Most people are firmly in one camp or the other: Either the 49ers would be insane not to make a move for McNabb, or it would be a terrible ploy that would hamper the development the team has seen under head coach Mike Singletary.
So which camp is right?
The answer is both—each in their own way.
The pro-McNabbers make a good case. Clearly nobody with decent reason and logic can argue with any validity that McNabb would not be a notable (notice that I was careful not to use the word “significant") improvement at the QB position over either Alex Smith or David Carr. Statistics spell that out undeniably.
McNabb’s 86.5 career passer rating is clearly better than Smith at 69.2 or even Carr at 75.2. More importantly, his career record as a starter of 92-49-1 is worlds away from Smith and Carr—neither of whom is remotely close to .500 overall.
There is also something to be said for the playoff experience of McNabb—especially on a team that has little such expertise beyond its head coach. While McNabb has yet to reach the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl championship, he could undoubtedly be an asset to the younger players on the team in teaching them how to act and win.
McNabb is a proven playmaker who can still put up the numbers and find ways to win. There is no legitimate argument about that.
Rumor has it that the Eagles might be willing to settle for a bargain basement deal to send him packing from the City of Brotherly Love.
Given all this, the 49ers front office ought to be mentally evaluated for not making a move yet, right?
Not so fast. You have to consider how much better McNabb would really make the team as a whole if he showed up at 4949 Centennial Blvd.—and what the 49ers would really give up to get him there.
There are indications that point to the conclusion that McNabb may not be the major upgrade for the 49ers that proponents make him out to be. Part of this is overestimation of McNabb’s abilities; the rest is underestimation of Smith’s and Carr’s.
Touchdown production is one statistical category that illustrates this point. People assume McNabb will be able to toss significantly more touchdowns than Smith or Carr—but the facts suggest maybe not.
Since his career year in 2004, leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl with a 104.7 passer rating, McNabb has tossed only 98 touchdowns in 63 starts (1.6 TDs per game). By comparison, Alex Smith tossed 18 touchdowns in just 10 starts last year (1.8 TDs per game). Even if you exclude the three Smith threw against Houston that came in a relief role, the comparison still shows only marginal improvement (1.6 over 1.5) in going to McNabb.
With Smith feeling the push and learning some lessons from Carr (who has the experience of playing behind two former Super Bowl QBs in the last three years), I like Smith’s chances to improve on his 2009 production in 2010.
The No. 1 goal of the offense is to score touchdowns. If Smith can continue his progress, it is not clear that McNabb would definitely help the 49ers put more points on the board.
Another interesting statistic is the Eagles’ record since drafting McNabb in games in which he does not start. Since 2009, the Eagles are 92-49-1 with McNabb under center. However, they are still 17-13 in games in which he is not leading the offense. This drop-off is appreciable (.648 to .567), but not make-or-break.
In fact, on two separate occasions—in 2002 and 2006—McNabb missed six games and watched the Eagles manage a 5-1 record in his absence. Only once in his career has McNabb missed significant time and seen the Eagles really miss his presence on the field— 2005, when he missed seven games and the Eagles struggled to a 2-5 record during that stretch.
These numbers should at least arouse some skepticism over the notion that McNabb is a definite game-changing, team-changing QB—as some claim he is. Yes, he makes the Eagles better, but how much better?
And, more importantly, how much better could he make the 49ers?
Now on to what he might cost the 49ers. Speculation suggests that the 49ers—or anyone else—could wrest him from Philly for as little as a high second- or low first-round pick.
What a bargain, right? The 49ers could give up one of their first-round picks—or maybe their second- and third-round picks—and land McNabb.
There are, however, other implications to such a move. With the signing of Carr earlier this offseason, bringing in McNabb would give the 49ers four QBs. It is rare indeed to see an NFL team go into the regular season with four QBs on the roster—so this would leave someone on the outside looking in.
Who do you get rid of? Do you release Smith after he has finally shown some signs of developing into a legitimate starting QB? Do you release Carr right after signing him to a sizable contract? Either or those options would be a major financial gut check.
It is probably unlikely that the 49ers could get much trying to trade one of them, either—and they may even have to pick up a portion of that player’s salary if they could.
With all the hype surrounding Nate Davis, it is doubtful the 49ers would give up on him—and parting with any of the three QBs currently on the roster could seriously compromise the long-term outlook of the team at the QB position. And for what?
McNabb is approaching 35, a common milestone when QB production begins to decline— with the notable exceptions of John Elway, Brett Favre, and Kurt Warner. For a QB known for making plays with his legs and taking hits to make a big play, it is doubtful that McNabb could perform at his current clip for much more than an additional three years.
It is clear he can still play, and his injury liability has been exaggerated. However, it is equally clear that he would only be a stopgap solution. McNabb could mentor the younger QBs, but you would have to give one up in order to get him.
About the only scenario that could work is a deal in which the Eagles were willing to pick up Smith or Carr and that player’s entire salary to go along with a draft pick.
That is not likely to happen.
Furthermore, the 49ers' hopes of success in 2010 will not be resting on prolific offense. If they get anywhere special this year, it will be on the backs of an ever-improving defense with an offense that puts up enough points to win and keeps the opposition off the field long enough to give the defense sufficient rest.
With the signing of Carr, the 49ers simply cannot afford to make a move for McNabb. The draft picks and money they would spend in the process would not be worth the returns—and they are better spent addressing more pressing needs. Giving up on Smith or Carr would add to the problem.
Does this mean the 49ers signed Carr too early? Perhaps. But that is part of the risk of free agency. There is no guarantee a better option will come available—and if you wait around to find out, you might lose a perfectly viable alternative in the process.
The 49er offense should be much improved with Smith or Carr at the helm. They could be slightly better with McNabb, but it simply is not worth the cost—even if he does look good in red.
Keep the faith!