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Loose, elusive McNabb sets the winning tone

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001


PHILADELPHIA -- Sometimes, the simplest things can end up meaning the most.

For the Eagles, it was the way Donovan McNabb went onto the field for the first series. He didn't trot, didn't walk, didn't run. He skipped like a kid going out for a sandlot game. That told the offense that the first playoff game for the majority of Eagles would be fun.

"That's something I do to make sure everybody else is loose," McNabb said. "I was enjoying myself. Early in the game I was just making sure that the whole offense was ready and their spirits were uplifted. In the guys' eyes, you could tell that they were hungry and ready to go.

"You get that look in your eye and you see it as a quarterback. You just want to go out there and get the ball."

The look transferred into a winning vision. Because of McNabb's composed and confident effort against one of the league's best defenses, Philadelphia came away with a 21-3 victory over the Bucs.

There was nothing overwhelming about McNabb's statistics. He was 24-of-33 for 161 yards and two touchdowns, and he rushed for 32 yards and a score. What made his performance so impressive was that he simply made plays.

If the Bucs defense dropped a lot of players back to take away the deep pass, he threw underneath. If the pressure forced him out of the pocket, he scrambled for yards or ran until he found an open receiver. His play was child's play.

"I thought Donovan stepped up," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "Here's a young man in his first playoff game. He showed great composure. He handled himself very nicely."

Early, it appeared the Bucs had the solution for the Eagles' 15 cents offense. McNabb kept trying to nickel and dime the Bucs with short passes, but the swarming Bucs were dropping players before they gained extra yards.

Another quarterback might have grown frustrated and tried to heave the ball down field into coverage, but McNabb stuck with the game plan. From the second quarter on, the Eagles' short passes seemed to gain more and more yards. McNabb threw for 118 after the first quarter.

"Whenever you put your receivers and running backs in position to put the ball out in front of them, that gives them a better opportunity to make plays and break tackles," McNabb said. "Tampa did an excellent job early on of making the tackles for a 2- or 3-yard gain.

"From then on, we thought we could get the ball behind them. But they just continued to drop in their zones, and I continued to drop it down to the backs and let them work."

Equally impressive was Philadelphia's offensive line. Aided by McNabb's scrambling, the Eagles allowed only two sacks. One was on a broken play in the first quarter, the other when McNabb scrambled back to the line of scrimmage before being chased out of bounds.

Guard John Wellbourn said the Bucs were getting frustrated, particularly Warren Sapp.

"I think it was tough for (Sapp) to get in a groove," Wellbourn said. "He really wasn't able to make any big plays, so I think that definitely added to it. I think that and the cold. People can say what they want about the weather, but when it's negative degrees out there, it kind of wears on people. I think that and the combination of we were making plays and their offense was kind of stalling. I think that combination really helped us."

Running back Brian Mitchell said that by neutralizing Sapp, who had four tackles and no sacks, the Eagles cut off the defense's energy source.

"I watch Warren Sapp play a lot, and I always hear his name," Mitchell said. "They feed off of him. If you don't hear his name, they start to second-guess and question themselves."

Chris Warren helped seal the win with 85 yards rushing, 75 in the second half. Mitchell said the team's overall performance was a resounding response to its critics.

"You get sick and tired of hearing stuff week in and week out what you can't do," he said. "If I see any negativity, that person needs to be hog-tired and dragged somewhere, thrown away. I'm sick of people trying to find negatives when we win a game. We went out there and beat a damn good football team."

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