Jalen Hurts looks like a star- How can Eagles fans make him feel more welcomed than Donovan McNabb?
Any oral history of the early-2000's era Philadelphia Eagles is necessarily replete with near-misses and what-could-have-beens. Three straight NFC championship games, a Super Bowl appearance, dozens of pro-bowl and all-NFL selections, nine winning seasons in eleven years, and countless trips down the road to victory-- and yet it all somehow, some way left a sour taste in fans' mouths. Andy Reid and his west-coast, college-offense, run-and-gun playcalling. Mountains of injuries. Absolutely baffling trades, signings, and roster cuts. The kind of chemistry issues that often result in dangerous explosions and toxic cocktails. Terrell Owens.
Missed in a significant number of retellings of this happy-cum-tragic saga is the relationship between Philly's star quarterback and, well, Philly.
It absolutely cannot be missed in any true historical accounting of the facts that Philadelphia fans in attendance at the 1999 draft booed when the Eagles selected the 22 year old Syracuse standout. Throughout his career, this would be a trademark response from fans any time McNabb so much as breathed wrong on the field. A quarterback with a relatively high-variance skillset, Donovan would hear it a lot over the years-- from packed crowds in his home arena. In interviews during and since his time as an Eagle, McNabb routinely acknowledged the criticism he received from fans and media members, both on and off the field. Rush Limbaugh famously canned himself with ignorant comments about McNabb's level of contribution to the Eagles' winning record. Callers on weekly radio shows from that era are legendary. Endless articles in print and online bemoaned every loss, every interception, and every strained or imperfect postgame presser. Donovan stated eventually that fan and media negativity had a significant impact on him, his mental health, and his ability to stay positive and focused. However consistent their sustained level of success, no level of achievement short of the Vincent Lombardi trophy would ever have been able to silence the loudest voices in the room.
But was any of it deserved? In a form of deep hindsight only truly available in the digital age, we can look back and analyze McNabb with a more objective lens. Modern era tools for examining stats paint McNabb as one of the very best to play the position in his era. His production and accomplishments speak for themselves. His off-field comportment and demeanor are the stuff of myth around the city, and everyone who spent time around him describes him as an incessant hard worker, an intensely positive person, and an independent thinker with deep thoughts and a friendly smile. He was and remains an undeniable breaker of barriers and pioneer, ushering in an era where athletic, large quarterbacks- and, yes, Black quarterbacks- are a quintessential and ubiquitous part of the game. A large and vocal corner of sports media has been pushing for his inclusion in the Hall Of Fame, and his case is as strong as could be for both sides of his career.
So what happened? A casual observer (and there were many at the time) might just chalk it up to racism and call it a day. Article over, outrage baited, fans irate, my work here is done. Even McNabb at one time was keen to say that his accomplishments were being overshadowed by the color of his skin. Without any doubt, the racial tensions of the 1990's and the strange world we entered into in the post-9/11 landscape of the early 2000's were important to the context of the situation. As a society, we tend to take for granted that America has undergone a long, grinding racial awakening and interpersonal reunification, and often we look past the progress made in just the last few short decades. But the progress of social justice and cultural harmony is more granular than that. The media and social commentary of the America of 20 years ago were massively different than they are today. You don't have to look too hard to find articles printed in legitimate brick-and-mortar magazines and newspapers that openly discuss what impact McNabb's race had on his abilities, talents, and even work ethic. The dialogue around his race infected a massive amount of the public conversations on his play, driving opinions of both his mistakes and his successes toward ever more bizarre and outlandish rationalizations. I won't repeat them here, but they are easily accessed. Archived internet forums and comment sections are a cesspool.
However obvious the racial tint on the commentary about Donovan is, there are other factors contributing to the strange attitude that fans of one of the winningest teams of the decade had about their squad, and it's important to unpack them. Philly fans will tell anyone who still listens to us that pessimism is a part of the brand. Prior to Sunday, it was hard to find an opinion piece anywhere in sanctioned Philadelphia media that featured a highly positive outlook on the 2021-2022 season. Despite a significant number of positive signs and signals coming out of camp, despite significant upgrades to areas of weakness on the offensive side of the ball, and despite a year in ‘20-‘21 that showcased week-over-week development of the team's young future core, negativity and a mediocre-at-best level of belief in the team was pervasive.
In similar fashion, the results of the last 3 seasons have been decried and lambasted in Philadelphia media over the last several months as the Wentz saga unfolded and ultimately subsided. While I don't agree with Carson Wentz on a lot of things, and while recognizing that the backup quarterback and offensive position players were huge reasons for their success, It has to be said that the eagles were Very, Very good during all but the last of his seasons with the team. "Not Good Enough" seems to always be the battle cry for Eagles fans on social media, despite carrying a 31-17-0 record through the three prior seasons. Even with the failure to convert in the '20-'21 season, the team's total record of 35-28-1, three of four playoff appearances, and huge positive score differential would still qualify them as a top squad under Wentz (and co.).
Wentz is a white conservative. Fans still routinely chew him apart at every opportunity, despite his roster spot with the Colts and winning record with the Eagles. The separation between us was rough, and Wentz' ego and attitude played a role. But pretending he was bad or that we didn't benefit from his time here is myopic and incorrect, and galvanizes fickle perception of the fans and environment here. There are elements of the fan culture around the Eagles and other Philadelphia franchises that pervade every star player's time here. I don't want to wade into the discussion here, but Ben Simmons has been an absolute star for the Sixers-- and yet fans have expressed overwhelming negativity about him and his personal role in the disappointments that squad has faced in the last five years. Some of the criticism for Wentz, Simmons, and even McNabb is coming from an irrational place and from a degree of entitlement among fans here. However much McNabb's race made the loudest voices worse and brought some of the worst elements of the city and the sport bubbling to the surface, another aspect of the derision towards him is definitively the result of the unreasoned pessimism Philadelphia fans often carry with them. Even in a 2021 where we want to pretend racism is solved, there are still many reasons to believe Hurts will face negativity from fans and media over the course of his time here.
All of the above should be taken with the understanding that the negativity and outpouring of criticism that all three players faced is coming from, let's be clear, an extremely vocal and aggressive segment of the fanbase. These fans have their own reasons for being heavily invested in the teams, and as we can all see there are valid reasons for criticism for the play of some of the front-and-center stars of the city's franchises. But as fans of the same franchise, we have to take it upon ourselves to correct the course for the future of our up-and-coming star QB. We have to be as outspoken and as loud as the haters, the racists, and the negative nancies that we all know will be out there screaming from the rooftops after Hurts' first interception, first fumble, first loss, first playoff elimination.
After all this time, fans and players know what to expect from Philadelphia. The Boo Birds are an institution here, and there is no place better for them to be. Players who are really made for the city recognize the jeers as a call for accountability, a call to play up to your talents, and a call to represent yourself and the city the right way. There's a reason we don't boo every single loss. It's not about losing. It's about playing scared, about running from the pressure and the grind. Jalen Hurts is a born grinder. He's a guy who is secure in his abilities, mentally tough, and a leader through action and consistency. He exudes blue collar Philly bulldog energy at every turn. If he deserves our boos, it will be for failing to hold himself to the standards he has set and matched at every turn of his career so far, and he will no doubt be the first person to recognize it.
It can't be because fans think he's a bum, or a bust, or he's a washout, or because he isn't white. It shouldn't be because we lost a game, or because he made one mistake, or because we suffer a painful elimination. These things are a part of the sport. Holding a young, extremely talented quarterback to that kind of outsized expectation and demanding Super Bowl level success from day one isn't who we want to be as fans. Give Jalen Hurts the time and recognition he needs to build confidence and momentum. Be prepared for bumps and inconsistencies and mistakes. Let's make sure that the hindsight we have about this era reflects a wave of support and positivity towards one of the most exciting young prospects to arrive in the city in half a decade. Let's go out there and show Hurts and all of our first and second year guys what it means to us for them to put their hearts on the field. Let's show them that we can be better than the fans who made the conversation around Donovan McNabb's time here so contentious. Let's go Eagles.