THE EAGLES are 5-7, clinging to the fraying fringe of wild-card viability. So it was not a jaunty, smirking, "how-do-you-like-me-
?" Donovan McNabb who met with reporters yesterday at the NovaCare facility.
For one thing, as happy to welcome McNabb back as Eagles Nation currently seems, the quarterback surely knows that if the first few drives stall Sunday against the visiting Giants, his followers will dwindle to the size of a Sixers crowd. On Louis Amundson bobblehead night.
And, too, the situation couldn't be much more desperate. A loss wouldn't officially eliminate the Eagles from postseason consideration, but it would make that elimination virtually inevitable.
"We're 5-7. It's not an individual thing for me; it's never been an individual thing," McNabb said, when asked how he views his season. "We're 5-7. I don't care if I'm leading the league in passing, QB rating, or whatever. Five-and-7. There's no exciting thing about what's going on around here. We have to win, and that's really the only thing we can think about. I don't think anybody in our locker room can afford to think about their personal stats, or what they've done."
If the decision hasn't been made already, these last four games could determine whether McNabb is the Eagles' quarterback in 2008 or whether his era is finished after 9 years.
Asked about that possibility yesterday, McNabb, 31, said: "I don't know. I've always said it, it's out of my control. But I can look forward to playing well, hopefully helping us win this game, and getting into the playoffs."
Backup A.J. Feeley led a second-half comeback to victory Nov. 18 against Miami, after McNabb was injured, then nearly fostered an upset of the unbeaten New England Patriots. Just as the fan base seemed ready to consign McNabb to history and embrace Feeley as the bridge to the future Kevin Kolb era, Feeley threw four terrible interceptions in Sunday's 28-24 home loss to Seattle, a game the Eagles should have won and badly needed to win.
"I don't have anything to prove," McNabb said. "I've proven a lot throughout my career. Now it's time for us, as a team, to win these ballgames. That's the only thing that I really have in my mind . . . For me to try to prove anything, there's nothing I can possibly do, at this particular point, besides win ballgames, for me to make people feel some type of way, or to feel better about me being in there. I don't get caught up in it, put it that way . . . I'm here to play ball, and I look forward to doing it."
If McNabb's teammates are thinking about how soon epochal change could come, they seem to be taking the same attitude toward it as McNabb, who practiced yesterday for the first time since suffering a sprained right ankle and jammed thumb against the Dolphins.
"To be honest, I really don't know. It's one of those things I don't have any control over; it's almost like the run-pass ratio," Brian Westbrook joked. "I don't call the plays, I don't have any control over it, so I try not to lose much sleep over it. I support whoever is in there, Donovan, A.J., Kevin."
Earlier, when asked what sort of welcome he thought McNabb could expect Sunday from the Lincoln Financial Field faithful, Westbrook said: "I think they'll welcome him back. Donovan has done a whole lot for this town. He's done a lot for this city, and he's done a lot for this team. He's done a lot for me personally, as well.
"I think the town will welcome him back with open arms. To be honest, even if they don't, this team welcomes him back. To him, that's more important than anything. Us in the locker room, the players he plays with every day, are very important. We have respect for him, and we have confidence in him as well. I know that when he gets back onto that field, he'll get the job done."
That last part might be the rub. When we last saw McNabb, he was limping off the Linc field 3-for-11 for 34 yards, with two interceptions and a 0.4 passer rating against Miami. That start was a huge setback in a struggling season for a QB who might have come back too quickly from last year's ACL tear. McNabb had seemed to gain some mobility and some confidence in his five previous games, including three wins, since the Giants sacked him a dozen times going into the bye week. In those games, McNabb completed 113 of 179 passes (63.1 percent), throwing for an average of 270.4 yards, with eight touchdowns and three picks.
"It's about production on the field," safety Brian Dawkins said, when asked how long he felt the warmth toward McNabb might last. Dawkins, here since 1996, is the city's longest-tenured pro athlete, and one of the few who seems to understand the place without resentment.
"That's the way this crowd has always been, and I don't see it changing any time soon," Dawkins said. "If you don't go out and produce on the field, then at some point they're going to boo, and you know that."
McNabb seems optimistic in that regard, though the Giants sacked him a team-record 12 times in the last meeting, at the Meadowlands. The Eagles played that game without left tackle William "Tra" Thomas and without Westbrook.
"I think I can pick it up from where I was," McNabb said, when asked about mobility. He said "the progression of the healing" makes him feel ready to go this week, as opposed to last week. "Getting the swelling out and the mobility back and being able to do some of the things I was able to do before I got hurt," McNabb said. He said he would not wear any sort of wrap on his hand.
When McNabb was inactive Sunday despite having worked out after practice all week, there was speculation that he could have played against the Seahawks. Eagles coach Andy Reid grew testy Monday when questioned repeatedly about the decision for McNabb to sit out.
Yesterday, McNabb seemed to say the decision to sit was made on Friday, after he was unable to take part in the final practice of the week.
"I just felt like I couldn't go on Friday. I definitely couldn't go on Friday," he said.
Reid was asked yesterday about conditions under which he would yank McNabb Sunday, with the season in the balance.
"It'd be a physical thing," Reid said. "If he can't go, then I'm not going to put him out there and have him further any injury possibility. But right now, I'm not thinking that way, I'm thinking he's going to go out and play the whole game and do a heck of a job."
McNabb answered several similar questions about reaction to his return. At one point, he addressed reporters directly.
"A lot of you have written articles to get me out of here, and I'm still here," McNabb said. "I'm interested to see . . . how you guys go, after this wonderful [news] conference." *