April 4th, 2010 marked Major League Baseball’s annual opening day, on which the Boston Red Sox battled it out until the last innings of an evening game with their New York nemeses, the Yankees. Each team slugged for the fences for the better part of nine innings at Fenway Park, eliciting all the excitement that baseball can muster these days—towering talents hammering away at a storied ballpark under hot, bright lights.
But April 4th was a curious and notable day on the sports calendar for other reasons, much to the chagrin and annoyance of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. 2,300 miles away from Boston, a 33-year-old veteran quarterback was being notified by his agent and former football team that he had been traded to a division rival. He was napping at the time, resting up on an otherwise peaceful Easter weekend.
That the Philadelphia Eagles would one day trade Donovan McNabb was practically a foregone conclusion to both those who admired and despised #5 in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia fans booed him during the 1999 draft because he wasn’t Ricky Williams; they never apologized after he brought them to five NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl; they rarely recognized that, in McNabb, the team had a decisive leader and a surefire guarantee for 3,500 passing yards every year.
Forget that only he and Tom Brady have ever had 200 touchdown passes and fewer than 100 interceptions. Forget that only he and a handful of other Hall of Fame quarterbacks have thrown for 30,000 yards and rushed for 3,000 more. The Eagles, it seemed, had found their missing piece in Kevin Kolb, a young gun from Texas whose talents were revealed during two explosive Sundays in 2009 when McNabb was on the sideline with a rib injury.
Of course, more was made out of the fact that McNabb would be traded in his prime to the Washington Redskins, a division rival of the Philadelphia Eagles whom his former team would face twice each year. Moreover, McNabb would be playing under Mike Shannahan—one of the game’s most celebrated coaches—and teamed with a receiving corps that, in spite of a lackluster quarterback, still managed to accrue 3,600 yards in 2009.
It is easy to see why Washington would trade two future draft picks for McNabb: Philadelphia’s record setting quarterback was a definite upgrade from Jason Campbell, the man who previously held the position in Washington. McNabb brings poise and leadership to a team that had none in the last few seasons. It is more difficult to understand the Eagles’ reasoning, though two points have come up predominantly.
First, Andy Reid and the Eagles’ brass evidently do not think McNabb will be a threat down the road. Which they, more so than any other organization, would know. But there is likely an ulterior reason that most fans never refer to: McNabb and Reid were close in Philadelphia. One facilitated the growth and prominence of the other. Knowing that it would be hugely detrimental to McNabb and a huge insult to the man were he traded to the Raiders or some other bottom-of-the-heap squad, Reid likely facilitated a trade that would be more to McNabb’s liking, keeping the quarterback who had brought so much to Philadelphia close to his family. We don’t think of football as a kindhearted business but Reid never threw McNabb under the bus in the 11 seasons they played with and for one another.
It is also worth noting that the Redskins simply offered the best deal to the Eagles. If McNabb and the Redskins perform well this year, the Eagles will have come away with a second and a third-round draft pick, which is a huge coup for a team that’s growing younger with every passing year. The Eagles have, as some commentators put it, a youth movement in development in Philadelphia. The average player-age on the team dropped from 28 to 24 in the span of only 12 months, as the Eagles let go of every one of their veterans on both sides of the ball.
The Eagles, a playoff-contending team for the last decade with McNabb at the helm, have refused to call the team’s structural changes a “rebuilding” experience. They have highly competent third-year talents all over the field. But in its first two games, McNabb’s old squad looks to be in search of a leader. When Michael Vick—the semi-redeemed backup to Kevin Kolb—stepped up this past week (due to a concussion Kolb suffered the week prior), the Eagles flourished against an unusually invigorated Lions team. Vick drove the Eagles forward en route to 38 points and nearly 400 total offensive yards.
To be sure, Kolb will be the starter in Philadelphia for at least the coming season, but a restless Philadelphia fanbase will brook little failure from the young man from Houston, and the Eagles are impatient for another shot at the Super Bowl. It is likely that we will see Vick again and not merely as a backup.
Concomitantly, Philadelphia has by turns quietly and loudly moved on from the days of McNabb’s spotty dominance. When the Eagles’ former quarterback returns to Philadelphia on the first Sunday of October, that will all change. The pressure will be on for both teams to prove that they made the right decision in either releasing or taking on McNabb. But whereas the fanbase of Washington is already fired up about their new offensive leader, Philadelphia’s is growing restless under the uncertainty of the nascent Kolb era.
Indeed, McNabb has begun to make his mark on his new team in oft-remarked-on ways. Chris Cooley and Santana Moss are effusive about their new passer. Head Coach Mike Shannahan is complimentary but more reserved. McNabb’s first pre-season with the Redskins was marred by a nagging ankle injury but in his first two starts, he has looked by turns uncertain, decent, and phenomenal.
All long-term McNabb fans and detractors alike are aware of the complications that come with him leading a team’s offense: there will be grounded balls and overthrown passes. There will also be 60-yard bombs and unexpected agility in the pocket, buying time for receivers down field.
This is also the life of a veteran quarterback coming to a new team. McNabb is learning a new offense while simultaneously forgetting an old one. He is bonding with his new teammates in the same moments that he is called on to play a meaningful game. McNabb, the old dog cast-off with the penchant for short-field inaccuracy and deep spot-on throws, is learning new tricks.
He is also the same quarterback that he has always been. McNabb’s average performance over two starts as a Redskin correlate strongly with his career performance with the Eagles: 61% completion rate, 90-plus quarterback rating, throwing for just shy of 300 yards per game. This is vintage McNabb—a quarterback whose greatness is in evidence often but not always.
But when we look at each of McNabb’s individual starts, we are reminded of the anxiety-inducing extremes at which McNabb often plays. In his first start against the Cowboys, McNabb threw for a below-pedestrian 171 yards, hitting only two receivers with any regularity—a set of facts more representative of a first-year rookie than other elite passers in the league. The team won without grace or control. On too many occasions, McNabb over- or under-threw his receivers, though there were moments during which he seemed like the pocket-steady passer that he has grown into in recent years.
But the Redskins also revealed the Cowboys to be a troubled team. They took advantage of Dallas’s many penalties and nearly forced two interceptions in the last two minutes. If nothing else, during that first game in Washington, the better team won—even if the better team wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination.
In his second start against a much-vaunted team of Texans out of Houston, McNabb lit the fuse, completing 28 of 38 passes for nearly 430 yards. His long passes of the afternoon were of 62, 62, 35, and 34 yards. He hit eight different receivers for completions and spread the ball around with eye-popping effectiveness. Something, it seemed, finally clicked for him and his new team. And although the Redskins lost by a field goal in overtime, the team showed that a .500 season is not an impossibility, provided they can keep their heads up in the coming weeks.
While some fans and commentators alike are sagging their shoulders at the Redskins, thinking, “Here we go again,” many are noting that Washington never lost in such fashion in recent years—not with a quarterback throwing 400-plus yards and sustaining a three-score lead through the third quarter. Whereas the Washington defense won the team’s first game against Dallas, it was the defense that lost the second game thereafter, giving up twenty unanswered points in nearly as many minutes.
But the fault does not entirely lie with the defense. A few writers have observed that the Redskins have given up more yardage and first-downs than any other team in the NFL but almost no one is referring to the fact that the Redskins have given up the fewest points in their division through two games, allowing the Cowboys and Texans an average of just under 19 points per game. To limit the Texans to just ten points through three quarters is almost astonishing when one considers how that same Houston team demolished the Colts just a week earlier.
The Redskins are a team in transition. Everyone—veterans and rookies alike—is currently adjusting to a new scheme if not a new position. But Washington is also a team that is coming together. The Redskins’ second game was one that featured no interceptions (at least by the Redskins), no fumbles, no turnovers, and little of the miscommunication that seemed to disrupt play during Week 1.
McNabb demonstrated that even playing with a shambolic offense made up of aging castaways and sometime-underachievers, he can still pull off the nearly miraculous. One might be reminded of his earliest years in Philadelphia in which he had no big-name receivers but still drove the Eagles deeper and deeper into the playoffs. The Redskins will not be a Super Bowl contender this year, but, judging by the early performance of the NFC East competition, a playoff berth might be possible.
With regard to the immediate present, it is strange to note that McNabb has already made some of his most notable marks in football history as a Redskin: he now has accrued more career yards with his arm than Troy Aikman and more completions than Johnny Unitas. With another few games, McNabb will climb even higher on the list of the game’s greatest passers. This, coming from a guy who has completed full sixteen-game seasons in half of the years he’s played professionally.
In the whole history of the NFL, a veteran quarterback of McNabb’s talents has never been traded within his division to a team that might pose a significant threat. Sure, Philadelphians everywhere were relieved when the Groundhog Day experience of watching the Eagles venture into the playoffs only to lose finally came to end. Few have commented that, in so doing, the Eagles cast their lot into the unknown.
But more so than any other group, quarterbacks from around the league voiced their surprise at McNabb’s trade and their support for him as well. Payton Manning sent McNabb a text message that effectively read, “Get your revenge.” And McNabb, for his part, has earned the respect of players around the league by offering Kolb advice on being in the blinding Philadelphia spotlight. After this past Sunday’s light-‘em-up performance against the Texans, more than a few football fans must be wondering if the Eagles made a mistake. Then again, we’ll certainly never hear any apologies or retractions coming out of Philadelphia.
For both the Eagles and the Redskins, the 2010-2011 NFL season is a great mystery due largely to McNabb’s absence and presence. He is the lynch-pin of the Redskins’ future hopes and a good bet to revive this team in the way that he helped to revive the Eagles in the early 2000s. By contrast, the Eagles have cast themselves into uncertainty, a mostly inexperienced team tenuously held together by a veteran coach and the espirit du corps of its youthful members.
Provided that the Giants and Cowboys continue their respective week-to-week implosions, the Eagles and the Redskins both have a chance to extend their seasons into the playoffs.