The only discomfort that Donovan McNabb acknowledged experiencing at the outset of this season was the pain in the rear that the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback felt every time he had to respond to a new public barb by his star wide receiver, Terrell Owens.

But the discomfort that McNabb endured during his one-sided feud with Owens has been replaced in recent weeks by honest-to-goodness physical pain. McNabb has played through one injury after another, and the latest -- a sports hernia -- will require surgery at some point. He simply is trying to make it through the season before he has the operation that he needs to rid himself of the searing pain that rips through his lower abdominal muscles every time he makes a wrong move.

"It's like a burning sensation across your abdominal muscle," McNabb said here this week. "It's annoying and, at times, it can be painful."

It all seems like a recipe for the Eagles to become the fifth straight Super Bowl loser to follow up with a losing record the next season. But so far, McNabb simply isn't allowing it. He has stubbornly remained in the lineup by playing with a bruised chest, a bruised shin and his abdominal tear, and he has provided some of the best performances of his career while leading the Eagles to a 3-1 record heading into Sunday's game at Dallas.

"When you have a quarterback that's clicking like he's clicking, that offense is going to run smooth," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. "As a defensive player, you just take your seat. I can get some popcorn and watch the movie because those guys are playing big-time."

McNabb leads the NFL with his 1,333 passing yards and 11 touchdown passes. He has thrown for more than 340 yards in each of the Eagles' last three games, including a 369-yard outing in last Sunday's 37-31 triumph at Kansas City. McNabb led the defending NFC champions' rally from a 24-6 deficit.

"I felt pretty good in the Kansas City game," McNabb said.

That hadn't been the case the previous weekend during a win over the Oakland Raiders. But McNabb said that he and the members of the Eagles' medical staff reassessed their treatment plan and made sure that the quarterback stretched well and worked some of the swelling out of the area so that his torso didn't fell quite as tight and sore.

"It's painful," said Eagles punter Dirk Johnson, who has had the same injury. "It's nagging, and it takes so long to warm up. It's a short, quick, sharp pain. It's hard because you've got a routine, and that routine has to change. . . . I don't know exactly where his is at, but I know it's giving him pain. He's tough."

A sports hernia is not really a hernia; it is defined as a tear in the muscles of the lower abdomen. Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder called a sports hernia a lower abdominal strain that becomes chronic to the point that the sufferer has groin pain. Burkholder declined to say whether McNabb can make it through the entire season without undergoing surgery. "That's too hard to tell [but] other guys have done it," the trainer said last week.

Burkholder said that McNabb's injury won't worsen if he continues to play, although his discomfort might. He called the injury "something you can play with. It is uncomfortable. Rest does not correct the problem. . . . His pain may get worse [or] may get better. [But] the condition won't [worsen]. . . . Pain is really the thing that limits what he can do."

McNabb reported to training camp suffering from abdominal pain, Burkholder said. McNabb said he was told the injury comes from overuse, but he could not recall a specific incident in his offseason workouts in which he suffered the injury. "At least it comes from working hard, not sitting on the couch eating Doritos," McNabb said.

According to Burkholder, McNabb aggravated the injury during the Eagles' triumph over the San Francisco 49ers 21/2 weeks ago. He was unable to practice Wednesday of the following week. McNabb underwent an MRI exam that week and was examined by a Philadelphia doctor who's an expert on the injury, William Meyers. After playing against the Raiders 12 days ago in obvious discomfort, McNabb got a second opinion and the doctors agreed, according to Burkholder, that the injury can be classified as a sports hernia.

Undergoing surgery immediately would cause McNabb to miss most of the remainder of the season. The normal recovery period from such a procedure is eight to 12 weeks, Burkholder said. McNabb is taking anti-inflammatory medication as part of his treatment, and club officials were hopeful from the outset that they could manage the injury and get McNabb through the season because Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown played an entire season a few years ago under similar circumstances before having offseason surgery.

Owens underwent surgery for a sports hernia while he was with the 49ers, Burkholder and Eagles Coach Andy Reid said, and continues to deal with occasional abdominal discomfort. The Eagles will monitor McNabb and do their best, Reid said, to do what's right for him as well as for the team. If McNabb's pain becomes intolerable or if he's defenseless on the field, Reid said he'll sit his quarterback down. Reid has said that he's getting some additional practice-field work for backup Koy Detmer, just in case.

"He feels a little bit better than he did last week," Reid said this week of McNabb. "Not a lot, but a little better. . . . With the homework we've done . . . he should be able to play if he can handle the pain. Everybody obviously can't handle the pain the same way. This guy is very tough mentally and wants to be out there. He wants to play, and the doctors said it would be okay to do that."

Reid said that McNabb even should be able to run with the ball during games if needed, although McNabb, who's 28 and in his seventh NFL season, has developed into less of a scrambler and more of a pocket-anchored passer.

"Some weeks it'll feel pretty good," McNabb said. "Some weeks it'll bother me. As of right now, it's to a point where I can handle it. But there will be some times when you come in on Monday or Tuesday, and you feel like sometimes you can't even walk."

McNabb said he's even being careful around the house not to do anything that might cause the injury to flare up. "Not that I do much, anyway," he said. "If I get a chance to sit down, I will sit down. But you just try to be smart with it, knowing the situation and how it is right now. You don't want to overdo it and hurt something else."

The Owens soap opera has calmed down considerably since the wide receiver, amid his bitter contract dispute with the Eagles, stopped talking to McNabb but publicly criticized the quarterback's Super Bowl performance and called McNabb a "hypocrite" in television interviews just after being banished from the team for a week during training camp by Reid. Owens leads the NFL with his 32 catches and 506 receiving yards, and the Eagles are ranked first in the league in total offense.

McNabb is averaging nearly 44 passing attempts per game, as the Eagles remain unable to establish a punishing running game on offense. McNabb cautions that the pass-crazy offensive approach may change as the season progresses. But the Eagles, after winning the last four NFC East titles, suddenly find themselves tied with the New York Giants and behind the unbeaten Washington Redskins in what looks to be an improved division, and they might need their quarterback to continue to be superhuman all season if they're going to make another Super Bowl run.

"It's exciting right now," McNabb said. "We want to take full advantage of it and continue to get better in the passing game."

Despite his injury, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb leads the league with 1,333 yards and 11 TD passes.