WE MIGHT NEVER know what Donovan McNabb really was thinking in those first moments after he got the cell-phone call from his brother-in-law, McNabb out with his wife and daughter at an ice-cream shop, where he learned the Eagles had just drafted his presumed successor.
By yesterday, though, 10 days later, McNabb was ready to treat the surprise selection of Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb with the team's first draft choice the way he has treated all the other various controversies that have swirled around the Eagles during his 8-year tenure. He acknowledged the changed landscape, noted there was nothing he could do about it, and set about the business of minimizing and moving on.
"I was shocked just like all the rest of the people were," McNabb said. "It was kind of shocking, to the point where you're wondering, 'Was that really our first pick, did we take a quarterback?' But it was nothing that bothered me to the point where I had to get on the phone and call [coach Andy Reid] . . . My phone started vibrating, I got text messages from everybody - friends, teammates, people from other teams. I wasn't in front of the television, so I didn't have any answers."
McNabb, 30, who is coming off ACL surgery, said that sometime after that initial flurry he realized he had a voice message from Reid saying "that it has nothing to do with me, he was the best available player on the board at that time, and you just be you, just keep rehabbin' and get yourself healthy to lead this team to the Super Bowl."
McNabb said he did not think Reid was looking for any sort of dialogue, which was why they went 3 days before discussing what the team had done.
"That was the voice mail that I got. It wasn't a 'Call me back.' It wasn't a 'Tell me how you feel.' Or 'What should we do?' It was just a 'Hey, this is what we did' . . . It wasn't like he could have changed that pick after we picked him,'' McNabb said. "Once I got that message, it was like, 'Hey, all right, we drafted a quarterback. Let's move on, let's see what else we get.' "
But McNabb's reassuring words yesterday were at odds with his surroundings. McNabb, wearing a beard that made him look like a cross between Abraham Lincoln and an Amish farmer, gave a series of one-on-one interviews to Comcast SportsNet, the Daily News and the Inquirer at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J. McNabb later was interviewed by phone on WIP radio. The interviews were arranged by McNabb's new publicist, former Eagles publicist Rich Burg, who handled media requests involving McNabb for the team until Burg was dismissed last month. The Eagles had no role in the interviews, weren't told about them in advance, and were none too happy to have to spend time yesterday afternoon fielding phone calls from media outlets outraged at having been excluded.
"It's an awkward situation, I know it," said Burg, who said he felt having McNabb available to select outlets yesterday would help publicize McNabb's upcoming charity golf tournament. McNabb more or less agreed that he felt more comfortable speaking his mind outside the confines of NovaCare.
In some subtle, undefinable way, this was not the McNabb that disaffected Eagles such as Freddie Mitchell and Terrell Owens derided as an "organization man." This McNabb did not seem at all joined at the hip to Reid, particularly during the subsequent phone-in interview with WIP's Howard Eskin, during which McNabb questioned Eskin about how word got out of McNabb's sitdown with Reid at NovaCare a week earlier. Eskin is perceived to enjoy a close relationship with the coach. McNabb's clear implication was that the organization, or maybe even Reid himself, leaked news of the meeting.
Earlier, McNabb took a similar tone in speaking with the Daily News about some recent speculation concerning the Eagles' motives for drafting Kolb. One theory is that talks toward a reworked contract with McNabb last fall, before the ACL injury, did not go well, and that the Eagles, as they often do, have gone out and insured themselves against any future rift - the way Ryan Moats arrived in the 2005 draft at the same time the Eagles were having a hard time getting a deal done with Brian Westbrook.
McNabb, who is signed through 2010 to what is no longer a state-of-the-art contract, having been negotiated in 2002, said he hadn't thought about Kolb as a bargaining chip, but he had thought about how several reporters now know about last year's unpublicized contract talks. "That's funny, how that got out," he said. Again, McNabb's implication was clear.
Asked if he really was unconcerned about having Kolb on hand, if he really thought Kolb was just going to sit for 4 or 5 years until McNabb is clearly in the twilight, McNabb joked, "If it's up to me, he will. Let's be honest, you don't ever want to just give your job up."
McNabb said he had heard that the Eagles liked Kolb, and "I knew we were going to draft a quarterback," something he asserted in an ESPN radio interview in March. But he didn't think a QB would be the first priority. You can certainly infer that McNabb was hoping for something that might help him take the Birds to the Super Bowl this season.
"That was part of the 'shocking' deal, was that you'd think you would get somebody that would help you right now. It's nothing to do with Kevin Kolb," McNabb said.
Now, though, McNabb's message is this: "My job is to get myself healthy and get ready to go." He was careful to praise Reid's drafting prowess.
McNabb, who said he plans to be ready for the start of training camp July 27, said he would "treat professionally" his role with Kolb, whose name he said he mispronounced in his initial discussion with Reid. (McNabb said "Kolb" and Reid explained it was "Cobb." McNabb said he then decided that to be safe, he would address the new guy as "Kevin.")
"I'll speak with him, work with him, give him confidence, motivate him," McNabb said. Told that Kolb's father said McNabb was one of Kolb's idols, McNabb said: "Now I really feel old. I'm only 30, now. But it's a situation that we can't control. We all work together in the [quarterback] room. When Jeff [Garcia] was here, we all worked together. We all push each other in training camp, minicamps, we push each other during the year."
McNabb reiterated what he said during Super Bowl week, down in Miami, after a similar logjam of speculation grew around his unavailability to speak about the Eagles' playoff run behind Garcia. That time, the team canceled a scheduled McNabb news conference the week after the season ended, but the Eagles were involved when he eventually spoke. Yesterday, they had no say - although Eagles sources said the team asked McNabb if he would speak to the media Friday, at the start of minicamp. The sources said McNabb declined that opportunity.
"I felt it was kind of in my best interest to get this done now. Now, they can focus in on minicamp, I can focus on my rehab more, and then just let it go," McNabb said.
The frustrating thing for reporters is that McNabb tends to wait until speculation is running wild and news outlets are contacting his parents for comment before he steps in. Yesterday, as at the Super Bowl, McNabb's delayed remarks were less than controversial.
McNabb's view is that whatever he says will be sensationalized and mined for controversy, whenever he says it. In this instance, he said, he didn't think he had anything particularly valuable to add.
"What, really, can I say?" he asked. "How do I feel about the pick? I was shocked, but I knew we were going to draft a quarterback. What does that mean for [me]? I don't know. I'm just going to focus on my job and get ready to play."
Some critics have found fault with his parents, Sam and Wilma McNabb, being willing to speak out.
"If you ask anybody's parents a question, they're going to answer it . . . And then you hear that they're my spokesmen. My dad's a grown man, 50-plus years old. My mom, she can handle herself, too . . . [the idea that he would speak through his parents] just doesn't make sense to me," McNabb said. "I have access to talk to all you guys. I just felt like when the time comes to speak, I'll do that."
Just as Sam and Wilma talk because reporters ask them to, McNabb said, the same thing applies to what some people feel are his too-frequent references to fans booing him at the 1999 draft. "When people want to talk about the draft way back in '99, the only reason I [talk about it] is that the question is asked," he said. "I don't like to talk about it, just like people don't like to hear about it. I'm tired of talking about it, just like everyone else is."
But maybe like Kevin Kolb, the 1999 draft is lurking in the background, a thread dangling loose from the McNabb-Eagles tapestry, always waiting to be pulled.
"When people talk about anything that's happened over the previous years, you just want to move on," McNabb said. "You want to focus on what's next. What's next for me? Come back healthy, ready to go . . . My drive is to get out there and lead us to the Super Bowl." *