Shifting Loyalties; or, Imperfect Revenge Storylines in Eagles vs. Redskins

by Adam Reger

In various sports media this week, I’ve seen the suggestion a few times that when former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb returns to Philadelphia this Sunday, fans there will boo him. I suspect, and certainly I hope, that this will prove an absurdly pessimistic view of Philly sports fans (whose reputation for sourness is deserved, overstated, and in a perverse way a kind of badge of honor which they are constantly trying to justify by bad behavior). Few Philadelphians would really argue that McNabb helped usher in a decade of success for the Eagles, and is empirically the best quarterback the franchise has ever had. He rarely got them over the NFC Championship-game hump, true enough, and never won the big one, but the Eagles won far more games because of McNabb than he lost for them. Indeed, thinking about the offensive weapons the Eagles have now, versus their receiving corps during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, it’s a wonder McNabb got the team as far as he did with James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, and Freddie Mitchell catching balls. (Remember that before McNabb went south to D.C., Thrash did—and on a Redskins team that consistently finished behind the Eagles in the standings and, especially, in offensive statistics, he couldn’t hold on to a receiver spot and was relegated to the special teams.)

And yet, my loyalties on Sunday will be clear and firm. I will be thrilled to see Trent Cole and/or Brandon Graham (or the thrilling new addition Darryl Tapp) bury McNabb, or Asante Samuel step in front of a pass. (Or it would be swell if Nate Allen, whom the Eagles drafted with the second-round pick they got from Washington in the McNabb trade, intercepted McNabb.) I worry about what Washington tight end Chris Cooley might do, covered by the Eagles’ suspect linebacking unit (although Cooley is on my fantasy football team, so you might say my loyalties are divided in this area). But on the whole I am confident, and looking forward to the game for the reasons I usually do: I expect a decisive and satisfying Eagles win.

I do expect, though, McNabb’s return to be emotionally resonant. If I’m wrong about Philly fans booing, that’ll put the kibosh on this notion, but I’m anticipating 65,000 fans giving McNabb some kind of ovation, probably ranging from grudging to full-throated, with the subtext of “We miss you and you never should have been traded.” (A friend’s Facebook status, several weeks ago: “cannot wait to cheer on Mc Nabb October 3rd. My pink number five jersey will be worn with pride. Sorry to my husband that thinks he is bringing an Eagles fan….” It’s worth noting that this same friend was vocally horrified at the Eagles’ signing Michael Vick last summer.)

Although I’m looking forward to the game, I have to admit there’s a strange flatness in the prospect of this match-up. Eagles-Redskins is always contentious, but on the personnel level the pairings are imperfectly symmetrical. McNabb will have something to prove to Andy Reid, but Reid has been perfectly open and gracious about his remorselessness, accommodating McNabb’s requests not to go someplace like Oakland, at the cost of trading him within the division. Reid even appeared on a recent “This Is Your Life”-style ESPN special wherein McNabb returned to his high school. And in terms of counterparts, Reid’s is more properly Mike Shanahan, the Redskins’ new coach, with whom he has no particular beef.

Unless it’s the last four minutes of a game, talk of dueling quarterbacks is almost always a loser. In this case, the comparison is even lamer. McNabb’s counterpart is not Kevin Kolb, the young upstart whose drafting, three years ago, marked the final straightaway of McNabb’s Philly tenure, but Michael Vick, who McNabb pressured Reid to sign. If anything’s resonant here, it’s that the quarterback Reid anointed as the team’s new savior has, within three weeks, been shelved. But that’s a closed circuit; McNabb’s only involvement in this soap opera, if he wanted it, would be to stand outside shaking his head at Philly QB politics.

Or making snide remarks. Which, to his credit, McNabb has never gone in for. Yet one more reason for Eagles fans to stand and cheer when he comes out of that tunnel Sunday.