Since the season ended, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the Donovan McNabb question. I've hit it from every angle I could find. After those two crushing defeats I was even willing to contemplate some doomsday scenarios.
I understand the case for starting the future now by handing over the reins to Kevin Kolb. I've even tried to build some arguments for why that's the right move. But after all the discussion and all the back-and-forth, I've ended up on some familiar ground -- defending Donovan McNabb.
I'm going to start by responding to Tommy Lawlor's piece as the basis for this discussion, because it's the most comprehensive, non-tantrum-y, pro-Kolb argument I've so far seen. Also, everyone's read it, so I can't just pretend it doesn't exist.
I'll address most of the issues he raises, as well as bring up some of my own. I understand you may not agree with everything I have to say, even if you actually want to bring back McNabb. Some people will only care about maximizing wins. I get that. For me, that's not the only issue, although I still think McNabb is the right choice even if that's where you choose to focus.
Still, my disagreement with Lawlor starts right away:
The Eagles have to make a decision about the future of the QB position. This isn't about our feelings for Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb. This is about what is best for the Philadelphia Eagles. I like both guys, but of bigger concern to me is the team. I'm an Eagles fan first and foremost.
The Eagles don't owe McNabb for his great career.
Donovan McNabb is as much a "company man" as any person with a nine-figure contract can be. For 11 years, he's been a consummate professional who:
- Worked as hard as anyone in the locker room. (Why did DeSean decide to come to work every morning at 7 a.m.?)
- Never did anything to disgrace the Eagles uniform.
- Gave us a chance to win every game he played.
In my lifetime, Donovan McNabb has been the only Philadelphia athlete who had to be perfect every time. On every play. In every interview. No one else has faced the same scrutiny. Barkley? He gave two craps what everyone thought, so no one ever bothered thinking too hard. Dawk? We cheered the hits and ignored the misses. Iverson? Please, his transgressions were part of his charm. Lindros? Sure, but hockey's a niche sport, not an all-consuming civic obsession.
Schmitty might have been the one guy. I'm too young to really have a sense of what things were like back then, but I remember enough of what was said around me at the Vet to believe he might have been close -- if he'd pitched too.
Many, many fans have a mistaken understanding of the past 11 years. They see Reid, Banner, McNabb, Westbrook, Akers and even Trotter all in the same places and believe the last decade has just been one long run. They're tired of not making it to the finish line.
The problem is that the prominence of the familiar faces tends to obscure all the turnover at the other spots. Much fun has been had with the idea that Andy's in year 11 of his five-year plan, but if you really go back and look at the way he built one team, then blew it up and built another one, you'll see that we actually just finished year four of Andy's second five-year plan.
Donovan's been here for all of that. Along with a handful of other guys, he has been the Eagles for the past decade. So like Lawlor, I'm an Eagles fan first and foremost. But for me, that also means rooting for -- and caring about -- the names on the back of the jersey too.
McNabb has been under center for some of the greatest sports moments I've ever experienced. Damn right I want him back, if he's still getting the job done. And make no mistake, he is.
The main argument for keeping Donovan is that he's a proven player and a star QB. We then have to judge him against those types of players. The question isn't whether McNabb is good. He is. The question is whether he's so good, i.e. special, that you have to keep him and continue to build the team around him.
To what extent have they built the team around McNabb? If you want to build around McNabb, go get some 6-4 leapers with the size to shield off defensive backs. The mighty mites are very good players, but they're exactly the kind of receivers you would bring in if you were building a team for, say, Kevin Kolb.
He is a winner. You can't question that. Now let's go inside the numbers to look at the quality of the wins.
2006 - Only impressive win was vs Dallas, 38-24. McNabb tore his ACL and missed last 6 games.
2007 - Best win was late in the year at Dallas, 10-6. Not our best team. McNabb was coming off ACL.
2008 - Several good wins- PIT, ATL, NYG, DAL + playoffs. Hurting McNabb is the fact we played great D in those wins. We allowed 6, 14, 14, 6, 14, and 11 points in the victories.
2009 - Best win was 45-38 shootout over NYG. Only victory over winning team was ATL, but Matt Ryan and Michael Turner missed the game.
First of all, I reject "win quality" as a metric that means anything. It's even worse than just using wins as a proxy for quarterback performance. I'd also mention that in the 2008 games he's talking about we scored 15, 27, 20, 44, 26 and 23 points. These weren't exactly 6-2 ballgames. Furthermore, we hung 48 on the Cardinals at home -- and they went to the Super Bowl.
For 2009, everyone loves to use that stat about "winning teams." What they're leaving out, of course, is that Carolina, San Francisco, Denver and New York were all 8-8. In other words, they had winning records against the rest of the league. It's not like we spent the whole season beating up on Conference USA.
Notice that only 2 of the games really required lots of points. In each of those games we got a defensive TD. We also scored on big plays. Sometimes defensive breakdowns were key. These weren't games where McNabb just surgically picked the D apart.
And again, that's the problem with just focusing on the wins. Going back to 2008, we put up 37 in the first Dallas game and lost ... 31 against the Giants and lost, because for two years this offensive line hasn't been able to get one yard when it mattered ... we even managed 25 in the NFC Championship game, which we also lost.
He does talk about some losses next. I don't dispute the bad games. We talk about the PTGSOPBP for a reason.
Joe Flacco led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first two years. Matt Ryan led Atlanta to consecutive winning seasons for the first time in club history. Mark Sanchez has the Jet in the AFC title game. These guys each benefited from strong defense and a good running attack, but it doesn't help McNabb's argument about being a winner to see these youngs guys having that kind of success.
When they get to 82 wins and 45 losses, then let's talk.
Speaking of Sanchez, last year's NFCCG came up yesterday in the comments. Donovan McNabb's first half in that game was described as "positively abysmal" when he went 11 of 19 for 109 yards with 1 INT.
Mark Sanchez is being feted on both coasts for last week's playoff win, in which his entire production was 12 of 23 for 100 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT.
(As a reminder, Donovan went 17 of 28 for 266 yards and 3 TDs in the second half.)
The flip side of this is that McNabb hasn't had many great games in the postseason ... You can see that McNabb is solid. When he plays well, we win. The problem is that he's struggled in our losses. He threw 3 picks in the SB and in the loss to CAR. He wasn't good in losses to NY, STL, and TB. He was putrid in the loss to Dallas this year. The one time he did play pretty well in a loss was the title game at Arizona last year.
St. Louis! We're basing a decision regarding next year's quarterback on the 2001 NFC Championship Game.
Look, I get where Lawlor's coming from. He's doing an extended post(ish)mortem on Donovan's entire career. But if the question before us is what do we do right now, we need to focus on the stuff that matters. Five championship games ago doesn't.
As for being "putrid" against Dallas, that was a team effort. I do think McNabb missed more than his fair share of plays in that game, but we lost by 20 and a long list of issues got exposed.
Also, I'd suggest this comparison:
McNabb -- Against DAL -- 19/37, 230 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Romo -- Against MIN -- 22/35, 198 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Pressure kills every quarterback. Anyone think the Cowboys would be better off getting rid of Romo?
Donovan is 8-2 in the Wildcard and Divisional rounds. He is 1-4 in NFC-CGs. He is 0-1 in the SB. All the losses aren't on him. No one would dispute that. At the same time, if he is a special QB you would think he would have had done something in one of those games to carry the team on his back. John Elway had "The Drive". Joe Montana had a handful of incredible drives/plays. Those are HOFers, but even guys like Eli and Big Ben have great SB drives in the last couple of years.
NFCCG scores: 24-29, 10-27, 3-14, 27-10, 25-32
SB score: 21-24
"All the losses aren't on the defense. No one would dispute that. At the same time, for as much credit as JJ and the defense have always gotten for carrying this team, you would think they would have done something in one of those games to carry the team on their back."
Lawlor's next section is basically his version of this post. As stated at the time, I really don't think this was McNabb's second-best season. I also think the last three years haven't been as good as what we saw before.
But I was also very careful about this part:
For the purposes of this post, the words "why" and "because" don't exist. I'm not looking to explain the reasons why McNabb had the season he did. There will, in fact, be nothing in these numbers that will move the "why" discussion forward even an inch. This will just be the facts.
So let's talk now about the "why."
From 2003 to 2008, the Eagles had a different #1 wide receiver every year. Thrash, Owens, Lewis, Brown, Curtis and Jackson. DeSean finally broke the streak this year, but the #2 and #3 guys from 2008 caught a total of seven balls in 2009. Neither one was a factor past September.
It cracks me up when people say McNabb finally had "weapons" this year but "still couldn't get it done." Like DeSean threw himself those 1,156 yards or Celek's near-1,000 yard season just sort of happened while Donovan was off doing something else.
For the first time in a long time, the Eagles do have a talented set of skill position players. We have every reason to be excited about them. But these guys are young. Drafting Jeremy Maclin, watching him miss training camp with a contract holdout, and then gradually working him into the offense isn't the same thing as signing an in-his-prime Terrell Owens and telling McNabb: "Now go dominate the league."
How many times this year did we see the receiver go one way and the ball go another? And after how many of those plays did the on-field gestures (or off-field coaching) indicate that the guy on the receiving end wasn't where he was supposed to be?
Consider too the unsettled state of the offensive line. That thing was a mess almost the entire season. And then once they finally did get things straightened out -- albeit without their single most dominating guy -- Jamaal Jackson blew out his knee and suddenly Nick Cole was snapping balls into his butt and Max Jean-Gilles was again prominently involved.
And it's not like McNabb got any help from the running game. The addition of Weaver kept it from being a complete loss, but I again think it's funny that people expect McNabb to not be the least bit affected by Brian Westbrook going from "pretty much the entirety of the offense" to "he's out again this week, isn't he?"
Again, I'm not trying to argue that McNabb got busted down to JV. The Eagles have a lot of good players. But some people -- not, it should be noted, Lawlor, for whom I have the utmost respect -- are acting like McNabb was a bottom 10 quarterback this year. His numbers weren't bad at all. They weren't great, either, but they were pretty good. Consider them against the the context of all the issues he faced and they're really a credit to what McNabb was able to accomplish this year, not some sort of damning indictment of his performance.
Oh, and he got his ribs broken. Played through that pain too, as usual.
How many times the last few months have we read about Sheldon's hamstring? One of the beat writers called it an injury "you or I wouldn't get out of bed" with. And yet the broken ribs pass unremarked.
One of my biggest frustrations with McNabb is our Red Zone play. It isn't all him of course. We need to run the ball more. We don't have the biggest or most physical skill players. Still, we have too many weapons to struggle the way we do. Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt aren't big, physical guys. They caught TDs based on precision passes and good routes. Donovan is a QB that needs to see his receiver open. He doesn't anticipate plays with any regularity. Normally this is a trait of young QBs, but some guys never grow out of it. This is good and bad. It keeps McNabb from throwing many INTs, but it also keeps him from making some RZ throws.
I agree with every word of this. It's one of the biggest reasons I think Kolb will have success when he finally takes over. If you want McNabb to have success in the red zone, prominently feature Celek, Ingram and Avant. Kolb, on the other hand, will do just fine with the small, quick guys.
Paraphrasing something John Harbaugh once said: "Kolb killed us in the red zone in practice. Absolutely killed us."
(This is a point for Kolb, incidentally, if I'm not being explicit enough on that.)
McNabb did make some big plays and great throws this year. He and Avant connected on some sensational plays. As impressive as that is, execution in the Red Zone is a better way to judge a QB. Those are the critical plays that can win and lose a game. Donovan threw 12 RZ TDs in 14 starts. He only completed 45% of his throws. The good news is that he didn't throw any picks. Is it enough that he's safe in the RZ? I don't think so. RZ struggles have cost us games in the last couple of years. Avoiding turnovers and making sure you get at least a FG is a way to win games, but it won't win you championships.
Now he's just piling on. McNabb wasn't good in the red zone this year. But it's not like this is a career-long problem. He's had really good years and then some that haven't been as good -- variation that is extremely likely when you're dealing with such small sample sizes.
Still, it's an issue.
One of my other beefs with Donovan involves running. He won't do it much anymore. Donovan ran 37 times this year. Carson Palmer ran 39 times. Donovan is still good at it. His 27-yard run on 3rd/25 vs Denver was a great, great play. The problem is that Donovan has gotten it in his head that he should only be a pocket passer. Why waste a god given talent like mobility? Don't you think Peyton Manning would run if he could? Heck yes.
Broken ribs. And I actually don't think Peyton would run. He doesn't need to.
One of the arguments people like to make for Donovan is that he's never really had a strong running game to work with. The stats definitely tell you that we don't run enough. I think the combination of Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg, and Donovan makes the problem worse. Those guys are way too quick to abandon the run. Also, McNabb is a streaky passer. When he's cold they like to let him keep throwing in the hopes he'll heat up. When he's red hot they like to leave the ball in his hands. A more consistent, but less dynamic QB is probably a better fit for them as playcallers.
I don't see how letting McNabb throw a lot when he's hot is a problem. Nor do I see why letting him throw a lot when he's cold is his problem. That last line just seems like wishful thinking. Kolb threw 51 times against the Saints. Against KC they dialed it back a bit to 34 passes -- but still against only 21 runs. That's 62/38.
McNabb is 33, the same age as Peyton. Brady's 32. Warner's 38 and Favre is 40. Do any of those last four guys seem like they're too old to be playing football?
Attitude / Demeanor / Chippiness / "Outstanding"
Not mentioned by Lawlor, but this stuff matters to a bunch of fans. They should get over it.
If you keep both McNabb and Kolb, you have an enviable 1-2 situation. Deal McNabb and that margin's gone.
Matters greatly. You see McNabb march into the Meadowlands (RIP) and you know he's ready to handle it. Kolb may take a year or two to get there.
McNabb is the ultimate bad weather advantage. Let's see Kolb throw some balls in 30 mph November winds before we give him NFCE killer status.
We have no way of knowing how long the championship window will stay open. We thought after the 2004 season that we'd be right back in the Super Bowl the next year. Didn't happen. How long can DeSean Jackson be the guy he is at the size he is? Hopefully it's 10 years. Unfortunately, it might be more like 3.5. Sure, you have to make some tough short-term decisions to assure the long-term health of the team, but you don't trade your franchise quarterback away right before a season you think you'll have all the pieces in places.
The last point is a little more important, so I'm going to blow it out a bit:
I made the case earlier this week that you couldn't just look at the situation as McNabb vs. Kolb. If they trade McNabb, it's really Kolb plus whatever they get back for McNabb.
It was a fun exercise to go through, but I left out a key point: Mike Vick.
If you trade Donovan McNabb, I don't see how you can let go of Vick. With a team that won 11 games -- and should finally have the holes patched by next year -- you don't go into the season with just one guy at that position (unless that guy is Peyton Manning). You need a back-up who can hold down the fort, should Kolb have any kind of serious injury.
You could, of course, just try to sign A.J. Feeley. He knows the system, can keep you in a game or two, and wouldn't be the least bit threatening to Kolb as a starter. Unfortunately, he's not threatening for a reason.
If you deal McNabb, you're not saving much on the salary cap front. Just about $2 million. You're actually better off trading Vick if you want to free up some space. [UPDATE: Of course, this is wrong. See Sam's comment. I should never write about cap issues without sending it by him first.]
From a trade value perspective, I couldn't begin to tell you what the two guys might fetch in return. I have a suspicion that the spread might be less than we think, if only because of the age issue.
So if you trade McNabb, let's say you get a first-round pick and the aforementioned $2 million in cap space. The pick would probably come in the 2010 draft.
If instead you trade Vick, you pick up almost twice as much cap space and some sort of conditional draft pick based on how Vick behaves plays in the new city. I think you could be looking at something like a fourth-round pick in 2010 and a conditional that could go as high as the second round in 2011.
Granted, I completely made all those draft picks up, but they sound plausible.
So, option one is keep the Pro Bowl QB, kill the Wildcat forever, get a second(ish) round pick and $4 million in cap space (which Sam keeps assuing me matters for some reason I still don't totally understand).
Option two is ditch the Pro Bowl QB, keep running the Wildcat out of obligation, get a first round pick and pick up $2 million in cap space (ditto).
Let's see ... Freddie Mitchell ... DeSean Jackson ... carry the two point zero yards per carry ...
Yeah, I think I'll stick with McNabb.
The final question is what you do at the end of the 2010 season if you keep both these guys. The relevance of that question of course hinges on there actually being a 2011 NFL season, but let's break down the possibilities:
- McNabb plays out of his mind next year and we win the Super Bowl -- Um, who cares what happens in 2011?
- McNabb plays out of his mind next year but we again come up short in the playoffs -- How out of his mind? Like kinda out of his mind or "we put 'Owens' on the back of Avant's jersey and he hasn't stopped throwing touchdowns since"? If it's the latter, extend McNabb and then try to tag/trade Kolb. Again, assuming there's even football the year after that.
- McNabb plays pretty well, not awesome, but we win a Super Bowl anyway -- See #1.
- McNabb plays pretty well, not awesome, and we don't win the Super Bowl -- "Sorry man, we can only keep one of you, and he's a lot younger."
- McNabb gets hurt, Kolb comes in and plays great -- "How many zeroes at the end of that contract, Kevin?"
- McNabb gets hurt, Kolb comes in and stinks up the joint -- "Boy, good thing we didn't listen to those fans."
Of course, the risk that McNabb might walk for nothing is mitigated by the Vick discussion above.
Final note: At the end of the day, I don't want to see McNabb go. I think he's earned the right to finish out his contract and play with this team when the young guys are hitting their primes. But this is a really, really tricky issue. My trade guesses could be way off. The agents for all three quarterbacks could be making threats. Reid might decide the shiny new contract extension means it's the right time to bite the bullet.
Which is to say that if they trade McNabb, I don't think either anger or euphoria will really be all that appropriate. We can't be that mad if he goes. It'll be a crummy day when it happens, but the guys running the show are just trying to win football games.
As Gabe noted in an email the other day, that conversation will not be an easy one for Andy. He's not just going to suddenly decide to do it.
On the flip side, the celebration we'll see from some other quarters ...