Most of us were happy if not downright enthusiastic about the news Donovan McNabb would officially retire a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in September. There are a few Angelo Cataldi types out there who still believe the greatest quarterback in franchise history should be booed some more, but thankfully they seem to be part of a very small minority.
A ceremony honoring McNabb’s career is completely appropriate not to mention well-deserved, and I’m sorry if you don’t think so, but the record supports this stance. The Birds made eight playoff appearances during Donovan’s 11 seasons in Philly, including five trips to NFC Championship games plus a Super Bowl. He went to six Pro Bowls and owns virtually all of the club’s meaningful passing records.
Even if you don’t feel this way right now, one day you should look back on it as a fun era.
There is another side to every coin though, and in McNabb’s case it’s the attempt by some to build him into more than he was. The announcement of this particular retirement sparked two discussions. The first – Hall of Fame candidacy – is one that has been debated ad nauseum, and while Donovan merits a certain amount of consideration, I personally do not feel he stacks up to his peers.
The second argument is actually a bit more complicated: whether or not McNabb’s number should be retired. I mean, he is the best QB the Birds have ever had, right?
Well unfortunately you can’t just retire a number in the NFL every time you have a new best whatever. 53 players are on an active roster. It’s not a distinction the organization can hand out to just anybody.
Not to say McNabb was “just anybody.” He is the best quarterback in Eagles history. But then none of the previous best quarterbacks in Eagles history have had their numbers retired, either. And while none of the signal callers from the modern era presided over the success McNabb did, it's not like he completely outclasses either Ron Jaworski or Randall Cunningham from a pure statistical standpoint.
McNabb is a special case in Philly sports, but not special enough to warrant the No. 5 never appearing in a game again. In case you need more evidence, here’s a closer look at the numbers the Eagles put away forever.
15 – Steve Van Buren
Hall of Famer. Retired as NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards (5,860) and rushing touchdowns (69) in 1952 after eight professional seasons. Carried the Eagles to back-to-back championships in ‘48 and ‘49.
20 – Brian Dawkins
No introduction required around these parts. Only safety in history to record 30 interceptions (37), 30 forced fumbles (37), and 20 sacks (26). Member of NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Bleeds green.
40 – Tom Brookshier
Key member of 1960 championship team. Missed two seasons (1954-55) while serving in United States Air Force. Two-time Pro-Bowl cornerback whose career was further cut short by a compound leg fracture in ’61.
44 – Pete Retzlaff
Key member of 1960 championship team. Five-time Pro Bowler who helped redefine the tight end position. Retired with franchise records in receptions (452) and receiving yards (7,412). 1965 Bert Bell Award winner for player of the year.
60 – Chuck Bednarik
Hall of Famer. Member of NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. One of pro football’s last two-way players – linebacker and center. Only Eagle to win championships in two separate decades (1948 and ’60). Legend has it he is made of concrete.
70 – Al Wistert
Captain of the 1948-49 championship teams. All-Pro offensive and defensive tackle.
92 – Reggie White
Hall of Famer. Retired as NFL’s all-time leader in sacks (198). Remains the Eagles’ franchise leader in sacks (124). Two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Greatest defensive lineman in pro football history. Etc.
99 – Jerome Brown
Tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 27. Two-time All-Pro. Voted a member of the Eagles 75th Anniversary Team. A great life and career cut far too short.
So let’s recap. Every player on this list has either been an integral part of a championship team, is one of the greatest players in NFL history (statistically or otherwise), possibly had their career cut short for one reason or another – and typically it’s some mixture of the three.
Which of those does Donovan fit into?
Even if McNabb were to one day be inducted into the Hall, not every Eagle in Canton has had their number retired. It’s not a prerequisite or anything like that.
Simply put, the No. 5 is not immortal in Philadelphia. It has nothing to do with popularity, statistics, championships, or even whether or not the man who wore it will ever go to Canton. Actually, it’s all of the above. McNabb may be one of the greatest Eagles of all time without question, but his career – exceptional though it was – simply does not meet the unofficial criteria for this particular honor.