In my last article, I quickly mentioned Donovan McNabb. I wrote about him getting good reviews for his play so far in training camp, but noted that I'm really waiting to see what he does in the regular season before I will really be comfortable that he's all the way back to being an elite quarterback.
I want to explain that thinking and write some more about McNabb and the upcoming season. Training camp is practice. It is a setting where players are put in position to learn and succeed at the same time. The number one offense faces the number two defense. Many of the group drills feature a limited number of defenders. Quarterbacks have an added advantage. They wear red jerseys and can't be hit.
McNabb is entering his tenth NFL season. He's still a very talented quarterback. No one would dispute that statement. McNabb is playing in a non-hitting setting and going against backups. A guy with his experience and talent should play at a high level in training camp.
I'm certainly not trying to make camp sound meaningless for a guy like him. All the reports have said that McNabb is moving really well and looks like his old self in terms of mobility. That's great news. The shoulder problem that he experienced in the spring has been nonexistent up at Lehigh. By all accounts, he's throwing the ball really well and looks terrific.
Think back to last season. McNabb wasn't a bad quarterback. He had a 7-6 record as a starter, not counting the Miami game where he left early with an injury. McNabb completed more than 60 percent of his passes and had almost three touchdowns for every interception he threw. A lot of players would consider that a good year. Eagles fans are used to the McNabb who played at a Pro Bowl level and led the team to the postseason in five consecutive years. That is the player we want back for 2008.
The key reason that McNabb wasn't his old self last year was his comeback from the torn ACL injury. He wasn't 100 percent physically. He was healthy enough to be a pretty good quarterback, but he simply couldn't play at the level he had in the past. One of McNabb's biggest strengths has always been his mobility. He didn't get that back until late in the season. That made things complicated early on.
A lot of what goes into being a good quarterback is not physical, but rather mental. The obvious stuff is to know the offense inside-out, reading the defense and making quick decisions. There's even more than that. A good quarterback has to play with confidence. McNabb lacked that in 2007. You could see him hesitate on some plays. He would stay around the pocket at times when you know he would have run in the past. McNabb has been a good downfield passer in the last few years, but that wasn't the case last year. I think he was nervous about striding into his throws and pushing off with his legs.
If you look at the statistical breakdown of the season there is a pretty distinct change from the Minnesota game through the end of the year. In McNabb's first six starts of the year, he only had one game where he really played well. That was the thrashing of Detroit. As much fun as that game was to watch, the Lions defense was so awful that it basically was the equivalent of a preseason game. Take that game away and McNabb has only one win and three touchdown passes in the first six games. Aside from the 56 points in the Detroit game, the team didn't get above 16 points in any of those first six games.
In the final seven full games he played, McNabb's and the team's numbers both got better. He threw 12 touchdown passes. The team won five games and averaged just under 20 points a game. McNabb got better physically and started to play with more confidence. He still wasn't at a Pro Bowl level, but things were headed in the right direction.
McNabb's return to form for 2008 will have three basic tests. The first is for him to have a strong training camp. Based on the highlights I've seen and all the reports, that is happening. The next test will be for McNabb to have a good preseason. I fully expect that to happen. Obviously the most important test will be to see how he plays in the regular season.
You might wonder why I don't assume that McNabb will automatically play at a high level now that he's healthy. Age. Football players hit a certain point in their career where their level of play begins to decline. This happens at age 28 for some guys. Others last into their early 30's. Some players are able to even push age 40. I don't know when McNabb's play will start to decline. It could be 2008 or 2013 or even further down the line. The point is that when players get to his age you just can't assume things will stay the same.
I'm cautiously optimistic about McNabb and the 2008 season. The offensive line should play better than it did last year. The team added weapons for McNabb in DeSean Jackson and Lorenzo Booker. We should get better tight end play with a healthy L.J. Smith and Brent Celek being more experienced. McNabb has a better situation in which to work. Combine that with his health and a burning desire to get back on top and I think he will have a good year. I can only hope he plays well enough to get the Eagles back to the postseason and put his name back in the conversation about who the best quarterbacks in the NFL are.
SHOOTING THE BREEZE
Defensive end Bryan Smith finally got on the field. I know he's still a mystery to many fans. I had the chance to watch him play several times in college. I'm excited to see what he can do as an edge rusher.
The team has thrown fade passes to Hank Baskett a few different times in the red zone. This is good news. I don't expect the team to make this a regular part of the red zone arsenal in the season, but just that is mixed in from time to time. At the very least, it will make opposing defenses worry about having to face it.
General Manager Tom Heckert said on Training Camp Live! on Thursday that rookie safety Quintin Demps has looked good against the run as well as the pass. That is excellent news. Demps is a natural ballhawk. The only question I had about him was his ability to hit and tackle. If he's showing up and playing tough against the run, he could be the number three safety and a guy that Jim Johnson works to get on the field even as a rookie. Sean Considine is still getting good reviews on his training camp play. Safety was a position of some question a month ago, but could turn out to be very solid.
Less than a week until the preseason starts. I can't wait to see the guys go and play another team, vanilla schemes and all.