When quarterback Donovan McNabb stepped into the Philadelphia Eagles huddle in practice last Thursday for the first time since mid-November, he didn't say a word. Instead, he shook hands and playfully butted heads with each of his 10 teammates, the men he will count on Saturday night to protect him and to make plays for him against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC semifinals.
"He didn't have to say anything, we knew how he felt and we knew what it meant to have him come back," said Eagles wide receiver James Thrash, a former Redskin who has emerged as one of McNabb's favorite big-play targets. "Him being back there uplifts this whole team. He's the guy we circle the wagons around.
"Speaking as a receiver, no matter what coverage they're in, no matter what defense they've called, we know Donovan will always buy enough time to find someone who comes open. I haven't seen any change in him. He's moving real well. For the most part, the ball is getting there just the way it always did, and he's still seeing the field real well, hitting all the receivers, just like he always does."
Since he broke his right ankle Nov. 17 against the Arizona Cardinals and stayed in the game to direct a 38-14 victory, McNabb has mostly been a cheerleader. He was able to work on maintaining his upper-body and arm strength without slowing the healing of his ankle and he kept his head in the game in meetings and at practice every week. But now, the true test -- live contact -- is coming, and McNabb said Tuesday he has no doubts he can perform as well as ever.
"According to everyone else, I'm not mobile or I'm not able to move any more," he said. "I just let people continue to think that. When the time comes, we'll make sure we showcase that a little bit. I am [mobile]. I think you run a lot better when you don't want to be hit. . . . I feel good. I'm able to do a lot of things I've been doing from before I got hurt. I've learned a lot from being out. I have a lot of positive things working in my favor right now."
So do the Eagles. In addition to having their signature player back, Philadelphia has had two weeks to recover from the regular season. The Eagles are healthy, playing on their home turf, in front of their wildly enthusiastic fans (at least when things are going well) and their defense is ranked No. 2 in the league behind Tampa Bay.
McNabb took all the snaps again today in practice, and while the session was closed to all but local reporters, several Philadelphia writers said McNabb was particularly impressive passing, especially inside the red zone.
"He moved around well and threw it well," said offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "I don't see a lot of ill effects. He did due diligence keeping it in a cast as long as he did. He worked extremely hard when he got out of it. He's been very impressive. I don't have any concerns."
In addition to the return of McNabb, another story line will be his reunion with Atlanta's Michael Vick. When McNabb was an undergraduate at Syracuse, he tried to help his coaches recruit Vick, a Newport News, Va., player who chose Virginia Tech.
"I was hosting him on his [campus] visit, and we just didn't land him," McNabb said. "I think I convinced him, as well as his high school coach [former Redskins running back Tommy Reamon]. But his mom played a major part of it and wanted him to stay back in Virginia. We started communicating from once I was drafted. During his decision-making process of either coming out [of college early] or staying. I got a chance to talk to him a couple of times, and we've kept our communication going from then on.
"You want to continue to tell him about the speed of the game, to have fun while you're doing it, make sure you stay relaxed and be involved with everything going on because you are the quarterback, the leader out there. What he's shown right now is the fact that throughout his offseason after his rookie season, he's learned a lot and has a lot of confidence in the guys around him."
Vick said he appreciates McNabb's "words of encouragement that helped me make my decision [to leave Tech after his redshirt sophomore season]. He told me not to rush it and be careful and take my time. He also told me that no matter where I went [in the NFL], I'd have success."
Neither man has been especially comfortable in discussing the inevitable comparisons in their styles of play, differentiated only by speed. Vick, who stand 6-0 and weighs 216, rushed for 777 yards.
McNabb, two inches taller and weighing 230, is a formidable runner who can dish out as much punishment as he gets when he decides not to slide. In his first four seasons, even missing the last six games, McNabb has run for 1,884 yards, including 460 this season. That's a NFL record for quarterbacks over the same span; only Vick seems capable of breaking it.
Like Vick, he often forces opposing defenses to assign a spy to keep him from running out of the pocket, and like Vick, he often renders those spies totally ineffective.
"He is outside the box as far as things he can do," Arizona Coach Dave McGinnis said after McNabb had destroyed his team on one leg. "The most dangerous thing is when things start to break down, he is more of a rusher.
"He and Michael Vick do things that are scary. You really have to be sticky on your coverage. You have to have enough discipline that when that clock goes off in your head that it is time for the quarterback to have thrown the ball and it has not been thrown, you can't look back because that's when it gets dangerous."
Eagles Coach Andy Reid keeps emphasizing that "what really distinguishes Donovan as a drop-back quarterback in the NFL gifted with the ability to run is that he always keeps his eyes downfield. With those pump fakes, he's always looking for an open receiver. And then, with full speed ahead, he's able to decide on the run that if it's not going to be there, then go score himself."
McNabb knows exactly what distinguishes him from Vick.
"Obviously, Mike is a little faster than me," he said. "A lot. Speed is something you can't coach, but I also think it's the instinct. When you get running down the pocket and running down the field, you're able to make a move on a guy and get an extra five or six yards. That's something that really sticks out for both of us.
"When you get around the corner, you're one on one with a linebacker or a safety. You have that confidence to think that you can make that guy miss and pick up a few extra yards for your team."
Both men cringe when they hear themselves pigeonholed as running quarterbacks.
"He can have the running quarterback [title]," McNabb said. "I've always said I'm a quarterback first."
Said Vick: "People who don't know me and say I can only make plays on the run, all I can say is that every game we've won, I've made good decisions. It doesn't really matter to me what people say."