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FNQB: Inside the McNabb Trade

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Tonight’s Friday Night Quarterback will take a single event — Donovan McNabb’s trade from the Eagles to the Redskins — and will tackle it from a whole bunch of perspectives.  Ignoring the intentions of player personnel gurus/head coaches Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan will allow us to look at the trade from a bunch of different perspective.  We’ll tackle the trade from the perspective of an analytical fan, both for Philadelphia and Washington, and also from the perspective of McNabb.  Maybe I’ll throw in a sentence or two about a comparison/contrasting between the two quarterbacks in the NFC East that aren’t household names: Jason Campbell and Kevin Kolb.

What this will not do is suggest that any party won or lost the trade.  The winner is obviously Kevin Kolb, and the loser is obviously Jason Campbell.  Beyond that, either the trade market is efficient and both teams got what they want, or one organization is simply inferior to the other (I suspect that both these clauses have some truth to them), but lets’ start with team perspectives.

Philadelphia’s organization had a very valuable quarterback atop their depth chart.  They had a very valuable quarterback prospect at no. 2 behind him.  At the no. 3 spot they have a flake who was once a valuable quarterback prospect.  There was no reason to either take all three of those quarterbacks into camp, or to cut bait with one just for the sake of moving one.  If I were an Eagles fan, I would probably favor trading one (any) of my quarterbacks to keeping all of them, but it’s not a major negative if no deal is made.

Now, let’s deal with the reality of the situation.  If McNabb is on the roster in Week 1, he’s the starter in Philadelphia.  This isn’t so much because of how good he is, as it is how good he has been.  If this 33 year old McNabb had been a star for the Arizona Cardinals for 11 years, but came to the Eagles in a trade, he wouldn’t start over Kevin Kolb.  There’s a little bit of evidence for this with regard to Michael Vick.  He’s been on the team for a shorter amount of time than Kolb, they’re both unproven, so Kolb is ahead of him because he’s been there longer (and is believed to be the future).

Kolb can only be the starter, realistically speaking, if McNabb’s not there.  But McNabb’s contract is too valuable to flat out release him.  At $11.5 million for this season, McNabb’s contract (which includes a rare pay raise from the team in 2009) is still a relative value for what he brings to the table (not quite as valuable as Jason Campbell’s $3 million, but I digress).  So you don’t want to release him and pay him the value of that contract.  So while it’s certainly an awkward situation, you either need to work some sort of high-compensation trade for McNabb, or let him play out his contract in Philadelphia.

If I’m an Eagles fan, I really would hope that someone would step up and meet a high asking price for Donovan McNabb while he still has trade value, but if you can’t get something worthwhile on that trade value, 2010 isn’t a terrible year to take one more shot at it.  In a world where only player present value matters, it’d be ideal to put McNabb at second string and start Kevin Kolb to see what you have for half a season in the last year of his contract while having McNabb there to relieve him if he doesn’t play adequtely, but that’s not a realistic scenario.  Locker room cohesion requires at least a passing glance, and if you decide you’re going to go with Kolb, McNabb can’t be on the roster.

So even with the value in McNabb’s contract, you’re saving more money in the long run by moving him now because you get a look at Kolb on a salary of just a couple million for this year (a backups number), and fewer of Vick’s contract dollars are wasted.  Well, that and now you don’t have to pay McNabb’s deal, which is good value when he’s playing, and dead weight when he’s not.  The aggregate of all this evidence is that there are major incentives to move McNabb now, but probably not quite enough to accept a lowball trade offer or to outright release him.  Eagle fans should be happy with getting a second round pick for McNabb, but what a lot of fans are hung up on is that, to get that price, the Eagles had to break conventional wisdom and deal McNabb within the division.

I know I said that I wouldn’t declare winners and losers, but isn’t there a really good chance that the Eagles might have ended up releasing McNabb in August if they didn’t trade him in April?  As long as he was the starter in Philly, he was neither going to be traded or released.  As soon as the team decides to go to Kolb as a starter, they can’t really keep McNabb for all the reasons stated above.  At the point of release, there’s nothing the Eagles can do to stop McNabb from going to Washington if it’s revenge he wanted over a championship-caliber situation.  By planting him there, the Eagles get a very valuable draft pick, and the Redskins save some, if not a lot of money.  Big win for the Eagles, at least on that point.

Eagles fans have a right to be alarmed: look at how much effort the Packers took to make sure Brett Favre didn’t land in the NFC North.  Of course, if they could have picked up a high second rounder in 2008 for dealing Favre to the Lions, they probably have done it.  Cause for alarm is one thing, but Eagles fans should still be happy with this deal.  The next-best alternative would have been a McNabb extension, and it’s a bigger risk to try to rely on McNabb aging well than it is to rely on Kolb being a competent player in the short term.

From the Redskins fan perspective, the thing McNabb brings to the team instantly is legitimacy.  The Redskins weren’t credible before.  Now they are.  As a Redskins fan, let me explain to you why this is meaningful: it’s not.  However, it certainly feels better than the alternative, which is that pundits that have reason to know better assume you are irrelevant.

Sappy feelings are nice and all, and contribute to a team that prides itself on not just beating, but destroying it’s competition in the months of March and April.  With this move, Redskins fans know that they’ve taken the Bears’ “splashy” offseason, and just gave it the big ‘ol middle finger.  As for what this trade does for the team in the Fall…helps them meet a payroll quota, I guess?  McNabb will be just as valuable for the Redskins as he was for the Eagles (with some inevitable age decline), which means that the Redskins have either the third or fourth best quarterback in the NFC East (Kolb’s first four games will go much further towards determining the slotting than anything McNabb can do).

In the context of quarterbacking in this division, Jason Campbell’s biggest issue is that he just couldn’t hang with the big dogs on a year to year basis.  As far as NFL quarterbacks go, Campbell’s pretty good.  In the NFC East, he was a distant fourth year after year, at least following the Giants 2007 playoff run and subsequent Eli Manning breakout.  Back in 2004, McNabb was the gold standard by which NFC East quarterbacks were measured.  That year, he was up against Kurt Warner (later Manning), Vinny Testeverde, and Patrick Ramsey.  He beat them all.

Since that year, McNabb has started 16 games in one season, has won the division only once (a season he didn’t play the final 5 games), has won just a pair of playoff games (both in 2008), and has gone to one pro bowl.  If McNabb was ever the best quarterback in the division over this timeframe, it might have been in 2006 when he and Tony Romo played relative half-seasons, and were both very good over the timeframe.  Either way, he hasn’t quite been the best aggregate passer in the division since 2005, that would be either Romo or Manning.  Campbell is the one quarterback that McNabb has consistently out-produced since Jason was drafted in 2005, and that margin of quality difference has shrunk every season.

So now, Campbell will cede his job to McNabb, who comes in with the bling of six pro bowls, to a really terrible offensive situation (the defensive prospectus’ are fairly similar between the Redskins and the Eagles).  For Kolb, he leaves behind DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, and Jeremy Maclin, and takes with him the memories of weapons such as Brian Westbrook, L.J. Smith, Kevin Curtis, and James Thrash (there’s probably someone I’m forgetting).  He comes into Washington where he’s handed a Reggie Brown equivalent (Devin Thomas), a Jason Avant/Hank Baskett equivalent (Malcolm Kelly), Santana Moss about four years removed from his prime, a couple of lesser prospects, and more quality tight ends than he knows what to do with.  He also inherits a running game that has a bunch of older no-longer-effective running backs.  I think the hope is that McNabb will combine with Shanahan’s offensive expertise to make every other flawed part of the team function like it was originally planned, but this can be easily dismissed as the delusions of a franchise long removed from relevance.

Does McNabb get what he want?  I think he wanted to stay in Philly, but I haven’t heard one Philly fan, even those who didn’t like this trade, suggest that the correct course of action would have been to offer McNabb a four year extension.  Under those circumstances, I think a change of scenery is the best alternative for a player.  The question is: if McNabb had been dangled as trade bait for a few more months and then outright released, would he have done better for himself?  Mike Shanahan wanted the opportunity to work with McNabb, and the Redskins have the resources to ensure his career goes out as well financially as it has over the life of it.  McNabb probably could have gotten the same deal in Cleveland with Mike Holmgren as he could have with Mike Shanahan in Washington, but even the best situations for McNabb wouldn’t have made out much better.  The only way that McNabb would have a realistic shot for the playoffs is if he found a way into one of the west coast divisions where he could make a difference in the outcome of the race.   In the NFC East, playing for the Redskins, his story will be very relevant two times a year: when he’s playing the Eagles.

Still, McNabb landed on his feet on a team that wants him for who he is, and obviously not as much for the production he brings to the table.  That’s usually a relationship that ends in favor of the player.

The other players in this division are the Giants and Cowboys, as well as the quarterbacks who have their prospectuses change so rapidly.  For Kolb, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, to be handed the controls to the Eagles offense one year from free agency, before the labor mess comes to a head, and told: “Go get ’em Cowboy Eagle.”  For Campbell, it offers him the opportunity to get the heck out of Washington, which is good, but the interested parties are not a whole lot more appealing, which is not so good.  He’ll get an opportunity, but there’s no guarantee the status quo will be any different.

Meanwhile, would it be accurate to say the Giants and Eagles now have twice the reason to be worried?  Probably not.  If the Eagles system that was responsible for “creating” Donovan McNabb also makes a top 12 passer out of Kevin Kolb, it’s likely that Washington will continue to struggle under McNabb, meaning the status quo remains the same.  On the contrary, if the Eagles really find themselves unable to replace McNabb’s contributions this season, and drop to the realm of a 5 or 6 win team, you’d think the Redskins will slip nicely into their place as the fringe contender in the division.

The bottom line for the NFC East is this: it’s the Giants and the Cowboys who enter 2010 in the best shape to make a playoff run.  It would have been a mistake to take the Eagles or Redskins lightly anyway.  With this trade, the balance of power is hardly upset, rather, it brings the Redskins back into the discussion, adds some level of unpredictability (neither positive or negative) to the Eagles offense, is great for Kevin Kolb, doesn’t really help or hurt Jason Campbell in the long run, and probably sets the Redskins up for more disappointment.  That’s okay though, irrelevance and disappointment sting equally, and the Redskins reputation to uphold was the one thing that was truly at stake in these negotiations.

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