By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
McNabb tossed a pass toward wide receiver Antonio Freeman.
But the throw was too slow. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber sprang up and intercepted it, then raced 92 yards into Tampa Bay's end zone. Horrified Eagles fans watched in stunned silence.
McNabb didn't cry. He didn't throw a locker room tantrum. After the game, he just confessed his sin.
"I played poorly," McNabb told the waiting reporters. "I"m pretty hard on myself, and I'm pretty sure you guys will be very critical of me as well. To let you know, I played poorly today."
The headlines about McNabb's failure ran for months. Philly fans constantly called talk radio to berate him as a hopeless choker.
"The way he played was very, like, nonchalant—that's kind of the attitude he gave off," says Shaun Young, an Eagles fan known as "North End Zone Nightmare" who wears shoulder pads and war paint to every home game. "He always had a smile on his face."
A few months after the devastating loss, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh rubbed salt into McNabb's wounds on national TV.
"I'm sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh said during his short-lived career as a color commentator for ESPN. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well."
Even McNabb, who tended not to sully his hands by stooping to answer his critics, openly admitted that the remark stung.
"It's somewhat shocking to hear that on national TV from him," McNabb said. "It's not something that I can sit here and say won't bother me."
When it felt like the whole world had turned against McNabb, one man still had faith. Coach Reid had secured a 12-year, $115 million contract extension for McNabb and tried to shield his star player from press scrutiny.
"I don't think this was about Donovan," Reid told the press after the debacle with Tampa Bay. "I could have done a better job, and that's where it has to start."
The next season, McNabb rose from the ashes and returned to the conference championship. But midway through the second quarter, the Carolina Panthers leveled him with a nasty hit that separated his rib from its cartilage, an excruciating injury that makes breathing difficult. McNabb insisted on staying in the game, but wasn't the same afterward, and had to be pulled in the third quarter. The Eagles lost 14 to 3.
The next year, McNabb led the Eagles all the way to Jacksonville for the Super Bowl. McNabb's stats in the game were fantastic. He passed for 357 yards—tying for the third-most in Super Bowl history—and threw for three touchdowns.
But he also threw three interceptions.
Late in the fourth quarter, Philly trailed New England 24 to 14. The Eagles offense was moving sluggishly, as though they had all the time in the world. It took them 12 plays to gain 49 yards.
With 3:26 left on the clock, McNabb called the huddle. He'd taken a couple of hard hits in a row, and the last had left him gasping. The offense regrouped for nearly 30 seconds, as the quarterback coughed violently.
Then the Eagles finally closed the deal. McNabb threw a 30-yard touchdown to Greg Lewis.
But it was too little, too late. The clock read 1:48. The Eagles didn't have time to complete the comeback and lost the Super Bowl, 24 to 21.
The day after the game, Eagles center Hank Fraley appeared on local TV to defend McNabb, saying Donovan was "almost puking in the huddle."
By that afternoon, the comment had seeded an urban myth: The Eagles lost because McNabb was sick. It didn't help when loudmouth wide receiver Terrell Owens fed the flames in an interview with ESPN.
"I wasn't the one who got tired in the Super Bowl," T.O. spat.
This time, McNabb couldn't let the comment slide.
"I wasn't tired," McNabb responded. "Whatever comments have been made, I don't know if it was directed toward me...I just wanted to set the record straight—I wasn't tired."
Over the next three years, McNabb spent countless games on the injured-reserve list, and the Eagles never advanced further than the first round of the playoffs. In 2007, the team drafted rookie Kevin Kolb, McNabb's heir apparent.
In 2008, McNabb took the team to the conference championship but again failed to deliver.
"It got to the point where nothing but a Super Bowl championship was good enough here for the fans," says Domowitch, the sportswriter. "It started to take its toll on Donovan. He wanted to win a Super Bowl, but I think he had a little trouble dealing with the fact that if he didn't get that, nobody was going to be satisfied."
In the spring of 2010, the Eagles traded McNabb to Washington.
He was supposed to be the Redskins' savior, but quickly became a scapegoat. After an initial 13 to 7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins lost three of the next six games.