I once observed Donovan McNabb not as a quarterback, but as something resembling a civilian. A few years back, there was a night of championship bouts on a frosty night in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Midway through a Zab Judah fight, McNabb arrived and took an empty ringside seat. Problem was, it wasn't his seat. After a couple of rounds, the seat's owner approached McNabb, bent down and showed him his ticket. McNabb acknowledged its authenticity and promptly stood up and left.
He really didn't have to leave. He could have stayed there and convinced the ticket holder, either by way of his celebrity, or with a cash reward, that it was probably best, for appearances sake, that the quarterback remained where he was. This would after all, maintain the order of things. Of course this is the sort of entitlement we bemoan in our celebrities. It's also the kind of behavior we want to bemoan in our celebrities. I mean, we gotta have something to bitch about, right?
I think back on that cold night because now, McNabb is being unseated as starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. At some point soon, he'll be something resembling a civilian. And, in true McNabb fashion, he's being classy. He's not making a stink. He's moving aside. And for some reason, this behavior in McNabb has always been the source of great frustration.
You see, Donovan McNabb is not known for being crazy. He is known for being quite sane. And for being a successful quarterback. Six Pro Bowls, passing the equivalent of nearly 20 miles, and a Super Bowl appearance would suggest that he has been successful. And let's not forget the incredible impact he had at Syracuse, which has not recovered since he left.
But now that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has relieved him of his duties, the Donovan McNabb conversation will begin anew. Surely words like "clutch" and "passion" will litter this discussion as we all try to decide what kind of football player this man was.
This conversation began a few years into McNabb's career. That's when Rush Limbaugh said he was "overrated." Now, I wasn't aware that a professional quarterback could be measured the same way one measures a college football team, so that summation still leaves me scratching my head. It's always been my belief that pro coaches reward talent, nothing else.
Overrated? Really? McNabb was a large man, cast in the mold of Boomer Esiason, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. But unlike those men, McNabb could summon a burst of speed that would not only get him out of trouble but create opportunity. And there was that time in the open field when he stutter-stepped and left safety Mark Carrier lunging at air -- a rare feat for a 240-pound quarterback. Yeah, I know he never won a Super Bowl, but neither did the aforementioned other three. But were they overrated? (Ask a Dolphins fan now if Marino's overrated? Ask a Bills fan about Kelly. Ask a Bengals fan about Boomer.)
I think Limbaugh's issue was the so-called liberal media's failure to say bad things about McNabb. I suppose Limbaugh wanted them to properly excoriate a man who hadn't killed dogs, defaulted on a loan, made it rain at a strip club, presided over a ponzi scheme that separated people from their savings, or taken steroids to set the all time home run record.
McNabb has many faults, of course. He's been known to miss an open receiver, abandon proper footwork, and to rush his throws to the point where they end up in the dirt. In his bid to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, he fell short. And of course there was McNabb's worst offense of all -- failing to know that a regular-season game could end in a tie. Oh, the shame!
Amid the myriad of topics that have swirled around McNabb, his sober disposition has been the most intriguing. Last season, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan benched McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman, not on a whim, but on two occasions. The first was at crunch time of a game against the Lions. McNabb responded with a measured statement about it being a "coach's decision" and whatnot.
I'm not entirely sure what Shanahan's motive was. We're talking about Rex Grossman here, so I'm sure it had little to do with going to a "better" option. By embarrassing him, was he trying to get a reaction? Was he trying to make him angry? And if so, why?
I know humiliation is an effective tool when applied to the type of guy who has something to prove to the person who is attempting to humiliate him. McNabb had nothing to prove to Shanahan -- just like he had no reason to puff out his chest when he was sitting in the wrong ringside seat.
Still, the second time he was benched, McNabb wondered aloud about Shanahan's "lack of professionalism."
Interesting choice of words, don’t you think? Professionalism. In this context it refers to the demeanor of one who is above that which is rash or hysterical. But I'm not sure professionalism is still a virtue these days -- especially for a man like McNabb.
See, in the early 20th century, during the heavyweight reigns of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, any prominent black man was characterized as either crazy or docile. Surely there were other descriptors available, they just didn't capture the (simple?) essence of black manhood like those two could. Of course, the man being labeled had little to do with the tag he got. But such was life in the early part of the 20th century. Maybe that's changed. Maybe it hasn't. Maybe we should ask Limbaugh.
McNabb is not crazy. As he has been for his entire 11-year run, his response to being benched has been neither dramatic nor fatalistic. He hasn't provided one of those famous sideline arguments where the star quarterback goes toe to toe with his coach and in the aftermath we all talk about it being a "turning point" or some "coming of age" in the quarterback's career. That would be silly in this case. McNabb is no fledgling prodigy. He's a proven commodity with battle scars to boot. Regardless of public opinion, McNabb has upheld a private standard. But I suspect this is his manner of dealing with conflict, great and small.
McNabb doesn't occupy his space in obsequious deference to others, like some citizen of a de facto Jim Crow society. But he does possess a certain armor that has yet to be penetrated -- by persons named Limbaugh, Owens, or Shanahan. There was a time when this sort of reserve was commended. There was a time when cool was cool. But on this day, the failure to reveal all of oneself, in loud and vulgar fashion, is a breach of social etiquette.
It seems dignity is a punishable offense.