By Michael Wilbon
Monday, April 5, 2010; D01
The only reservation in Donovan McNabb's voice Sunday night was over finding and talking to Jason Campbell. After all, when things were going rotten for Campbell, when he was being benched and booed, it was McNabb, after an Eagles-Redskins game in Washington, who sought out Campbell to buck him up, tell him he's got the tools to be a fine quarterback in the NFL. The quarterback fraternity is small, and the black quarterback fraternity is even smaller, and McNabb didn't want Campbell to think for one second he'd been lying in the weeds for weeks, waiting to take his job.
McNabb, for the record, didn't know until the last second where he was going to wind up. The rumors that the Vikings were atop his list were erroneous; McNabb told me that himself last week. The Raiders were a team that was interested, but not the only team. McNabb and I talked about the business of football the other night in Arizona, a totally off-the-record conversation. But I was reminded that night, with all due respect to Campbell, why McNabb is about the best fit around to be the quarterback of the Washington Redskins . . .
. . . Because Donovan McNabb has done most of it and seen all of it. Even on an evening when the Eagles, the only team he has played for, were trying to trade him, he was completely unfazed. We're talking about an 11-year veteran who was booed by Eagles fans from the moment he was selected. He's dealt with injury, the harshest criticism imaginable, idiot teammates such as Terrell Owens, roiled up locker rooms. He's watched his team draft his replacement, taken the field with few if any Pro Bowl-caliber weapons. He's shrugged off controversies involving race that were none of his doing. Yet, McNabb has always been able to speak his mind, keep his dignity and keep his team in Super Bowl contention.
McNabb is not only accustomed to the insanity of being a quarterback in the NFL, and the extra weight of being a black quarterback in the NFL, he laughs it off. It can't get to him, didn't even catch up to him when he was young. If you can survive playing quarterback in Philly, and lead the team to five NFC championship games, then Washington ought to be a piece of cake. After a week or two in D.C., McNabb will wonder who turned down the volume.
He's as battle-tested a quarterback as could possibly have been available to the Washington Redskins right now. The silliness that passes for controversy in Washington will likely make Donovan McNabb smile . . . if not laugh out loud.
In a very brief conversation Sunday night after the trade, McNabb said he is "absolutely looking forward to this . . . absolutely. I'm excited about it, no question." There was a pause as he asked me about Campbell. "I need to get in touch with Jason, I need to hear his thoughts on all this . . . You know I really like Jason."
As do I, which is why I think this trade for McNabb and what I presume to be the imminent departure of restricted free agent Campbell, are just what both men and the franchise need. The most important thing to the success of a franchise is having an established coach and quarterback, people with commanding presence. And the Redskins have that in Mike Shanahan and McNabb, something they haven't had since perhaps Joe Gibbs and Mark Rypien.
McNabb, it seems to me, will benefit from the change in scenery. I was agitating for the Arizona Cardinals, McNabb's hometown team because he has a home there, to do this the moment Kurt Warner, 38, retired, but they instead settled for Derek Anderson. The Chicago Bears, McNabb's real hometown team, should have gotten McNabb last offseason instead of giving up the farm for interception machine Jay Cutler; it would have been so much smarter. McNabb, at 33, isn't a long-term solution, but these days the smart teams play to win now, which is why the Jets and Vikings took a shot with old man Brett Favre, 40. Look at the success Warner had with the Cardinals.
And I've hoped Campbell would leave the management-coaching dysfunction that undermined his career and find a professional situation. That could have happened with Shanahan now in charge. But Campbell, no matter how hurt he probably is now, should drop to his knees and feel his prayers have been answered. With McNabb and Rex Grossman here, the Redskins don't need Campbell anymore and couldn't possibly match an offer he got elsewhere.
Campbell, free of upper-management meddling and the coaching revolving door with the Redskins, is young enough, talented enough and hard-working enough to be a terrific quarterback, which (ironically) is what McNabb was trying to impress upon him as something of a mentor. I told Campbell what I'm writing now: the best thing that could happen to his career was to get the hell out of here, away from new coaches, new coordinators, new systems and the same old dysfunctional way of running a football team.
Campbell, who is on a short list of the nicest people I've met in 30 years of living here, is probably not the guy to look at all this, shrug his shoulders, then go out and throw four touchdowns on Sunday. McNabb is. Campbell reminds me, in terms of demeanor, of a young Doug Williams, someone who needs nurturing, even at the toughest position in sports, not one dumb controversy after another. Campbell isn't good with insanity swirling around him, and perhaps will never be. McNabb is, and he knows it. So does everybody in the NFC East.
Two of my close, close friends are from Philly and they were inconsolable Sunday night, as I suspect lots of Eagles fans will be, many of them who booed and cursed McNabb over the years.
I need to declare my own baggage here. I'm not objective about McNabb, I'm not unemotional about him or his career. I don't even know how much I'm going to write about him in this space going forward because our relationship really isn't professional. We're friends. We come from the same place on the South Side of Chicago, went to rival Catholic high schools, share passions about our boyhood teams. I'm a helluva lot closer in age to his parents, Sam and Wilma, who also grew up where I grew up. I've written in this column many times over the years that I'm a McNabb fan but not an Eagles fan, and there's a difference. Same holds now that he's with the Redskins.
I hope McNabb can realize what's been just out of his reach in Philly, and I hope Campbell can fulfill the vast potential the Redskins organization wasn't smart enough to see or develop fully. I hope Campbell can find the stability he needs; I'm confident McNabb can successfully negotiate this next chapter of his football life with or without it.