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McNabb Is Having Fun, And His Play Shows It

We are on the set of The Donovan McNabb Show and the Eagles' quarterback, in his 10th NFL season, is clearly loving things. He is laughing and joking with the crew during a break. The joy is very much there for McNabb, who has been through a season he will never, ever forget.

Is there more poetic justice than for McNabb to lead the Eagles past Arizona and into the Super Bowl and then to win that game and cement his status as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL's decade? Is there a player who enjoyed so much success and yet who has had so many hurdles to overcome -- injuries, controversies that had almost nothing to do with him, criticism, professional challenges? McNabb has been to a Super Bowl, and he has been benched, and he has been everywhere in between.

"It's tremendous for Donovan and for the Eagles," says ESPN's Ron Jaworski, who is, of course, the former great Eagles quarterback. "Long-term success in the NFL is all about resiliency. There are going to be ups and downs and I think how you handle those down moments will be how your legacy is determined. And Donovan has always handled them very professionally, and that is why everybody should be happy for his success. When his fortunes were down, Donovan never blamed anyone else. He just kept his nose to the grindstone."

On this day, though, McNabb is exhaling. It is Monday, less than 24 hours after the Eagles' advanced to their fifth NFC Championship Game with a 23-11 win over bitter division rival and the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants. It was a bruising game, and McNabb took some shots, but he is none the worse.

He is, in fact, shining.

"It was great out there, coming off the field and seeing all of those Eagles fans cheering for us," said McNabb, who holds franchise marks in career touchdown passes, pass attempts, pass completions and yards. "We've worked hard to get to this point. We've all hung in there together. No doubt the chemistry in the locker room is as good as it has ever been.

"I think the big thing is that we're all enjoying this, having fun out there and we're trusting in each other. When you have that kind of feeling among all 53 players in the locker room, it's tough to overcome that. It's tough to beat that feeling."

Playing quarterback for the Eagles is one of the most rewarding, most intense, most visible and, certainly, most scrutinized jobs possible. It's a job that little boys dream of having some day -- hearing Merrill Reese call their name, listening to the crowd cheer -- but obviously not every moment is peaches and cream. When the fans aren't cheering, they are booing and they are voicing their opinion and framing a picture of the player.

It goes with the territory, but in McNabb's case the story has gone beyond his play on the field and has extended into the "what'-next" question. Television talking heads and sports radio mouths and newspaper columnists continue to speculate, to stir up the story and to get as much life as they can out of McNabb's future in Philadelphia. Will he be here? It doesn't matter that Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie has already said that the team has "every intention" of having McNabb return for his 11th season. Lurie reiterated that stance after the win over the Giants.

So why all the controversy?

"Because that is what playing quarterback in the NFL is all about. It's about generating controversy," said Jaworski. "I think it's the hardest job in the world, not only from the physical side and the mental side game-wise, but also because a quarterback has to deal with so many external forces that go along with the job. Look at what is happening with Eli Manning right now. He was the world champ a year ago, the Most Valuable Player in the Super Bowl and now he's being chastised like the guy can't throw a football.

"It's just what you have to deal with. It's sad, but that's life. You have to deal with it."

This is not a sob story, or a pity party for the things McNabb has had to endure. He asks for no sympathy and he understands the job requirements. Right there, under strong arm, good feet, intelligence and toughness is this: Thick skin. McNabb has it, even if critics get on him at times for listening too much to the outside voices.

"Donovan goes through so much stuff every day and yet he always comes to work smiling and ready to go," said safety Brian Dawkins. "He is a leader in every sense of the word. I have so much respect for him I can't even tell you."

McNabb's season came to a crossroads when he was benched at halftime of the loss in Baltimore. It bothered him, clearly, and when he is asked to talk about it now McNabb bristles. But for whatever reason -- and at the time McNabb's wife Raquel was about to give birth to twins -- McNabb's play, and the team's performance, has risen since that game in Baltimore.

Four days later, after head coach Andy Reid said McNabb would remain the starter, the Eagles beat Arizona 48-20 on Thanksgiving Night and started a run that has landed them here.

The NFC Championship Game, the fifth in his 10 seasons as an Eagle, is less than a week away.

"I don't look at it like it's the fifth time in eight seasons, because I'm just taking this day by day and enjoying every minute of it," said McNabb. "We have a lot of work ahead of us this week. The Cardinals have a fast, aggressive defense. You saw how they did such a great job in Carolina. They are playing for the same thing we are playing for -- a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

"All I know is that I'm having a great time out there and it feels great to be in the position we are in."

Jaworski interviewed McNabb prior to the Monday night game against Cleveland in ESPN's production meeting, and stays in touch frequently. The two have a bond, even if separated by a generation, as Eagles quarterbacks. It is a peculiar spot to be in, with a demanding and wonderfully passionate fan base watching every step.

Jaworski knows how McNabb felt when he was pulled out of the Baltimore game. It happened to Jaworski in 1985 when then-head coach Buddy Ryan wanted to take a look at young hotshot Randall Cunningham.

"He was exactly how I expected he would be when we talked about it, and I've talked to him a few times about it," said Jaworski. "He was angry. He was bitter. He was disappointed. Those are the exact same sentiments that I had when I was benched in 1985. You're not happy about it. You think you are the man. But once you have a chance to reflect upon it, to look back, I think you are better for it. I think you become stronger for it.

"And I've said this many times publicly, you play free and you play loose. I'm not sure people can understand that, but I can. Once you have the starting quarterback position taken away from you, if you are a fierce competitor and you are one of those lucky men who make it to the NFL level, when you get the job back you play free and a lot looser. The thinking at that point is, 'They've already done the worst thing they can possibly do to me.' It's almost like the pressure is off. I truly believe that is what has happened with Donovan."

These two playoff wins have been tough for the Eagles, physical games and, to an extent, games dominated by the defenses. McNabb has had his moments of greatness and he has had his moments of struggles. That's how it goes in the playoffs. McNabb knows that as well as anyone in the league.

"There is always room for improvement. You have to understand that the teams at this level are all outstanding, so you have to remain patience and take advantage of the opportunities you get," said McNabb. "That's what we're doing as an offense. We've played a couple of physical teams and we have another one coming up.

"I'm glad to be in this position. I think we have something special going, but at the same time we know we aren't done yet. We aren't close to being done."

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