How the Media Misunderstood the Donovan McNabb Trade

Michal GoldsteinCorrespondent IApril 6, 2010

ASHURN, VA - APRIL 6:  Donovan McNabb of the Washington Redskins displays his new jersey during a press conference on April 6, 2010 at Redskin Park in Ashburn, Virginia.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images


            Well, that does it then.  The Philadelphia Eagles have officially declared 2010 to be a year of unknowns.  We don’t have to call it a rebuilding year.  We can’t now call it a year of foreseeable disappointment.  We can’t call it a year of qualified optimism.  We can’t call it a year when the Eagles will, as they have almost every year in the last decade, go to the playoffs and find at least a modicum of seasonal success. 

            What we can do is sit back and watch as the Eagles upcoming season unfolds and shiver at the feeling of this being a year more unpredictable than we’ve had in the last decade.  Almost any player who had been with the team for more than three years and was older than 27 has been let go, including Sheldon Brown, Kevin Curtis, and local favorites Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook.  The Eagles, no longer looking anything like it did in 2008 when the team went to its fifth NFC Championship Game this decade, are unfettered by a history of semi-success that has apparently troubled them since the start of the new millennium. 

            Now, the Eagles’ systematic deconstruction of their always competitive but never wholly successful 2000s team is complete. Late Sunday night, over an Easter holiday weekend that was most notable for the speculation surrounding Tiger Woods’ return to golf, the Philadelphia Eagles traded eleven-year veteran Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins.  The end of the McNabb-Reid era of Philadelphia Eagles football presumably also marks the end of the nearly-good-enough cycle that seems to have defined McNabb’s athletic performance since he was drafted in 1999. 

            And for the first time since the early 2000s, it is not a nearly sure thing that the Eagles will reach the playoffs or perch atop the NFC East.  We don’t know if the current team—whose starters’ average age dropped by four years in the last three months—can find a semblance of chemistry heading into the 2010 season.  In fact, everything we knew about the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances at success with Donovan McNabb under center has been thrown out the window.  And momentarily, I think, we can enjoy the euphoria of marching into an undiscovered country. 

            If nothing else, the Eagles went through the personnel moves necessary for a team that is still trying to build on its own near-greatness.  It seems evident that, with McNabb under center, the Philadelphia Eagles could only go so far in the football world.  Fans and leaders of the team had decided that regular runs to Championship Games were not enough.  A Super Bowl is in order and the Eagles have made changes at every position to see if what hadn’t worked in the past might work in the future. 

            I sometimes have the opportunity to watch other teams around the NFL, some of whom have not tasted success of any kind in so long it’s a marvel they still bother showing up for games.  I wonder at how players for those teams must feel, watching the Eagles unload their veteran talent month after month this off-season.  I wonder at how the fanbases for the Rams of St. Louis or the Lions of Detroit or the Raiders of Oakland feel about Eagles fans and their psychologically troubled relationship to their hometown team.  Even Clinton Portis, runningback to Donovan McNabb’s new team in Washington, is stunned by the fact that going to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl in an eleven year career is not enough to guarantee professional allegiance from a city’s fans or office administrators.  How could Eagles fans manage to become so overwrought by a team that has the third highest winning percentage of any team in the NFL in the last decade? 



            Much has been made of the trade in the media since news broke on Sunday of the trade, most notably because Philadelphia’s very vocal fans have been clamoring for McNabb’s speedy departure since he was drafted in 1999.  In spite of his very prolific years with the Eagles, he was never warmly received in Philadelphia and he was never recognized as the talented player that he still is.  Moreover, the Redskins had not been at the forefront as a contender for McNabb’s services.  As such, McNabb will return to Philadelphia to face his former team twice a year. 

Commentators have observed that, to some degree, the trade is an insult to McNabb: if the Eagles were comfortable enough to let him go to a team they will face twice each season, they must be convinced he can’t get the job done while there.  At the same time, sports writers are noticing certain parallels between McNabb’s status and that of legendary quarterback John Elway, whose most successful years (in terms of Super Bowl wins) occurred under present-day Washington coach Mike Shannahan.  Comparisons have also been made between McNabb and the last aging quarterback to be traded from the Eagles to the Redskins, a certain Sonny Jurgensen, who left a disappointed Philadelphia team only to find Super Bowl success with Washington.  The observations have gained a great deal of traction in recent days, exciting the Washington fanbase and leaving Philadelphians with feelings of ambivalence.  As stated, it is strange for Philadelphians, who have become so used to near-success, to suddenly be confronted with the simultaneous possibilities of rising higher still or plummeting to the earth. 

            My sense is that Andy Reid and the Eagles were not trying to insult Donovan McNabb in trading him to a division rival, or at least not for the reasons most people seem to be saying.  We know how much Andy Reid respects and values his former quarterback.  We can easily look at McNabb’s statistics sheet and see that, over the long, banged-up years as the athletic leader to a thankless city, his numbers have not diminished to any meaningful extent.  We know the guy has a cannon for an arm and can hit a guy, mid-stride, fifty yards down field.  No, the trade insult is not directed at Donovan McNabb. 

In letting McNabb go to Washington, we’ve actually learned what the Eagles’ brass thinks of the Redskins as a whole.  Even with a Hall-of-Fame-caliber (if probably not Hall-of-Fame-bound) quarterback under center, the Eagles still don’t think the Redskins are going to be a challenge to play.  And the Eagles can easily identify why.  When McNabb has a healthy offensive front to protect him, giving him time to throw, there are few better quarterbacks in the league.  But the Redskins lack any kind of effective offensive line: no leaders, no veterans, lots of injuries, lots of rookies.  Jason Campbell (the former Redskins QB) was sacked a staggering 43 times last season.  McNabb can’t take that kind of punishment and still be productive.  That was demonstrated very clearly in the final two games of the Eagles 2009-2010 season against Dallas when DeMarcus Ware chewed on McNabb’s face every chance he had. 

Which is to say, the reason that his trade to the Redskins is so insulting is that the Eagles basically dumped their aging former quarterback into the danger zone. Sure, if he’d been let go to the Raiders or the Bills, he would have been left to teams that are in shambles and basically been laid to rest as a football player.  With the Redskins, he’s going to be with a team that is now at least sort of a playoff contender, but he’s also going to be joining a team that has a porous front.  McNabb, who lacks an effective quick release to get the ball out before the blitz, is going to be eaten alive unless the Redskins somehow create a decent offensive line over the course of the next four months. 

Then again, somehow, McNabb’s always managed to do fairly well even under a great deal of pressure.  What should worry the Eagles is what McNabb has been so good about doing during the entirety of his career.  Remember, Donovan McNabb has only once or twice had offensive weapons of Pro Bowl caliber (in Terrell Owens and DeSean Jackson).  With the exception of Brian Westbrook and Brent Celek, McNabb’s other long-time receiving threats (Chad Lewis? Freddie Mitchell?) are barely memorable.  And what McNabb showed for over a decade in Philadelphia is that, even without Pro Bowlers or Hall of Famers or even “very good” players on the field, the guy can still throw for 3,500 yards and move the offense when necessary.

One might also note that, in spite of Jason Campbell’s evident decline in perceived value this year and the sheer number of hits he took along the way, he still managed to throw for over 3,600 yards and a completion rate of 64.5%.  That is to say, if Campbell can do it without any kind of stellar cast around him, McNabb shouldn’t have much of a problem delivering a repeat performance for his usual 3,500-plus.  And this, too, is something that Shannahan and Co. probably saw in the 2009-2010 Redskins: they’re not nearly as bad as they seem, based on their record. 

As importantly, McNabb has a lot to prove now and he is a guy who plays solidly when his back is to the wall.  He responds very well to adversity, to doubters, to people who think he’s done.  After being booed on the day of his draft, he helped to resurrect the franchise and make the Eagles Super Bowl contenders year after year.  After being benched in 2008, he stormed back and dragged the team to the NFC Championship Game for a ridiculous fifth time in eight years.  Only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are in that territory in the 2000s. 

At the same time, while it is tempting to drum up the Redskins’ chances of going to the playoffs for the 2010-2011 season, one shouldn’t allow oneself to be taken by the spread of irrational exuberance.  There have appeared a spate of comparisons between the tandem formed between Coach Mike Shannahan and his former Broncos Quarterback John Elway and the nascent relationship now being formed between Shannahan and McNabb.  There are many circumstantial similarities: great coach inherits quarterback in his mid-30’s who has not found much love in spite of being a talented, long-term, franchise player for a team that almost (but never quite) won the big game.  Elway was 34 when Shannahan took over and the pair won two Super Bowls thereafter.  McNabb is 33 and has the numbers Elway had at that age.             

Time will quickly tell if the Shannahan-McNabb era in Washington is fruitful or not.  One has to surmise that McNabb has, at best, four years left in his tank if he’s not injured and only two if he takes any massive hits.  Elway was a durable passer each year; McNabb has only completed full seasons during half of the years he played in Philadelphia.  He’s not like Brett Favre who can take a punishing blow and still bounce back with a smile.  He’s not entering his mid-30s with a clean bill of health like Peyton Manning.  McNabb is going to be in trouble if he takes even half of the hits that Campbell took last year. 

            Nonetheless, it should be noted that this is a trade that both teams can (if not should) be very happy about.  In McNabb, Washington has the veteran quarterback presence it’s lacked for most of the past two decades, a good team player and a leader who can throw the deep ball.  And, even if McNabb’s tenure in Washington only lasts for three years, it gives them time to find a young quarterback who can learn under a consistently good starter, much like Kevin Kolb has in Philadelphia.  Perhaps most importantly, McNabb and Shannahan can create a positive culture in the Redskins locker room, uniting the team under signs of better management and playcalling: the Redskins won’t march into games defeated from the start and perhaps they’ll find it in themselves to pull out a close game here or there.

            This becomes increasingly important as the Redskins look to the future. They now possess or have already acquired an unusually “old” roster by NFL standards and it is obvious that this particular cast of characters won’t be around for more than a couple of years.  One can tell that, although they want to begin winning immediately by signing talented veterans, their long-term goal is to find younger players who can begin to learn from some elite cast-offs.  And, creating a more positive game-playing culture in Washington is almost guaranteed: the Redskins, who were 4-12 last year, are estimated to at least improve to 8-8 with a veteran quarterback and experienced coach running the show. 

            The Eagles, for their part, have received two draft picks, one high in the second round of this year’s draft, one in the third or fourth round of next year depending on the Redskins’ performance during the upcoming season. The Eagles—who seem to run their draft selection very well—have amassed 12 total picks this season, with five in the top 90, tied for most in the league.  Philadelphia is very obviously looking to build on its base of young talent and Reid, who has demonstrated that he’s capable of successfully building and managing a young team, is hoping to have a team that will retain its constituent parts for at least another four to six seasons. 

This bodes well for the future, if not exactly for the upcoming season.  To be sure, the Eagles are not a lost squad for 2010-2011.  But, their team in its current form is untested and they have glaring needs to fill all over the field.  They’ll probably have a good draft and with the right guidance, they’ll have a great team within a couple of years.  

            The problem, of course, is the Philadelphia fanbase, whose voluble impatience and short-sighted clamoring never allows the team to quietly hone its skills or build on its successes.  McNabb spent the last ten years being hounded by Philadelphia’s sports columnists and radio talk show hosts and the experience must have been draining.  One can only imagine how he’s going to be received when he returns to Philadelphia for a Redskins away game.  But more pressingly for the Eagles, one has to wonder if Philadelphians are going to allow Kolb time to develop, to let him become the player whose flashes of greatness were in evidence last year when he took over for McNabb when the latter was injured.  This can broadly be said for the entirety of the younger Eagles players, assessments of whom were often timid when compared to the verbal beating McNabb received in the week following every loss the Eagles experienced.

            But you have to wonder, what happens if the Eagles “only” return to the NFC Championship Game?  What happens if they’re “just” the Champions of the NFC East or if they “merely” make it to the Super Bowl?  Are Philadelphians going to be more forgiving than they were in recent years? Are they going to be any less strident in their whining for a Super Bowl?  And if so, why? 

            There are Philadelphia sports radio talk show hosts who are already overjoyed that McNabb is out of the City of Brotherly Love, claiming that they never liked him and they never will.  And now, at least, they have reason to boo him when he hits the field.  It is impossible to think that if Kevin Kolb manages to enjoy the kind of success that McNabb has in the last eleven years that he will be lauded for his efforts.  The young man is under tremendous pressure to get it done now and very little is going to squelch the passions of the Philly faithful.  

            The two teams that must be most overjoyed at McNabb splitting from Philadelphia have to be the Cowboys and the Giants, who have been forced to “watch the McNabb show” as one commentator put it every year since 1999.  The Cowboys have found a strengthened position as the clear NFC leader heading into the 2010 season and the Giants—who were abysmal this past year—have improved by default.  Neither team has had a particularly active off-season, choosing rather to unload some veterans and save money for future deals.  But, Washington and Philadelphia did that for them, and it can be reasonably assured that Dallas will return to the playoffs next year, and that New York will at least show signs of improvement against their uncertain rivals.

   In the age of twenty-four hour news, it has become evident that rather than report on more actually occurring events, the media has come to split its time fairly evenly between “hard facts journalism” and speculation.  The McNabb trade, of course, provides ample opportunity for the latter, allowing talking heads to pontificate and ponder the fate of these two teams heading into the regular season while drumming up anticipation for the games they’ll play against one another.  The trade has created more uncertainty than not, putting two teams into unknown territory and allowing for equal parts excitement and frustration about their prospects.  And in this, the real winners are those members of the media who can now enjoy months chattering away without consequence, pretending to play the role of oracle when they’re shooting in the dark.