By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

He came to the game dressed in black. Not funeral black, not Eldridge Cleaver or Johnny Cash black, not evil black. Brim tilted, glasses, toes squared and shined. He came in like Neo. Like he was The One.

Donovan McNabb
Greg Trott/
Donovan McNabb, the man in black ... and green.

Everything has changed. The braids are gone, along with the drama. Injuries and excuses evaporated. The sideburns that run down his face, linear; the fade crisp as iceberg lettuce. The black cloud is no longer destroying the team. This ain't last season.

But once Donovan McNabb stepped on the field to face a team that was an afterthought last season -- just like his -- last season came back. From the opening kickoff, it was like his MVP season stayed in Philly, stayed on the bus outside the Superdome -- like it made its point in the Dallas game.

McNabb was sacked twice. He threw his first interception since the season's opening quarter when his Hail Mary pass was picked off right before halftime. His Eagles were down by 14 at the half. His command of the No. 1 offense in the league, the unit that is third in the NFL in points per game behind only the Bears and Chargers, had generated only three points. It was last season all over again.

But then, in the third quarter, he returned. He returned to being the Donovan McNabb whose play through the first five games had writers on "Around the Horn" last week acknowledging him as the best quarterback in the game -- better than Peyton Manning.

He completed 10-of-12 for 169 yards and two TDs in the third quarter. He put his team back in the game, on his back. The smile returned to his face on the sideline. But then the smile left. And as Donovan McNabb sat there on the bench for the last eight and a half minutes, watching the game against New Orleans slip away -- partially because of a poorly called final timeout with 2:22 left allowed the Saints to run out the clock (which was partially his fault because of two earlier ill-advised timeouts he had called) -- you had to wonder why the Superman impression he had been doing all season suddenly disappeared in the Saints' 27-24 victory.

Why didn't he come back and save this day? Of all days? The "after the fact" game, the game to shut up those who might say McNabb played so well to open the season only because he had something personal to prove in those first five games.

McNabb needed this game to stop that conversation before it started.

But now it's too late. Even if the Eagles had come back and won, the question would have been lingering. And because of the way McNabb outplayed Brett Favre two weeks ago, and because of the way he made damn sure his team did not lose to Terrell Owens' Cowboys last week, the fact that he got outplayed by Drew Brees -- a QB who shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as him -- gave the question life.

Donovan McNabb
Al Messerschmidt/
One bad loss, and McNabb feels the heat again.

And this is when the skepticism about Donovan McNabb will begin to take its toll and affect him for the rest of the season. Easily the most unfairly scrutinized player in the NFL over the past half-decade, McNabb now has to worry that people -- Eagles fans in particular -- will worry, analyze and pick apart every little step he takes, to the degree that he might start calling himself Bobby Brown. They will wonder, in the backs of their minds, whether what they saw before the New Orleans game was the truth, or what they saw in the Saints game is going to be how the rest of their season plays out.

The emotion he had pent up inside since T.O. first called him out after the Super Bowl loss will now be held against him as evidence. To many it will seem like the motivating factor to get him to this point. They -- the McNabb lovers and haters -- will concede that his drive will now go into cruise control because he's proven the point he wanted to make, that he is a better quarterback than Favre and that his team can win without Owens. This game, this loss, will generate the thought that in Donovan McNabb's mind, right now, nothing else even matters.

And all of that will be untrue. But not unarguable. Will anyone take into consideration the fact McNabb spent the day before the New Orleans game getting a tour of the city with the president of Xavier University, and the effect that seeing the city outside of the French Quarter can have on you, even after you give $100,000 to two universities devastated by Katrina? Or will anyone take into consideration that ever since coach Andy Reid took over this team, the Eagles' record is 5-6 in games immediately after they've played the Cowboys?

No sir. Most will point out that even in a game in which McNabb's line was respectable (19-of-32, 247 yards, two TDs, one INT), his line was twisted because 89 of those yards came on runs after catches by L.J. Smith (29 yards on one) and Reggie Brown (60 yards on the other). They'll say the fact that he didn't panic in the fourth quarter was a sign of him not showing the passion needed to win, to be the team that went to four consecutive NFC championship games.

They'll say, "It's just like last season."

And they might be right.

So which Donovan McNabb will they -- we -- see for the rest of the season? The one who had the MVP on lock coming into this game -- 11 end zones, one wrong jersey, a passer rating of 107.2? The one playing like a man possessed, like he had something to prove to the world? Or the one whose passer rating outside of the third quarter yesterday was 35.0, a rating that could get ESPN analyst Sean Salisbury called out of retirement?

The one who comes to practice Wednesday, when he slides that red mesh jersey over his head to begin preparation for the next most important game of his career, has to decide which Donovan McNabb is going to be taking the snaps -- Games 1-5 Donovan, or the new anti-hero that emerged Sunday?

Donovan McNabb
Joseph Labolito/
McNabb was rolling earlier this season -- now can he, and the Eagles, bounce back?

And yet, he has a week to control not only the destiny of his team but also his very own future. McNabb has until Sunday against the Bucs to prove that the New Orleans game was a fluke, that Rex Grossman is not the new front-runner for MVP, that Peyton is no longer the best QB in the business. That the build up, the emotion, the win over Dallas, did have an effect on him, and that a letdown is inevitable and only human.

That God may have a different plan for the New Orleans Saints that he might not be able to outplay.

Which forces McNabb to go through the rest of this season trying to confirm that those first five games had nothing to do with anything, that he's so "bigger picture" than that. That he shall not be judged by us on one game, and that every game for the rest of this season is a "statement game," his statement game -- not just the ones secretly circled on his calender.

But if he doesn't do this, the Eagles can kiss another season goodbye. Just like last season.

So who's going to be cold as ice? Who's going to walk the line? Who's the man in black going to be, the one from last season or The One?

We all have one week before we find out. So does Donovan McNabb.

Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He appears regularly on "Quite Frankly" and other ESPN shows. He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.