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Why Donovan McNabb Will Benefit from the Trade to the Washington Redskins

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Why Donovan McNabb Will Benefit from the Trade to the Washington Redskins
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Washington Redskins fans are concerned that Donovan McNabb is a 33-year-old QB with a significant injury history whose best years are behind him, and thus has little opportunity to elevate a bad team.

Most Philadelphia Eagles fans feel the same: that McNabb has only two or three good years left, and that the Eagles did well to make sure that he spent those years in a situation where he is unlikely to challenge their team; that it is better to beat McNabb twice a year in the tough NFC East than to have McNabb go to, say, Minnesota or San Francisco, where he would have been surrounded by a lot more talent.

The thinking is that Kevin Kolb is already as good a QB as McNabb is right now, and that in a couple of years Kolb will not only clearly be better, but will have a much better team around him as well.

Now this may well indeed have been the thinking of Andy Reid when he made the trade. Reid knew that dealing McNabb to an Oakland or Buffalo would have resulted in McNabb's not signing a long-term deal, and his going to Minnesota, San Francisco, Arizona, Carolina, etc. to finish out his career with great talent on offense with him.

So, far better to stick McNabb in a situation that will be dysfunctional for the near future while claiming to have been looking out for McNabb's best interests all along by trading him to a destination that McNabb found agreeable.

If this is Reid's thinking, well, to be honest, Reid has been wrong before. Examples: Reid was wrong to draft Corey Simon over Plaxico Burress. He was wrong to take Brodrick Bunkley over Santonio Holmes, and also to take Winston Justice and Max-Jean Gilles in that same draft. He was wrong to go with Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell at WR for so long, and about Hank Baskett being a future star WR.

Reid was wrong not to give Terrell Owens a raise. Reid was wrong to expect that Asante Samuel would be the same type of player in the Eagles' 4-6 defense that he was in the Patriot's 3-4 defense. Reid was wrong to make Shawn and Stacy Andrews so important to the future of his OL, and his handling of the RB and LB positions in his tenure has been even worse than his WR and OL ones.

So, Reid can also be wrong about what McNabb has left in the tank, just as he was about Jeremiah Trotter, whom the Eagles also allowed to leave for the Redskins—claiming famously that Trotter made more bad plays than good ones and that Quinton Caver and Barry Gardner were better for their defense—before having to bring Trotter back, bad knees and all.

Donovan McNabb has been covering up a great deal of Reid's wrongheadedness for over 10 years. Now Kolb may yet be as good as or better than McNabb. That is not the issue. The issue instead is that the Eagles were not nearly as good as Reid thought that they were.

If McNabb made an Eagles team that for most of his tenure had no running game, pedestrian WRs and TEs, and real holes in their defense competitive, he can do the same with the Redskins. Mike Shanahan has a more realistic view of what the Redskins have because he is an outsider who doesn't have wishful thinking concerning the team that he built like Reid does.

Shanahan knows that the main advantages the Eagles possessed over the Redskins were at QB and offensive line. Shanahan has addressed the QB deficiency already, and by signing OG Artis Hicks from Minnesota, he now has a decent interior OL with Casey Rabach and Derrick Dockery. The problem is LT, RT, and depth, meaning that the Redskins could use three quality OLs.

The Redskins lack picks in rounds two and three, but can get a starting LT in round one. They can trade down from the No. 4 spot and still get a LT that they like (i.e. Trent Williams of Oklahoma or Bruce Campbell of Maryland) and add a draft pick or two. They can also get as high as a fourth rounder by dealing Jason Campbell, and there is also the possibility of bringing in former Dallas LT Flozell Adams.

Bottom line: The Redskins can and, with Shanahan and Bruce Allen running the personnel instead of Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato running the show, will have the Redskins' best offensive line in years, if not by the 2010 season, definitely by the 2011 one.

What about the WRs and RBs? The amazing thing is that even with a much better offensive line and QB, the Eagles only rushed for eight more yards per game than did Washington, and Washington added Larry Johnson and Willie Parker to the mix.

At WR and TE, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley are Pro Bowlers. Fred Davis really came on at the end of last year when Jim Zorn was finally forced to start playing him. Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas will benefit from a better QB who actually has time to throw the football and a coach in Shanahan who has a much more vertical-oriented approach than did Zorn.

That is the main thing that will benefit Donovan McNabb. McNabb has spent his entire career, including his prime, in a West Coast offense that even his most ardent defenders will acknowledge never truly fit his skills. McNabb is a smart, hard-working guy who knows the playbook and the NFL game, but his decision-making in that offense was never elite.

Also, McNabb simply lacks accuracy and touch on short and intermediate routes. Add to that Philadelphia's longtime lack of big targets and true No. 1s at WR (even now, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant are more like No. 2 and No. 3 WRs), and McNabb was always a square peg in a round hole in Philadelphia.

The McNabb bashers in Philadelphia were right for pointing this out, but wrong to blame McNabb as opposed to Andy Reid and the Eagles for never A) altering the offense to fit McNabb or B) getting bigger, better WRs or C) getting a between-the-tackles running game to make McNabb's deficiencies less important.

But Mike Shanahan runs a different offensive system. Shanahan certainly knows the West Coast offense and incorporates elements of it into his own scheme. Now that he has a QB who has spent his entire 11-year NFL career in that system, he will certainly make those West Coast offense elements more prominent than he did with his prior QBs (i.e. Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Brian Griese).

But Shanahan's offense is still fundamentally a vertical one and particularly uses downfield passing off roll-outs and play action.

Now Shanahan's offense is why I always had trouble with the claims that the Redskins were eyeing Sam Bradford, who is not mobile at all (even less so than pocket passers like Eli and Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady), so he can't do the roll-outs, would be a sitting duck behind a zone-blocking offensive line, lacks the arm strength to throw downfield, and would need at least two years to go from being a shotgun QB to a dropback passer. Shanahan's offense is simply not Bradford's game.

However, Shanahan's offense IS McNabb's game. Despite his age and injury history, he is still a good scrambler, so he can do the roll-out game.

McNabb is also at his best when throwing downfield. That was the case at Syracuse with McNabb throwing to Kevin Johnson and Marvin Harrison, and it was where he was most effective in Philadelphia throwing to Todd Pinkston (when he was actually open downfield), James Thrash, Terrell Owens, Jeremy Maclin, and DeSean Jackson.

The problem in Philadelphia was their insisting on the dink-and-dunk, quick slant and intermediate route passing game rather than allowing McNabb to simply throw downfield. Oh yeah, and WRs like Pinkston, Mitchell, Baskett, Charles Johnson, Reggie Brown, Greg Lewis, etc. who couldn't get open downfield or anywhere else.

The Eagles also never gave McNabb a chance to do much off play action because they never had that type of running game. A lot of people do not realize that Donovan McNabb only had a RB reach 800 yards in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008: Brian Westbrook each time. That's all, and Westbrook only had 812 yards in 2002 and 936 yards in 2008.

Since in 2006 McNabb only played in 10 games, McNabb only had a 1,000-yard rusher once in his career. Add to that Westbrook was mostly an outside runner and you need effective inside running to do the play-action game.

Well, the one-cut zone-blocking scheme will make Portis, Johnson, and Parker effective inside runners who will draw the safeties when McNabb fakes a handoff, which will leave favorable matchups for the WRs and TEs for McNabb to exploit downfield.

Santana Moss, who turns 31 this year and is still in his prime, is a more experienced version of DeSean Jackson. Devin Thomas will start on the other side, and Shanahan is smart enough not to have a guy with 6'3", 215-lb. size and 4.33 speed running slants and underneath routes like Jim Zorn did. Zorn actually kept Thomas on the bench because Thomas struggled to learn, run, and catch the ball on routes that he never ran in college.

With Moss and Thomas on the outside, that frees Malcolm Kelly (a big WR who isn't particularly fast, played in Oklahoma's gimmick offense, and as a result had trouble getting open in Zorn's West Coast offense on the outside) to match up against smaller, lesser DBs over the middle in the slot.

In addition, Shanahan will have two options in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis to compete for the Shannon Sharpe role in his offense. Cooley and Davis will also give Shanahan options in case either the WRs don't produce enough or the OL doesn't provide enough protection. (Again, Jim Zorn refused to play Fred Davis until Cooley's injury forced him to and rarely played Davis and Cooley together.)

Now granted, the Redskins' WRs won't be great. They won't be a match for what the Saints, Giants, Cowboys, Cardinals, Colts, Chargers, etc. will throw at people. That really doesn't matter. The issue is that they will be as good as what McNabb generally had in Philadelphia.

Santana Moss is as good as DeSean Jackson, Chris Cooley is as good as Brent Celek, Fred Davis is as effective as Jeremy Maclin...all that is necessary is for either Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas to step up, and Washington will be as good at WR and TE at 2010 as the Eagles were in 2009. They are already better at those positions than were the 2008 Eagles, for whom only Jackson had more than 450 yards receiving.

The only problem for the Redskins' WRs will likely be depth, so look for the 'Skins to add a WR in free agency or the draft.

But the real benefit for McNabb will be the vastly improved running game. It is very fair to say that McNabb has almost never had a running game that pulled its own weight. Even in Brian Westbrook's best years, the Eagles' running game was set up with the pass and also benefited from very good OL play.

McNabb was never in a situation where his passing was set up by the run (play action or otherwise) and especially never had the benefit of sitting back and watching a running game dominate, carry the team to victory, or even cover for his mistakes and deficiencies as a QB. But that is precisely what he will get in Washington: a running game that will always be in the top third in the NFL.

For example, in 2008 (Shanahan's last year in Denver) the Broncos finished 12th in the NFL in rushing. The Eagles, meanwhile, finished 22nd in the NFL.

You just won't see a Shanahan-coached team average 102 rushing yards per game like the Eagles did last year, a stat that would have been even worse had McNabb not added 140 yards and two TDs rushing to the total (and then there was Michael Vick's 95 yards and DeSean Jackson's 138 yards...Eagles RBs only gave 77 yards per game).

Consider the type of QB that McNabb is anyway. He is clearly in the Steve Young-John Elway mold. Well, Shanahan won a Super Bowl as offensive coordinator of the 49ers with Steve Young and two as head coach of the Broncos with John Elway.

McNabb never should have been running a Philadelphia Eagles offense that was better suited for Joe Montana, Drew Brees, or Tom Brady (and Kevin Kolb) for 11 years to begin with. A Shanahan-type offense always has suited his skills and mentality, which is to throw downfield and to make plays on the run. His decision-making, which seemed confused and addled at critical times in Philadelphia, will come more naturally in Shanahan's system.

For those who claim that McNabb's lack of accuracy will always plague him: Elway's completion percentage was 55.8 percent in 1997 and 59 percent in 2008. Elway only reached 60 percent completions once in Denver, and that was throwing to Pro Bowlers Ed McCaffrey, Rod Smith, and Shannon Sharpe.

Throwing downfield and making big plays makes the 70 percent completion percentage thing because of the laser accuracy on short routes (not McNabb's game, and also not the game of Washington WRs and TEs like Moss, Thomas, Cooley, and Davis) unnecessary.

Also, finally getting a true running game will extend McNabb's career. Elway played until he was 38, so if McNabb does the same, he will give the Redskins five years. 

Bottom line: Expect to see McNabb put up the best numbers in his career in Washington while playing in a system that better fits his game.

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