Duel fizzles, but McNabb, Eagles don't complain

January 12, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

PHILADELPHIA - The quarterback shootout was a bust.

We had come to expect more. After three great playoff games last week, one in San Francisco and one in Pittsburgh, and another in Tennessee yesterday, the anticipated duel between New Wave quarterbacks Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia and Atlanta's Michael Vick was supposed to be one of the highlights of the postseason.

But it never happened.

A partisan crowd of 66,452 walked out of Veterans Stadium last night happy because the Eagles defeated the Falcons, 20-6, in an NFC semifinal that allows the City of Brotherly Love to say goodbye to its antiquated dump of a stadium in fine fashion next week in the conference championship.

But where were the great arms? Where were those magical runs where poof, Vick is here, and then poof, he is in the end zone? How can both of these guys be the New Wave quarterbacks of the future when the game was dominated by defenses?

Oh, well, guess the NFL can't provide sparkling entertainment every week. As a matter of fact, last night's game resembled more of what the NFL has become. Parity was back. Missed blocking assignments. Dropped passes. A lot of penalties, especially on special teams.

The most relieved person in the stadium last night had to be Eagles head coach Andy Reid. Instead of going with the "hot" quarterback last night, he started McNabb, who hadn't played since breaking his ankle on Nov. 17. Reid looked like a genuis early in the game when McNabb looked especially sharp.

The Eagles came out in a no-back set on their 3-yard line. On Philadelphia's second offensive play from the line of scrimmage, McNabb rolled right and scrambled 19 yards for a first down.

The crowd went wild. McNabb was back.

"He played very well," said Eagles center Hank Fraley. "You've got to give Donovan credit. He didn't show any rust at all."

McNabb was even more efficient on the Eagles' second series, rifling a 15-yard pass to tight end Chad Lewis with 6:14 left in the first quarter, and then floating a touch pass down the right sideline over cornerback Juran Bolden into the outstretched hands of receiver Todd Pinkston for 24 yards. That set up a 34-yard field goal by David Akers with 3:47 remaining in the first quarter.

McNabb had some other fine moments in the first half. He threw a 42-yard pass to receiver James Thrash on the first play of the second quarter and several times avoided the rush by sidestepping pass rushers. He made just about all the passes an NFL quarterback needs to make.

"I just wanted to come out and play," said McNabb. "All this talk about rust, and I just wanted to have some mobility. The ankle didn't bother me at all."

Not one bit. McNabb completed 20 of 30 passes for 247 yards and finished with a quarterback rating of 103.1. But his lack of conditioning showed in the second half. His legs seemed to die in the final two quarters, which also took some of the zip off his passes.

But McNabb has another week to get better and he will. So will Vick, only he will have the entire offseason to improve. Vick is already a great player, and can create excitement in a game like no one else. No one cuts as hard or changes directions as quickly.

The second-year pro out of Virginia Tech might be the fastest player in the league.

Vick, though, needs to work on his mechanics. He has to stop throwing off the wrong foot. He has a habit of holding onto the ball too long. He can win games out of the pocket, but he is going to have to prove he can win them inside one. The arm strength is there. He can throw a 40- to 50-yard pass with the flick of his wrist.

But Vick floats way too many passes.

With 7:58 left in the first quarter, he floated one to receiver Shawn Jefferson. The pass was short and behind Jefferson, and was an easy interception for Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor, who returned the ball 39 yards for a touchdown to put Philadelphia ahead, 7-0.

Then, with 9:35 left in the half, tight end Reggie Kelly was wide-open around the Eagles' 10-yard line, but Vick launched another one of those moon balls that allowed safety Blaine Bishop time to recover and separate Kelly from a possible touchdown pass.

It's all part of the learning curve for Vick, who still hasn't figured out when to put touch on a pass and when to put some heat on it. He didn't get much help from his offensive line, which couldn't handle the Eagles' front seven in pass protection. Vick completed 22 of 38 passes for 274 yards. He was intercepted twice, was sacked three times and finished with a quarterback rating of 58.4.

"We wanted to keep the pressure on him," said Reid of Vick. "It wasn't a must rush or anything like that, but we just played aggressive, dominating defense."

So did Atlanta. Despite McNabb playing well, the Falcons still held the Eagles' offense in check until there were 6:26 left in the game. On a fourth-and-one, the Falcons blitzed and McNabb made the right call, throwing over the middle to Thrash, who turned the short pass into a 35-yard touchdown.

That secured the win. It moved the Eagles into the NFC championship game and vindicated Reid, as well as McNabb, who had said all week long he was ready to play.

At least we got one half of the showdown.

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