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A rejuvenated Donovan McNabb ready to chase the Super Bowl again

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; D01

In the weeks and months that have preceded the 2010 season, Donovan McNabb has told anyone who asks how the move to a new city and new team has made him feel like a rookie again.

The Redskins' new starting quarterback also harkens back to 1999, when boos rained from the balcony of Radio City Music Hall in New York, where Philadelphia fans eagerly voiced their frustration with the Eagles' first-round draft pick. A young McNabb, quick, mobile and personable, sprinted through an obstacle course of interviews before stepping outside to a waiting limousine.

Brad Childress, the Eagles' quarterbacks coach at the time, had barely introduced himself before he shoved a 200-page playbook under McNabb's nose, something to read during the late-night drive back to Philadelphia. The quarterback didn't mind. He was willing to do anything. Even then, McNabb's goal was clear.

"I wanted to have a parade on Broad Street and bring a Super Bowl championship back to Philadelphia," McNabb says.

In Philadelphia, he never did. "We got so close," he says, noting five division titles and one losing Super Bowl appearance.

Eleven years later, McNabb, charged with returning the Washington Redskins to glory, says he feels like a rookie again -- even though nearly everything about his life is different.

He is a millionaire many times over, and his face is one of the most recognizable in American sports. He has a team of assistants who care for his body, another that tends to the Donovan McNabb brand, another that focuses on his foundation, his business enterprises, his many charitable endeavors. Plus, he has a wife, four children, parents and a brother, all of whom are tethered to nearly every endeavor McNabb undertakes.

If McNabb feels like a rookie again, it's because while so much has changed, his goal hasn't.

He has carefully preserved his body to ensure that even as he creeps into the NFL's senior-citizen territory, it is still attainable.

Now 33 years old, McNabb will take aim at a championship with a new offensive system, new coaches and new teammates but the same evolving skill set, the same competitive fire. Though critics point out deficiencies behind the impressive statistics McNabb has compiled since he broke into the league, the quarterback feels his goal is as achievable as ever.

"I've been hit by confetti at the Super Bowl site, but I wasn't by the podium," he says. "And that's something that drives me."

Behind-the-scenes work

There are days -- particularly during the season -- when McNabb wakes up and can feel the reminders of all 164 games in which he's appeared, the lingering effects of every one of the 405 sacks he's endured. Keeping his body fresh requires a lot of work. It means regular visits each week to the chiropractor, masseuse and acupuncturist. It requires a strict diet and an intense, unrelenting workout regimen.

He learned early on what it takes to prepare his body in the NFL. During his rookie season in Philadelphia, coaches weren't convinced McNabb was putting in the hours needed to inherit the starting quarterback job. That first offseason -- the summer of 2000 -- McNabb stayed in Arizona to work out with wide receiver Charles Johnson, a teammate for just two seasons in Philadelphia but a close friend ever since.

"Crack of dawn," Johnson warned McNabb. "Every day."

There was no snooze button on those offseason workouts. If McNabb was slow to rise, Johnson would go into his room and jump on the bed until McNabb stirred, yelling all the while: "Let's go! Time to go to work!"

"That's when you see what someone is about," Johnson says. "There's no coaches, there's no cameras, there's nobody there to watch you. It's about you investing in your craft. It's about you doing what you need to be ready for the season. Donovan figured that out right away, and now he's the best at it."

That work ethic spills over into the regular season, as well, according to former teammates and coaches. Fans across the league are familiar with the McNabb they see on Sundays: the quarterback who can turn a busted play into a first down, who can buckle a linebacker's knees, who has won big games and lost bigger ones. But those who've been around him say it's what he does every other day of the week that separates him from most quarterbacks in the league.

"I think a lot of the things that he did behind the scenes, a lot of folks didn't know about," says Pat Shurmur, the Eagles' quarterbacks coach the past seven seasons and now the offensive coordinator in St. Louis.

Shurmur knew that following practice every Wednesday, as the facility emptied and most players went home to their families, McNabb would take over his office. The quarterback would sit there with his center and tight end next to him and pore over film, studying every blitz package employed by an upcoming opponent.

The trio would order dinner and remain there until the lights were turned off in every other corner of the facility, dissecting red-zone blitzes, third-and-long pressure, first-and-10 fronts. McNabb also studied film after most practices and was often the last player to go home at night.

"There are parts of his life that receive a lot of fanfare, but when it comes to doing hard work, it's all behind the scenes," says Chad Lewis, the retired tight end who played nine seasons in Philadelphia and studied blitz tapes with McNabb. "He doesn't do it to get noticed. He does it because he's got a drive to win."

Measuring McNabb

McNabb was napping when the Redskins made the Easter Sunday trade to acquire him from their division rival. His family was awake, though, abuzz over an earthquake centered in Baja California that rattled McNabb's Arizona home nearly 250 miles away.

The trade's tremors hit when cellphones began lighting up, word of the blockbuster spreading quickly across the NFL. On the East Coast, the stretch of Interstate 95 from Philadelphia to Washington was a talk-radio traffic jam, the discussion centered on how much McNabb had left in his tank.

In the days that followed, perhaps no analyst was more critical of McNabb than NFL Network's Brian Baldinger, who called the veteran quarterback a "flawed player" and "one of the most overrated quarterbacks in the history of the game."

In a recent interview, Baldinger praised McNabb's leadership skills and play-making abilities but explained that McNabb's accuracy is suspect, he struggles reading defenses and the Eagles too often had to compensate for his deficiencies.

"I would argue that the thing he didn't do in Philadelphia that would've really ingrained him with the public was that he never just once got up there and said, 'I got to play better. I've got to raise my level of performance if we're going to beat a team like the Baltimore Ravens or a team like the Dallas Cowboys. It starts with me,' " Baldinger said. "It was always, 'We have to play better.' "

McNabb takes a philosophical approach when it comes to his accomplishments and failures. Statistically, he compares favorably with many quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"What do we truly measure a quarterback by?" McNabb asks. "Is it by great throws? Is it by passing yards? Is it by wins and losses? Or is it by Super Bowls? When people begin to break down certain players, they pick and choose what they want to talk about.

"If you want to talk about my numbers, my numbers compare with some of the greats that have played. If you want to talk about wins and losses, that compares with some of the greats who have played. You talk about my [style], okay, that's a little bit different."

McNabb knows as well as anyone that most of those other great quarterbacks wore Super Bowl rings to their enshrinement in Canton, Ohio. But he also knows that Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan won his first championship as the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, with a 33-year-old Steve Young leading the huddle.

Just a few years later, as head coach in Denver, Shanahan would again lean on a veteran quarterback. John Elway was 37 and 38 years old when he won his two Super Bowl titles for the Broncos.

In fact, while football is considered a young man's game -- 20-somethings as recyclable as cheap metal -- quarterback is a position where the top talents have excelled well into their 30s.

Of the 11 quarterbacks to enter the Hall of Fame in the past 25 years, most reached the peak of their success in their early 30s, and many kept producing into their late 30s.

Troy Aikman was the only one to retire before his 35th birthday. Roger Staubach threw for career highs in yards and touchdowns in his final year in the league, at age 37. Playing in a pass-happy offense, Warren Moon topped 4,000 yards four times after his 34th birthday, twice throwing more than 30 touchdown passes. Elway topped 4,000 yards when he was 33 and posted his highest passer rating at 38. Young posted a passer rating of 112.8 when he was 33, the same age at which Joe Montana posted a 112.4.

Even Baldinger, a former offensive lineman who lives outside Philadelphia and has closely monitored McNabb's career, concedes that despite McNabb's weaknesses, the quarterback might be a better fit in Washington than he was the past few seasons in Philadelphia.

"He's got natural leadership qualities. They haven't had that in Washington since who-knows-when," Baldinger says. "He's a very tough guy. He's played on a broken leg. He's played with a punctured chest. He tried to play through an abdominal strain. He's got toughness about him."

League's strongest QB?

McNabb's toughness has rarely been questioned. His style of play has made him vulnerable to some crushing blows. As a result, he has missed games because of injury, playing just one 16-game season in the past six years.

McNabb says he spends the entire offseason preparing his body for the pounding it will take each fall and winter. He says that same workout program is also designed to preserve his body for years to come.

He's not built like a quarterback and his workout regimen is unlike those of most who play the position. McNabb benches more than 300 pounds, and many around the league say he's physically the strongest active signal-caller.

McNabb flips giant tires and uses kettle bells, a weight that resembles a cannonball with a cast iron handle. In the Arizona desert, he'll sprint up steep hills on the hottest summer afternoons and use thick ropes to pull giant objects.

"Guys come out here, they get embarrassed," says Brett Fischer, McNabb's personal trainer. "Last year I had some guys -- I won't mention any names -- they called me afterwards and they go, 'Fisch, you didn't tell me your quarterback was going to embarrass me today.' . . . They're shocked. They go, 'Man, I thought I was in shape when I came to your place. And the quarterback beat me?' I go, 'Well, it's Donovan.' "

Fischer said he focuses on McNabb's core strength -- the abdominals, the lower back, the gluteals, the back, the side and the hips -- but especially the quarterback's joints and range of motion. As many players get older and lift weights, he says, they lose the flexibility and athleticism they enjoyed as younger athletes.

McNabb, who will turn 34 in November, has just one year remaining on his current contract, though his camp and the Redskins say that an extension will be discussed soon. But he plans to play for several more seasons.

"I want to be able to walk away from this game on my own terms," he says.

Supporting cast

YouTube is filled with McNabb highlights, the quarterback running through a maze of defenders, off-balance throws and head-fakes that shake defenders. But his style of play has slowly changed as he has gotten older.

McNabb topped 300 rushing yards in each of the first five seasons but has had fewer than 250 yards in each of the past six. At the same time, in the past six seasons, he's posted his five highest completion percentages and turned in his five highest passer ratings.

While experts say his arm is as strong as ever and his throwing mechanics have slightly improved, he doesn't rely on his feet in quite the same way.

"He's not as fast as he was when he first came in the league," Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan says. "That's the only thing that has gone down a little. Gone down from what it was; he's still in the top half of athletic quarterbacks. So it's not like he's not mobile."

McNabb attributes the change to experience and his own comfort level, also noting that he's hardly the first mobile quarterback to spend more time in the pocket later in his career. He cites Montana, Young and even Randall Cunningham as quarterbacks who came to rely more on their arms than their feet.

"If I have to run, then I'm prepared to go," he says. "That's the way that I kind of treat it. I don't prepare myself like, 'Okay, I'm going to drop back, make my first read, make my second read, [then] I'm gone.' That's something you do early on in your career when you don't know what routes they're running.

"When you've been in an offense for a while, you're comfortable with the guys, you see them going through your progression, knowing you have time, just get it to a guy to let him make some plays for you."

What remains to be seen is whether the supporting cast in Washington will match the one McNabb led to the playoffs seven times in the past 10 seasons. As training camp opened and McNabb found himself standing on the cusp of yet another season, he says he already feels at home.

"When you've been at a place for 11 years, you just kind of think you'll finish out your career" there, he said. "We all know that in this business nowadays, anything can happen. Obviously it happened to me. But I'm enjoying this new page, this new chapter in the book."

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