Score Round 1 for Eagles' McNabb

Monday, January 13, 2003

There are times when steady beats spectacular, when being a leader means doing just enough instead of trying to do it all.

"You saw Donovan do it tonight," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said at the end of a very chilly night in Philly.

Donovan McNabb vs. Michael Vick was hyped as the first real quarterbacking duel of the decade, the Role Model against the Next Model, two 20-somethings who could still be vying for NFL hardware when "Rocky IX" hits the box office.

If so, score round one for McNabb.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Philadelphia had a better defense, temperatures in the 20s to accentuate their toughness, and the Vet, that soon-to-be-leveled ballyard that looks scary even before one of the Eagles' 66,000 yowling fans passes through the turnstile.

Still, McNabb had to orchestrate it all, something that didn't figure to be easy after eight weeks on the sidelines nursing a broken ankle. Especially against a Falcons team whose confidence was growing after Vick took them on the road and beat Brett Favre at his own game -- and in his own place, no less.

But there was an important difference.

At 33, while still capable of greatness, Favre is already the quarterback of then.

At 26, McNabb is the quarterback of now.

Which makes the 22-year-old Vick, for the time being, anyway, the quarterback of ... not yet.

Reeves, the old NFL hand, is guiding Vick's development, but almost 20 years ago in Denver, he was charged with schooling another prodigy with fast feet and a rocket arm, a kid by the name of John Elway.

So when someone asked Reeves what Vick should have learned from the 20-6 whupping the Eagles put on him Saturday night, he produced a laundry list.

"You can't salvage every play, you have to be willing to lay it off. Those are things he's going to learn, where to go with the ball," Reeves said.

"We put a lot of pressure on Donovan, but he knew when to throw it away or hit the short guy, those types of things. Mike did it some, but that just comes with playing. We didn't play a lot of teams that blitzed like they did."

Defense explained why, for all their gifts, McNabb and Vick produced exactly one offensive touchdown between them. And even that was a very workmanlike effort.

Facing fourth-and-1 at the Falcons 35-yard line, McNabb sidestepped a defender and hooked up with James Thrash for 35 yards. It came with about six minutes left in the final quarter and the Eagles hanging onto a 13-6 lead.

Vick had a hand in the game's other touchdown, although he wasn't thrilled talking about it. That was a first-quarter interception that Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor returned 39 yards for a touchdown.

"I threw it off my back foot," Vick said. "I thought I could thread it in there."

The Eagles practically dared him to try. Using a multifaceted blitz, Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson sent rushers at Vick from angles a young quarterback rarely sees. The passer's seven-step drop quickly turned into nine and 10 steps, with sidesteps thrown in to avoid defenders.

The one time he tried to do too much, feather a difficult throw up the left sideline to Shawn Jefferson, the Eagles pounced. When Taylor scored, the Vet burst into a rendition of "Fly, Eagles, Fly." And when McNabb drove Philadelphia to a field goal on its next possession and a 10-0 lead, it looked as if Vick and the Falcons would shrivel up in the cold.

The opposite turned out to be true.

McNabb once hosted Vick during a college recruiting visit at Syracuse and they've remained close friends. Vick chose Virginia Tech, in part because he didn't want to compete against the legacy McNabb was building at Syracuse. But he had no problem trying to beat him on this night.

Showing the same composure he had at Green Bay a week earlier, Vick converted four third downs on Atlanta's final two possessions of the first half to produce a pair of field goals.

That brought the Falcons within 13-6 at intermission. He mounted one final scare by scooting 20 yards up the middle for an apparent tying touchdown late in the third quarter, only to have it disallowed by a holding call.

Soon after, though, McNabb's patient management of the Eagles' offense paid off with the touchdown throw to Thrash, completing a lesson in how grit sometimes works better than flash.

Eagles All-Pro defender Hugh Douglas became a fan of McNabb's after chasing him in practice for several years. He saw the same qualities chasing Vick for one night.

"They're going to win a championship with him back there," Douglas said, "no doubt."

Just not this one.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: