Donovan McNabb was, and continues to be, a very polarizing star.
McNabb began his career with a barrage of boos from rabid Philly fans on draft night after being taken with the second pick in 1999. He was met with such negativity despite coming off of an exceptional dual-sport college career at Syracuse.
Despite the harsh treatment from the Philadelphia sports world, McNabb would prove himself worthy of his draft position. As a Philadelphia Eagle, he would be selected to six pro bowls, reach four conference championship games, and one Super Bowl appearance.
McNabb elevated an often subpar supporting cast to the dominance of their division for the better part of a decade. He saw outstanding success in a time when black quarterbacks were still a relative rarity. While his stats may not jump off the page as much as today’s stars like Patrick Mahomes, he did reach his peak in the era just before pass defense essentially became illegal and quarterback stats absolutely exploded. That must be kept in mind whenever comparing statistics for quarterbacks of different decades.
So, with this resume and as one of the top stars of his era, is Donovan McNabb ever going to earn his place in the Hall of Fame? He certainly believes so. So do I.
However, he is not a lock. There are several arguments to the contrary. To truly take stock of his Hall of Fame credentials, it is worth taking a look at both sides of the coin.
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments against McNabb getting in first:
Regardless of your sport, failing to win it all will forever leave a shadow hanging over even an otherwise impressive career. All-time greats of their games like Karl Malone and Dan Marino, despite their incredible personal achievements, are always categorized as the “best players not to win a ring.” Donovan McNabb belongs in this category of unfortunate overachievers.
The greatest “what if” of Donovan McNabb’s career has to be what he would have accomplished if he had consistently had great (or even above average) receivers to throw to. He played with Terrell Owens for essentially a year and a half and reached his one and only Super Bowl during that time. For the rest of his career, he was left chucking it to an often anonymous cast of pass catchers that featured James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, and Freddie Mitchell.
The Numbers Against him
As noted, when compared to some of the insane numbers being put up by quarterbacks in today’s game (Jameis Winston putting up over 5,100 yards, Patrick Mahomes throwing 50 touchdowns in his second season, Kirk Cousins throwing 70%+ percent accuracy), McNabb’s statistics during his career may not exactly jump off the page. Also, despite his success, he was never selected First-Team All-Pro.
McNabb never threw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. He has a career completion percentage of less than 60%. He only exceeded 30 passing touchdowns in a season one time (even Ryan Fitzpatrick has achieved that milestone). By 2020 standards, those look like mediocre starting QB stats. His numbers in the playoffs are right on par, but with a worse interception ratio of just 24 to 17.
Fine numbers overall, but questionable when examining them through a Hall of Fame lens.
As previously noted, McNabb was a polarizing player. While he was extremely popular, he also drew a lot of criticism.
His career will forever be marred by several unfortunate public meltdowns. These included his ongoing feud with Terrell Owens that broke up what could have been a dominant pairing, getting sick (whether due to nerves, a hangover, or both) during the Super Bowl, and the disinterest he seemed to show in his last days with the Minnesota Vikings. It is safe to say such issues stick in the minds of Hall of Fame voters.
Now that we have examined the evidence against his place in the hall, let’s take a look at the reasons he deserves strong consideration for a place in the hall.
McNabb led the Eagles to 5 division championships in a six-season span from 2001 to 2006. He led them to 4 NFC Championship games, including three straight from 2001 to 2004. The fourth came in 2008.
The 2004 appearance was McNabb’s sole NFC Championship game victory, which led directly to his first and only Super Bowl appearance, a heartbreaking 24 to 21 loss to Tom Brady and his Patriots. While he never reached the promised land, McNabb had the Eagles right in the thick of championship contention for a decade. This level of consistency and dominance is exactly what is expected for Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Had he been able to keep his lunch down and defeat the Patriots in the 2005 Superbowl, would this even be a debate? With a championship ring on his finger, it seems clear that McNabb is a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame just as Kurt Warner was a year ago.
Despite his lack of championship success, it is fair to say that a decade of consistent contention is a strong enough resume builder to get McNabb in the door.
The Stats in his Favor
While it may not seem like that long ago, it must be stressed how different the game of professional football was played in the ’90s and early 2000s. Therefore his statistics must be observed through that lens.
Despite the reputation for occasional inaccuracy and errant throws (with a 59% career completion percentage), McNabb rarely turned the ball over. He has a two-to-one touchdown to interception ratio with 234 touchdowns to 117 picks during his 13-year career. That is an average of just 9 interceptions per season for his career, which is outstanding.
With a record of 98-62-1 in the regular season, McNabb has an excellent winning percentage of 61% for his career. This is a testament to his consistency and dominance. Disregarding his final years in Washington and Minnesota, he finished his Philly career with a 65% winning percentage.
While he was never able to quite bring this consistency late in the playoffs, he still compiled a winning record in the playoffs as well at 9-7.
Let’s forget how amazingly athletic the former dual-sport collegiate athlete was, particularly early in his career. He compiled a 629-yard, six-touchdown rushing season in his sophomore year. This was a year in which he finished second in MVP voting to Marshall Faulk.
He would finish his career with nearly 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground to go along with his 37,276 yards and 234 touchdowns through the air. Undoubtedly Hall of Fame-worthy.
His Impact on the Game and a Generation of Quarterbacks
Even in today’s game, people of color playing the quarterback position face barriers that their white peers will never face. Black quarterbacks are put under a microscope for their play and their off-field behavior that white quarterbacks do not and have never faced.
McNabb would overcome adversity and become a true legend in Philadelphia while joining a class of elite black quarterbacks who paved the way for increasing diversity in the position in today’s game.
While he wasn’t the first dual-threat quarterback, as the ’90s had brought us Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, and others, he still played with a level of athleticism and improvisation that was a rarity during his time. McNabb’s unique skill set has become a highly sought-after trait in today’s game.
McNabb’s impact on the Eagles, the NFL, and the city of Philadelphia is worth remembering and considering when examining his Hall of Fame credentials.
Doing More With Less
As mentioned, McNabb had just one above-average wide receiver to throw to during his career in Philadelphia. He had this advantage for less than two years.
He and Terrell Owens reached a Super Bowl together after McNabb threw 31 touchdowns to just eight picks in the regular season. They came within three points and a lingering Owens injury from defeating a dynastic Patriots team. For the rest of his NFC Championships, Pro Bowl seasons, and Division Titles, he often had the likes of James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, and Brian Westbrook out of the backfield as his top targets.
Not unlike what Tom Brady faced in his latest years in New England, it doesn’t matter how great a quarterback is when he has no viable targets to distribute the ball to.
A primary reason for Kurt Warner’s place in the Hall of Fame is his monumental success during the seasons he had Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Marshall Faulk in St. Louis and then Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Put McNabb with the “Greatest Show on Turf” for a couple of seasons and he very likely wins multiple Super Bowls. Unfortunately, that is all hypothetical.
Donovan McNabb was one of the biggest stars and best quarterbacks of his era. He helped usher in future generations of athletic, mobile quarterbacks.
He owned the NFC East for the better part of a decade and kept the Philadelphia Eagles perpetually in championship contention during this time. His statistics are exceptional and his impact on the game, the league, and the city of Philadelphia are undeniable.
For all of these reasons, Donovan McNabb deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I believe he will get there.