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Eagles, Rams find comfort in their passers
ST. LOUIS -- Donovan McNabb carries the perfect resume for the modern NFL quarterback: great athlete, college star at a big program, first-round pick.
For Kurt Warner, the dossier sounds more like a Hollywood creation: unknown entity from an obscure school, unwanted in the draft. And now a two-time MVP.
When they meet in today's NFC championship game, Warner and McNabb will be at the summit of their profession. Both are keys to their team's chances of winning the Super Bowl.
Of course, with the St. Louis Rams, Warner has one of the most prolific offenses in league history, featuring Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az Hakim, Ricky Proehl and Orlando Pace.
The Philadelphia Eagles have, well, McNabb. They're not complaining.
"There has to be a lot of trust in the passing game -- 'I know you and I know what you are going to do against this (defense) or that look,"' Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We're talking about a young quarterback with a bunch of young receivers."
We're also talking about a quarterback with tremendous skills. McNabb made the Pro Bowl in his second season more on athletic ability -- he was, after all, good enough to play basketball at Syracuse, too -- than presence in the pocket or savvy in tight situations. Now, he has those traits, too.
But the Eagles (13-5) really came alive offensively when McNabb began combining his poise in the pocket with his ability to escape.
"One of the things earlier, when we played McNabb, he would stand more in the pocket," Rams All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams said of the season opener, a 20-17 overtime victory for St. Louis.
"Now, if he doesn't see what he likes, he is more willing to take off and run with the ball. Not just run, but he is also looking to make plays.
"I've already seen him throw a number of balls where he was very close to the line. So he is in that gray area where, as a defensive player, you are caught between running up and tackling him and staying back to prevent the pass."
When a defender shows that indecision, McNabb has him where he wants him.
"The level of confidence is at a high right now," said the No. 2 overall choice in the quarterbacks-rich 1999 draft, a selection booed by Eagles fans who preferred Ricky Williams. Those critics have been silenced.
"We have been playing well together and we are all coming together," McNabb said. "It's an exciting feeling for us."
Warner knows the feeling well. Unlike McNabb, he had to undergo all kinds of tribulations to finally experience it.
A standout at Division I-AA Northern Iowa and the Gateway Conference's top offensive player in 1993, he had a short stay in Green Bay as an undrafted rookie.
With no chance to beat out Brett Favre, Ty Detmer or Mark Brunell, he wandered to the Arena League and NFL Europe. He even had a stint stocking shelves in a grocery store.
Dick Vermeil, then coaching the Rams, gave him a shot in 1998 as a third-stringer. When Vermeil brought in Trent Green for 1999, Warner's job description seemed clear: career backup.
The rest of Warner's uplifting story has become as familiar to pro football fans as the horn on the Rams' helmet. Green injured his knee in training camp, Vermeil turned to Warner, and the Rams took off. Warner led them to their first Super Bowl crown, taking MVP honors. Aside from a broken finger that sidelined him -- and sidetracked the team -- in 2000, he hasn't slowed.
Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, who was with St. Louis back then, knew Warner was something special right after Green went down.
"Kurt held the ball up in front of the team," Lewis recalled. "There was no hesitation in his voice. He said, 'Trent's hurt. This is my team now. I'm going to pick up right where Trent left off. We're not going to slow down a bit. We just have to stay together.'
"I thought it was incredible. Most people, in the same situation, would stand up and say, 'Hey, I'm going to do my best. I'm going to need some help.' There was none of that."
And there never has been -- from Warner or McNabb. They are stars, leaders and, despite divergent backgrounds, incredibly similar.