Why Donovan McNabb Had a Better Super Bowl Than You Thought

This article first appeared in The Philadelphia Eagles Playbook by Reuben Frank and Mark Eckel (Triumph Books, 2015).

In the summer of 2005, five months after the Eagles lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX, NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira visited Eagles training camp at Lehigh University. The Eagles were waiting.

They believed the Patriots had gotten away with countless cheap shots on quarterback Donovan McNabb in their 24-21 win over the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and now they had the video to prove it.

"At first, he didn't take us seriously," recalled John Harbaugh, then the Eagles' special teams coach and now head coach of the Ravens. "Then we showed him the tape and he could not believe the shots Donovan took out of bounds and late in that game. 

"Their whole thing was to hit Donovan and hurt him, and that's fine, but it was the officials' job to protect him, and they didn't. Imagine if Tom Brady got hit late that many times? Tell me they wouldn't call those penalties. When you watch that game, and you see the shots Donovan took, it's incredible what he was able to do."

So while many fans have focused on McNabb gasping for air and appearing to throw up in the final moments of the Super Bowl, the reality is that a moment early, All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour demolished McNabb with a devastating hit that many quarterbacks would not have gotten up from.

"He got shellacked," said Andy Reid, then the Eagles' head coach and now head coach of the Chiefs.

Millions of fans saw McNabb doubled over in pain, desperately seeking to get the ball snapped before the play clock expired. They had no idea why.

"People always focus on me supposedly throwing up," McNabb said years later. "Richard Seymour got me pretty good. I got hit in the face and my helmet went backwards and I had stuff in my face. I'm trying to catch my breath and get my vision back. People make it out like I was tired. I just got killed.

"Nobody focuses on the plays we made, they just talked about, 'Oh, he choked in the Super Bowl.'"

Although McNabb passed for three touchdowns and over 350 yards against the Patriots - only Kurt Warner has also done that in a Super Bowl - he's remembered more for puking in the final minutes than throwing a brilliant touchdown pass to Greg Lewis that made it a three-point game. McNabb also threw three interceptions, although one came with five seconds left and the Eagles inside their own 10-yard line.

"First play of the game, he scrambled left and got hit pretty good out of bounds - it should have been a late hit, but they didn't call it," said Brad Childress, who spent the last five years with Reid in Kansas City and was then the Eagles' offensive coordinator. "That's never a good sign when your quarterback is getting hit like that on the first play of the game. He got hit a lot, but he continued to hang in there and compete."

Those hits took a brutal toll.

"Donovan got battered," Lewis said. "I know he was hurting at the end of the game. But in the huddle, he was his normal self. He was just like regular Donovan, running around and trying to make plays."

Whether he threw up or not, McNabb did complete 8 of 10 passes for 79 years on a critical fourth-quarter touchdown drive in the final minutes of a Super Bowl. And with 1:55 left in the game and the Patriots leading 24-14, he connected with Lewis on a spectacular 30-yard touchdown pass that brought the Eagles within three points. It may have been the finest pass of his career.

"Donovan took a beating in that game, but he hung in there, hung in there, hung in there," guard Artis Hicks said. "And eventually he came up with a big play when we really needed one."

Moments later, after an unsuccessful onsides kick, McNabb's only Super Bowl appearance was over, and the Patriots had won their third Lombardi Trophy in four years.

McNabb has taken grief for that performance for 13 years, and many fans still look back at McNabb's Eagles career as a failure, despite nine playoff wins, five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance.

"If we as a team had won just one championship, they would have given Donovan the keys to the city," tight end Chad Lewis said. "If we had won two, he's in Canton. But when we lost those games, there was so much disappointment and frustration, because the fans wanted it so bad that Donovan became the scapegoat."

The Eagles traded McNabb to the Redskins after the 2009 season and after two years in Washington, he finished his career with the Vikings in 2011.

On Sunday, the Eagles will be back in the Super Bowl, facing those same Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium, built on the site of the Metrodome, where McNabb finished his career.

This is a good a time as any to revisit and reevaluate McNabb's performance in the Super Bowl. 

"I understand you have struggles in this business at the quarterback position, nobody is immune to it," said Warner, who beat the Eagles in two NFC Championship Games for two different teams. 

"But the crazy thing is, how many people have doubted him? To his credit, he stood up with character every time. He's battled through it. He came back every single time and proved everyone wrong. I just hope, at some point, they start giving him the credit he deserves."

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