LEHIGH, Pa. -- On the first morning of training camp on the dewy South Mountain of Lehigh University, Donovan McNabb came out early, ahead of many of the rookies required to be there. He was by himself, walking deliberately with a shiny new black brace on his surgically repaired right knee.
Then, on the good knee, McNabb knelt and bowed his head, pressing his helmet against the moist dark green grass. He stayed there, pausing perhaps to contemplate his fate, perhaps to thank his God for helping him find his way through a crippling injury and into another NFL season.
It was a moment soaked with unmistakable symbolism. In the ninth year of his career, McNabb is entering his first training camp with his potential replacement on the roster, and for the first time, his fate is not entirely in his own hands.
He has been booed by his own fans on draft day. Survived Rush Limbaugh's misguided rant. Been on the losing end of three straight NFC championship games, been accused of losing steam in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. And had a national catfight with Terrell Owens.
But this is different. The organization that has stood by him, even as McNabb has played in just 19 of the team's last 32 games, decided to create enough doubt about their future together that it drafted quarterback Kevin Kolb of Houston with its first pick in the draft, calling him a franchise-type quarterback.
Thus, from Manayunk to Margate, there is equivocation about McNabb. He no longer is viewed as Theseus, a savior capable of great feats in a pinch. Indeed, McNabb has become a poster child for Philly sports angst. And that is beginning to sink in.
"It's the NFL -- 'Not For Long,'" McNabb said. "Everybody wants to get young, but I'm just older. I'm not old. I'm just older. Thirty is still young. I'm still dancing with the young kids. I don't look at it as though he's taking my job. So, it's not really a motivational factor for me to look over my shoulder. I prepare to go out so that we can win a Super Bowl. Now, whatever happens after this year, next year or whenever it is, it's really out of my control."
That last sentence is telling. No reporter asked McNabb about "next year." He brought it up on his own. This year, McNabb makes $5.5 million. Next year, his pay shoots up to $6.3 million. If he has a down season or gets injured again, that will be a daunting amount for the Eagles to invest in an over-30 quarterback who can't stay on the field, especially now that Kolb is waiting in the wings.
When asked to clarify that comment, McNabb joked that he's "not moving to receiver" and that he plans to play quarterback in Philadelphia "for years to come."
McNabb has had three months to absorb the shock of the team's drafting his replacement. And although he vehemently denies it, all evidence to the contrary suggests that this episode has motivated him like no other. This weekend, his actions and words gave away his emotions -- and what they might mean for one of the league's top performers, and a team that was just three points shy of the NFC Championship Game last season.
After practice, coach Andy Reid was pulled aside and asked how he and his quarterback are getting along after the initial strain of the surprise Kolb pick.
"Oh, we're fine," Reid insisted. "Donovan understands it's not about him. You do that with any position."
Both McNabb and Reid understand the business -- any signs of friction or uncertainty would reduce McNabb's ability to move elsewhere if it came to that. But look carefully and you can find subtle signs that the organization and the franchise quarterback don't have identical agendas.
A month ago, it was McNabb -- not Reid -- who pushed to get on the field about a month early, taking reps during minicamp. It is McNabb's idea to wear the brace.
"Just trying to be protective of the injury," McNabb said. "I can go on without it. But if I feel the best thing is to move on with this thing, then I'll continue to wear it."
That was Saturday. The day before, Reid had this to say about the brace: "I think once the season kicks off, he'll probably get rid of that and move on."
By the way, for the first time in anybody's memory at Eagles training camp, McNabb is taking snaps from the shotgun. A way to relieve him of constantly dropping back and planting on his rehabbing knee? Or a way to usher in Kolb, who took more than half his snaps in college from the shotgun?
Reid is not trying to indelicately prod McNabb to take more risks. Just the opposite. Case in point was when the rains came Sunday in Lehigh, forcing the Eagles to practice indoors. McNabb was left behind in the training room to rehab and work on conditioning. The reason: "This [indoor] surface here has a tendency to get a little slick, and I didn't want to take any chances," Reid said.
Wow. That tells you just how cautious Reid wants to be, and just how far McNabb must go before the coach has enough confidence in that right knee. McNabb says his knee is 75 percent, but who knows?
That's why when McNabb said he will be ready to start the second preseason game Aug. 17, there is organizational grumbling. That's the head coach's call. And Reid has put out the word: No risks. McNabb must be healthy for the opener in Green Bay on Sept. 9.
But the Eagles have a backup plan, and a good one. McNabb is fully cognizant of that. He remembers that his current backup, A.J. Feeley, who is 30, did a more-than-adequate job filling in when McNabb went down with an ankle injury in 2002. Feeley was 4-1 as a starter and guided the team into the playoffs. McNabb returned, only to lose in the NFC Championship Game. Feeley was signed to an extension before Kolb was drafted and is a fan favorite in Philadelphia. And there is still a hangover in town about the Eagles' decision not to re-sign Garcia, who salvaged the 2006 season.
"A.J. will get a lot of reps in this camp, but I'm not coming into it thinking that Donovan is going to get hurt this season," Reid said. "That's not what I'm looking at. I'm looking at Donovan having a great season. Like I said before, he was on an MVP pace last year. I expect him to pick that up and go right through the season that way and stay healthy the whole season."
That oft-repeated, seldom analyzed conventional wisdom about McNabb's being on an "MVP pace" last season needs a reality check. Yes, before he was injured on Nov. 19, he had 18 touchdown passes and just six interceptions with a quarterback rating of 95.5.
But the Eagles lost four of his last five starts, beating only the lowly Redskins in Philadelphia (and in that game, McNabb completed just 46 percent of his passes). He lost in New Orleans, threw three picks in a loss to the awful Bucs in Tampa, couldn't get in the end zone at home against the Jaguars and exited the game against Tennessee with a quarterback rating of 33.5.
It's no wonder much of the town is ready to move beyond McNabb. That feeling even permeated McNabb Inc. late last fall when McNabb's mother, Wilma, blogged that the team's success without her son was "bittersweet."
It got worse when Reid asked injured McNabb to stay behind in Philadelphia when the team traveled to New Orleans for a divisional round playoff game. Then, the head coach canceled a McNabb news conference, perhaps worried about what his quarterback would say.
Making matters more sticky, the team fired Rich Burg, McNabb's personal handler in the Eagles' public relations office. What did McNabb do? He hired Burg to handle his personal P.R., which got off to a rough start in May when McNabb held media availability for invited reporters only at a hockey rink in South Jersey.
So, with that complicated backstory in mind, the team and its lame-duck franchise quarterback are trying to get back to the Super Bowl in a season that might be McNabb's last to prove he can get there and win it in an Eagles uniform.
When he was asked whether time is running out, McNabb responded, "So, it's my turn to step to the window now, huh?"
Of course it is. Now that Peyton Manning has done it, McNabb is next in line.
Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1993-94, covers the NFL for ESPN.