NEW ORLEANS - Whatever Andy Reid is really thinking, Donovan McNabb made it easier for him today.

If the master plan is to ease Kevin Kolb into the starting lineup in 2008, then McNabb moved and threw like the kind of franchise quarterback who will command a steep price in trade.

If, as Reid has said publicly (and as this observer believes is the only sane course), McNabb will be back, then Eagles fans now have reason to believe he can be the quarterback who won all those games and made all those trips to the playoffs from 2000 to 2004.

McNabb was that guy in a 38-23 victory that eliminated the New Orleans Saints from playoff contention. Even when you acknowledge all the qualifiers - the Saints had a bunch of injuries, the pressure was essentially off the Eagles - McNabb's 263-yard, three-touchdown, zero-interception performance was everything you need from a star quarterback.

He was mobile. He was accurate. He was decisive. He got the ball to his wide receivers as they came open.

When it was over, McNabb seemed too tired of all the speculation and controversy to engage in another round of self defense. He spoke with more clarity than he often does in these public forums.

"When we get into a rhythm, when you can look in the eyes of the guys in the huddle and see the confidence, that's what we need to [succeed]," McNabb said.

On a day when it was there, the obvious question is where it went for stretches of this season.

"That's kind of a question we've all been asking ourselves," McNabb said. "We see each other in practice every day; guys are working hard, spending extra time watching film. To come out and not be able to execute the way we're used to is frustrating. To come out today and play the way we've been playing, we have to feed off of that. We need to have more games like that and I think we can do that."

McNabb declined to use his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery as an excuse for his - and therefore his team's - inconsistent performance.

"That's part of it," he said. "But no, it's not [the main reason]. To be healthy and be able to be competitive, it helps."

With one week left in a mystifying season, it looks more and more like the knee was at the root of McNabb's struggles. Just as it began to feel normal to him, he sprained his ankle and missed 21/2 games. The last two weeks, he has moved like the McNabb who confounds defensive coordinators, not the McNabb who confounds Eagles fans.

"A lot of people have asked a lot of questions about Donovan," running back Brian Westbrook said. "I've been through an ACL [reconstruction]. I know the process and I've said it all along: It will take a full year for him to recover. It's been a year and a few weeks and he's almost all the way back. He's getting back, rounding back into his old self."

This goes beyond just running, although McNabb has looked explosive the last couple OF weeks. It covers everything from moving around in the pocket to sprinting out and setting up outside of it - something the Eagles did more today than they have all season - to smooth passing mechanics.

The knee bone, in this case, seems directly connected to the confidence bone. You wonder if what McNabb sees in his teammates' eyes has been a reflection of what they see in his.

Factor in another nine months of healing time and it seems clear that McNabb will be a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in 2008. It seems obvious that should be in Philadelphia. Add a difference-making wide receiver and a reliable tight end and the Eagles can be right back in the playoffs next year.

McNabb hinted about that last week, and he took pains to clarify those remarks after the game.

"I didn't say that in a negative way," McNabb said. "Every year, you try to look to get better, to add more weapons to both sides of the ball and special teams. You do whatever it may be to improve your team. It's not a slight of any of our players, but it's: How can we improve? We can improve in a lot of ways. I look at myself first."

The knee-jerk reaction when the Eagles drafted Kolb was that they started the clock ticking on McNabb's tenure here. The second take was that McNabb's play would dictate how this played out. What we've learned is that it was unrealistic to expect McNabb to be 100 percent this season.

In Kolb, the Eagles hope they have a bona fide franchise quarterback.

In McNabb, they know they do.

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