sunday's showdown at 1999 division champion Washington (7-4).

"Donovan has done a nice job," said coach Andy Reid, who targeted McNabb as the quarterback he wanted to build around when he took over the Eagles in 1999. "He's a very hard worker. He'll do nothing but get better. Donovan's maturing. He makes mistakes, but he's resilient. In our two overtime games, he wanted the football."

And in those back-to-back games with Dallas and at Pittsburgh this month, McNabb led the Eagles to late game-tying field goals. He then guided them to the winning kick in overtime.

McNabb is just 11th in the NFC quarterback ratings, but he's fifth among current starters in both fourth quarter and third down passing. McNabb showed that ability to rise to the occasion at Syracuse the Orangemen stunned Virginia Tech and Michigan in his senior year.

Reid, who was involved in Brett Favre's development from wild child to three-time NFL MVP in Green Bay, preferred McNabb over the rest of the highly touted quarterback class of 1998, which included Cleveland's Tim Couch, Cincinnati's Akili Smith, Chicago's Cade McNown, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and Tampa Bay's Shaun King.

"Donovan would have been our choice if we had had the first pick. We saw him at the Senior Bowl in this offense," said Reid of McNabb, who was coached in that game by Oakland's Jon Gruden, Reid's ex-Packers colleague. "When I was in Green Bay, [Syracuse coach] Paul Pasqualoni had visited us searching for more pro-style things because he had this kid he said could be a great pro quarterback. I watched Donovan from then on and when I met him, I just felt comfortable with him."

McNabb is ever more comfortable with Reid's scheme.

"I knew it was going to take some time," McNabb said. "Tim Couch was the only one of us to step in early and he struggled a little bit. I've been able to pick up some things that I struggled with last season like knowing where all my reads are at all times, but you don't pick up everything in just a year. Last year, I might not have been able to get past my second read before I would be moving. It was almost like I dropped back and ran. Now, I can stay in the pocket longer, adjust, step up and go to my third and possibly my fourth read."

Redskins free safety Mark Carrier said McNabb has improved in the seven weeks since Washington's 17-14 victory at Philadelphia.

"McNabb obviously learns from his experiences," Carrier said. "He's not running unless he needs to. He's not going for the home run on every play. He's dumping the ball off a lot, going for field position and keeping the clock moving."

McNabb is succeeding despite the absence of Staley. The running back accounted for 38 percent of the offense in 1998 and 1999 and Reid said Staley was responsible at one point for "73 percent of our offensive production." Now it's McNabb who has produced 76 percent of the offense with 2,401 passing yards and a team-high 433 rushing yards.

"McNabb's playing great," said Redskins strong safety Sam Shade. "He's creating things, getting them out of third-and-long situations with his feet and he's throwing the ball well. Last year, our first priority was stopping Duce. Now it's stopping Donovan. He's come a long way. I think he's going to be a great one."

Eagles offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, who has coached such top passers as John Elway, Neil Lomax, Jim Hart and Brian Sipe, agrees.

"Donovan's pretty smart and he's strong enough mentally to handle the ups and downs," Dowhower said. "He has a lot of upside. If he can come close to playing the way he did against Atlanta [30 of 44 for 311 yards and two touchdowns] on a regular basis, Donovan will be outstanding. I hate to say this, but he's a lot like John Elway."

That's about as big a compliment as can be paid to a quarterback who won't turn 24 until tomorrow.

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