In 30 Years, Philly Will Still Be Arguing About Donovan McNabb

It's fitting that the former Eagles QB retires where fans will forever debate whether to boo or cheer him.

It was the central, existential question of Philadelphia sports fandom for a decade: “Is Donovan McNabb a great player, or is he a fraud?”

From the Eagles’ selection of McNabb in the 1999 draft to his departure after the 2009 season, virtually all Philadelphia sports discussion ran through that question, one that functioned something like a miniature culture war. One of the notes I found false in Silver Linings Playbook, in fact, was that the most-argued-about Eagle among the characters was not McNabb but DeSean Jackson.

With the news that McNabb will formally retire as an Eagle this fall, likely in a halftime ceremony on the same weekend Andy Reid returns to town as coach of the Chiefs, we’ll get to re-litigate the McNabb Era all over again. But really, we’ve never stopped, even though this December, incredibly, it will be four years since McNabb’s last snap with the team. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son, who runs around the house in an Eagles helmet and can throw a football with stunning accuracy, and he was 10 days away from being born the last time Donovan played for the Eagles.

I assumed for a long time that once McNabb was out of football, a consensus would emerge: He was a very good quarterback, one of the best in the league for many years, although not quite on the elite level, and his decline was swift and steep. He broke just about every meaningful passing record for the Eagles, and had some postseason heroics, but never succeeded in delivering a Super Bowl win.

McNabb never got in any trouble with the law, was never part of any embarrassing off-the-field scandal, and—sideline facial expressions aside—he generally represented the Eagles organization honorably. But he didn’t always say the right thing; he had kind of an aloof, standoffish and awkward personality; and most agree that he didn’t have the type of demeanor that a Philadelphia athlete should have. And, he didn’t know there were ties in the NFL.

But no such consensus seems to have taken hold. The people who liked McNabb all along still defend him, and those who booed him … well, they’re ready to boo him again. There’s something about the guy that just makes people want to divide into their tribes and throw down. Much like a certain other prominent individual who emerged from the South Side of Chicago, is loved by some and hated by others, has been accused of being aloof, and been lambasted in the past for both “playing the race card” and being “not black enough.”

Even in 2013, every host on either local sports radio station knows that if it’s a slow night and there’s nothing going on with the local teams, he can throw out questions like “McNabb: Hall of Famer or not?,” and guarantee four hours of full phone lines. At least once, you’ll hear that McNabb—who we’re still mad at for losing the Super Bowl nine years ago—is “still holding a grudge” about being booed at the draft, 14 years ago.

And it’s not like the retirement will bring the McNabb debate to an end or anything. In 30 years, I feel like we’ll still be having these arguments, about whether or not McNabb threw up in the Super Bowl, or whether the Eagles could’ve clinched a dynasty if only they’d met T.O.’s contract demands. Bernard Hopkins, when he’s 70 years old, will probably still give an annual interview where he bashes Donovan as an insufficiently authentic loser (he’ll probably still be an active boxer then, too.)

So boo or cheer Donovan’s return? If I’m at the game, I’ll be cheering. McNabb, for all his faults, is pretty unquestionably the best quarterback in the history of the franchise, and was the most important player during one of the team’s most sustained runs of success. And besides, it’s a one-day retirement ceremony. He isn’t being named the new coach or anything.