JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A couple summers ago, just a few weeks before the start of the 2003 season, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid was asked by a reporter to identify the player who had made the most notable progress during training camp.
Pondering the question, Reid leaned back in his office chair at the team's NovaCare training complex, and scratched his head as if to trigger some synaptic chain reaction, and then surprised the visitor with his reply.
"I would probably have to say, by far, Donovan (McNabb)," concluded Reid after only a few seconds of deliberation. "But let me add this: It's going to be the last time I'll be able to say that, because he's to the point now where it's all about fine-tuning, and there won't be any more advances like the one that we saw this summer."
So much for Reid's powers of prognostication.
Roughly 18 months after that conversation, two full seasons after Reid suggested that his star quarterback was nearing the apogee point of his professional development, McNabb is coming off a brilliant campaign. If Reid and his staff felt that McNabb had made a significant forward thrust in the sultry summer of 2003, then the 2004 season represented a veritable quantum leap for the six-year veteran.
Career bests in completion rate (64.0 percent), passing yards (3,875), touchdown passes (31), yards per attempt (8.26 yards) and passer efficiency (104.7). The second-lowest interception rate, 1.7 percent, of his career. Perhaps most notable, the fewest rushes (41) and fewest rushing yards (220) of McNabb's league tenure, and the second most passing attempts per outing (33.5).
The last numbers are notable because they essentially represent, quite literally, McNabb's rite of passage.
McNabb bristles at suggestions that, for much of his career, he has been neither polished nor accurate as a pocket passer. Notably candid and extremely glib this week, McNabb has nonetheless come here with a chip on his shoulder and that is a bit refreshing. His body language, like that of many of his teammates, strongly suggests that he has grown weary of the incessant interrogation about wide receiver Terrell Owens. It's obvious, though, that McNabb is also perturbed by the questions that seek to plumb the perceived deficiencies of the past.
Early in the week, McNabb proclaimed himself "captain of the (Eagles) ship," which led to even more reminders that, until this season, he had come up short in piloting the craft to a Super Bowl appearance.
League scouts, and the defensive coordinators who faced him over the first five seasons of his career, agree that the best strategy for beating McNabb was to force him to beat you from the pocket. Opponents were clearly effective with that scheme in past NFC championship games.
But no more.
Said one NFC coordinator: "Here's the biggest tip-off. Everyone's talking now about how the Eagles are the best 'screen' team in the league, right? And what was McNabb's biggest problem coming into this year? The guy couldn't throw the screen pass or the swing-pass with accuracy. He never got the ball to the receiver in stride, where the guy could do something with it. This year has been completely different. I mean, he didn't just improve his (passing) numbers. He shattered all of his career bests."
Indeed, his 64 percent completion rate was a full seven percentage points better than his career mark and nearly six percent better than his previous single-season best. McNabb threw for 510 more yards than he ever had before. Only twice in five seasons had McNabb posted more than 20 touchdowns, and his top season was 25 scoring tosses in 2001, before he launched 31 this season. His yards per attempt, a statistic often overlooked but one that is always scrutinized closely by offensive coordinators, was more than a yard better than his previous high.
Always a quarterback who took diligent care of the football, McNabb became the first quarterback in the modern history of the NFL to throw more than 30 touchdown passes with fewer than 10 interceptions. His percent interception rate in 2004 was just a tick below the career-best 1.66 percent mark McNabb had in 2002. During the course of his six-season career, McNabb has fewer turnovers (interceptions and lost fumbles) than any quarterback in the league.
"He has always taken great care of the ball," acknowledged Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "He just doesn't make mistakes. Never has. But somehow he makes even fewer errors now, mental and physical, and he has really taken himself to the next level. I'd love to tell you it's all coaching, right, but credit the guy for working hard to really better himself in the few areas where he needed to improve."
The easy and most convenient take on McNabb's progress this year is to assign much of the credit to the acquisition of Owens, who provided Philadelphia a legitimate deep threat and exponentially upgraded one of the NFL's most dubious wideout corps. No doubt, there is some correlation between Owens' arrival and the ascent of McNabb to a perch shared by only a few players in the league.
But those who have studied McNabb's game closely in 2004, who have broken down video and scrutinized his work on a weekly basis, insist that the level of his mechanics, motion, vision and accuracy have all been raised. And even McNabb, subtly attempting to convince the media assemblage here that it might want to credit his work ethic for at least part of the improvement, downplayed the presence of his flashy wide receiver.
"He didn't make me a better quarterback," McNabb said. "If that's the case, I made him a better wide receiver."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.