- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — Where Donovan McNabb is concerned, a lot of people are still saying “show me.”

The Philadelphia quarterback has been voted to the Pro Bowl five times. He has led the Eagles to the best record in the NFL over his five seasons as a starter. And where the other members of the NFL’s touted quarterback class of 1999 mostly have failed, Mc-Nabb has succeeded.

Akili Smith, drafted third overall, and Cade McNown, taken 12th, bombed early. The career of top pick Tim Couch fizzled out last summer. Even the Minnesota Vikings’ Daunte Culpepper, for all his individual accomplishments, has won only one playoff game.

McNabb, by contrast, has led the Eagles to four straight NFC Championship games. But as far as some skeptics are concerned, so what?

Philadelphia lost the first three of those conference title games, the last two at home. A loss to visiting Atlanta on Sunday would further tag McNabb with the “can’t win the big one” label previously borne by other standout passers like Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.

“Everybody looks at the regular season and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘What are you going to do in the playoffs?’ You come out in the playoffs and you play as well as you did in the regular season and you can write your own ticket,” Mc-Nabb said.

McNabb began writing his ticket to Super Bowl XXXIX in last Sunday’s 27-14 divisional-round victory over Minnesota, passing for 286 yards and two touchdowns and earning a sparkling 111.4 rating. He always has played well in the early rounds during the Eagles’ four-year playoff run, never compiling a rating lower than 89.8 with nine touchdowns and just four interceptions.

But NFC Championship games have been a different story. McNabb’s rating slid from 73.1 at St. Louis in 2001 to 58.5 against Tampa Bay in 2002 to an atrocious 19.3 last year against Carolina. Along the way, he had five interceptions and just one touchdown.

“It’s unfortunate what happened to us the last three years, but it’s a different feeling this year,” McNabb said. “We’ve had a special season. The confidence is definitely there, but most importantly the energy level is there. We just have to be loose and have fun. That’s something we felt we didn’t have the past couple years.”

Not having top target Terrell Owens, who is out with a fractured fibula, won’t make reversing the Eagles’ big game history any easier even though McNabb does have Brian Westbrook, the all-purpose back who missed last year’s playoffs with a torn triceps.

At 28, McNabb is having his best season. He shattered his career highs by completing 64 percent of his passes and posting a 104.7 rating while becoming the first quarterback with 30 touchdown passes (actually 31) and fewer than 10 interceptions (eight).

“There’s a progression that takes place, particularly in the throwing game,” coach Andy Reid said of a quarterback’s development in the West Coast offense the Eagles run. “Normally in the end of the fourth, fifth year, you really see quarterbacks take off. Donovan was a great player before, but I think that Miami game last year [Dec.[ThSp]15, 2003] is kind of where everything clicked. He was seeing the whole field. He had complete control of the huddle and the defenses that were thrown at him.”

Once a quarterback who would rely on his superb quickness and elusiveness and take off at the first hint of pressure, McNabb had just 41 rushes all season. Two of those were kneel-downs on Sunday.

McNabb hasn’t just changed his game. Though he retains some of the aw-shucks humility displayed in the Campbell’s Soup commercials that have made his mother, Wilma, a celebrity, McNabb is no longer the fresh-faced kid. He smartly answered Rush Limbaugh’s racially charged criticism of 2003 with his play the last two seasons and has become the unquestioned leader of the Eagles.

“Donovan is the captain of this ship,” said receiver Todd Pinkston, a teammate throughout McNabb’s five full years as the starter. “He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder. … He wants to be the number one quarterback in the league.”

But McNabb won’t have a chance, at least in terms of public regard, if the Eagles’ ship goes down again Sunday.

“In this world that we live, you’re not great unless you win a Super Bowl,” McNabb acknowledged. “We have an opportunity. Buckle your seat belts and enjoy the ride.

“I don’t mean to say that in an overly confident or cocky way. I just feel with everything going the way it has gone this year, as well as the improvement and development in the rest of the guys and the way they’ve been playing well together, I think the best is yet to come.”

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