- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

The previous poster boy for quarterback versatility meets the latest one when the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles play host to the upstart Atlanta Falcons in a divisional playoff game tonight at Veterans Stadium.

The Eagles (12-4), who had a bye last weekend, have proved they can win without focal point Donovan McNabb, who returns from the broken right ankle that kept him out of the final six games, five of which were Philadelphia victories. Now the Eagles want to show that their regular-season success was a mere prelude to their first Super Bowl trip since 1980.

The Falcons (10-6-1) have shown they can win a huge game under adverse conditions with a stunning 24-7 victory in snowy Green Bay last Saturday night. Now, along with more cold weather, Atlanta has to overcome the NFL's second-stingiest defense, the league's worst playing surface and the NFC's meanest crowd to reach next Sunday's conference title game.

But those story lines are mere subplots to the overriding hot topic: the first meeting between McNabb, who has improved as he led the Eagles to the playoffs in each of his three seasons as their No.1 quarterback, and Atlanta's 22-year-old Michael Vick, who has revived the Falcons after three straight losing seasons and already has surpassed McNabb when it comes to a bewitching combination of quick feet and strong arm.

Philadelphia coach Andy Reid noted that both McNabb and Vick "take a lot of pride in being quarterbacks. Their running is just a little icing on the cake."

But the running is what separates McNabb and Vick from other top quarterbacks like Drew Bledsoe and Peyton Manning, who can match frozen rope for frozen rope but who might as well have chewing gum on their cleats when it comes to making plays with their feet.

"Donovan breaks tackles more because he's like a big running back, and Mike is a quicker and smaller-type guy, but they're very similar because they cause the same problems to defenses," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said. "You have to try to keep them in the pocket and contain them where they aren't at their most dangerous. Donovan has opened a lot of doors for guys like Mike because of the job that he's done since he's been in the league."

McNabb, the third player chosen in the 1999 draft, completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,289 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions while running for 460 yards (7.3 average) and six touchdowns this season.

Vick, the top pick in 2001 and a first-year starter, completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,936 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions while running for 777 yards (6.9 average) and eight touchdowns. No other quarterbacks with as many as 226 yards rushing averaged as many yards a carry or a game as McNabb or Vick, who also were among the nine passers with touchdown-interception ratios of at least 2-to-1.

"It is great being compared to Donovan," Vick said. "The things he has accomplished over the last three years are things I want to accomplish over the next two years of my career and as it goes on. It's [also] great being compared to him when you look at his character, his leadership. Those are qualities that I possess, and that is why I think my career will go a long way."

At 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, McNabb is a little sturdier than the 6-foot, 215-pound Vick, who seems to be all arms and legs.

"Mike is a little bit faster than me, a lot," McNabb said. "The speed that he's displayed, nobody at the quarterback position has really had that much speed. But it's the instinct. When you get out of the pocket and are running down the field, you're able to make a move on a guy and get an extra 5 or 6 yards. That's something I think really stands out for the both of us. When you get around the corner, you're one-on-one with a linebacker or safety. You have that confidence to think you can make that guy miss."

McNabb missed out on luring Vick to follow his college path. McNabb was a junior at Syracuse when he was high school senior Vick's host on a recruiting visit in 1997.

"We went to a basketball game and went out to eat and just had a good time," recalled Vick, who ultimately chose Virginia Tech over Syracuse. "It was nothing against Donovan or Syracuse. I [just] didn't want to walk in the same footsteps as him. I wanted to go to a place where I could start my own legacy."

Said McNabb: "Unfortunately, Mike didn't choose the right school, but we've been supporting each other ever since."

The bachelors talk about once a month and also keep in touch by two-way pager. Vick might even join McNabb in Arizona for offseason training this winter.

And one of these new age quarterbacks' offseason starts tomorrow.

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