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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Donovan McNabb and the Reid Legacy

McNabb Represents Andy Reid’s Greatest Achievement, Biggest Mistake in Philly

As people in the Philadelphia region continue to reflect on the tenure of former head coach Andy Reid and debate on who should replace him, I hope they’re honest enough to admit that replacing him won’t be as simple as winning five games next season.  To improve upon what he accomplished during his stint in Philly means one thing and one thing only: winning a Super Bowl.  It won’t be easily achieved, especially considering the lack of a franchise quarterback he’s left in his wake, the result of what has to be viewed as Reid’s most egregious of miscalculations over the last few years along the Eagles’ sidelines — the trading of Donovan McNabb.  It’s still confounding to me that Reid thought he could so abruptly separate himself from the player he built his program around and maintain the same rate of winning.

An Unpredictable Path

When Reid looked up at the big board when his time had come to make the No. 2 selection of the 1999 NFL draft, his first as Eagle head coach, the expectation among many was that he’d use it on running back Ricky Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner out of the University of Texas who at the time of the draft stood as the NCAA’s Division I-A career rushing leader, career rushing touchdowns leader and career scoring leader.  After a 5-11 season in 1998 that ushered in the Reid era, Williams had become a coveted prize among many in a fan base that had endured three consecutive losing seasons.  In times like these, such as we’re seeing now after an embarrassing 42-7, season-ending loss to division rival New York Giants (the result of which assures the Birds the No. 4 selection in next spring’s draft), the consolation prize becomes that high draft pick.  And in what would foreshadow a throng of debatable personnel decisions that would occur over the next 13 years, Reid, amidst the jeers of a select few fans at the draft who had convinced themselves that Williams was their savior, Reid chose Syracuse University quarterback Donovan McNabb.  But should it really have been that much of a surprise that Reid, who had previously won a Super Bowl and helped make the NFL playoffs an annual tradition as an assistant and quarterback coach during a seven-year tenure in Green Bay with the great Brett Favre, would spend what would likely be the most important draft pick he ever made on a QB — especially when considering that at the time the draft class was considered to be one of the most quarterback friendly that the sport had ever seen?  As the weeks, months and years passed without just about every other quarterback taken before and after McNabb experiencing any relative NFL success (save Daunte Culpepper, the No. 11 overall pick by Minnesota), Reid was hailed as a genius (at least by some).  

While McNabb helped provide the Eagles and their fans renewed optimism in 1999, including becoming the first Eagle rookie to win his first career start since 1974, Williams wouldn’t prove to be any kind of blessing in New Orleans as he played in only 12 games and accumulated just two touchdowns on 884 yards for the 3-13 Saints, who took Williams with the fifth overall pick after trading all six of their draft picks to the Redskins in order to move up in the draft.  As the full-time starter the following year in Philadelphia, McNabb would begin to commandeer the franchise’s most successful stint of the Super Bowl era (albeit without actually winning a Super Bowl), winning 92 games (never fewer than eight in a full season), leading his team to the playoffs five years in succession before injuries limited him to partial seasons in 2005 and 2006, advancing to the NFC conference championship game five times between 2001-08 (four straight at one point, winning one) and nearly pulling off an upset of Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX.  

Despite not winning the bowl, Reid and his Eagles continued to be a dominant force in the NFL first and foremost because he selected the best quarterback in his draft class and molded him into one of the game’s best.  McNabb was named to the pro bowl five straight seasons (2000-04) and six overall; ranked third in NFL wins entering 2012 behind just Peyton Manning and Tom Brady; and ranked fourth in the league in career completions, passing yards, and touchdown passes at that same juncture behind (in no particular order) Manning, Brady and Drew Brees.

Now more than a full year after McNabb has likely played his last NFL game (despite, at age 38, being six years younger than Steve DeBerg was when he set an NFL record by being the oldest quarterback to start a game for the Atlanta Falcons in 1998) and three calendar years since he last played in Philadelphia, I can’t help but still ask — just what in the hell was Andy Reid thinking when he traded his franchise player that Easter evening in 2010 and leaving the fate of his team and his reputation in the hands of Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick? If and when his reputation recovers, it won’t happen in Philadelphia.

Sealing A Downward Spiral

Clearly, other factors contributed to the Birds’ fall from the NFL’s elite aside from the McNabb trade, i.e. the resignation and death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson; lackluster drafts, particularly post-Super Bowl, which have resulted in notable early-round busts such as (all in the second round) wide receiver Reggie Brown and linebacker Matt McCoy (2005), defensive end Victor Abiamiri (2007), defensive tackle Trevor Laws (2008), and safties Nate Allen (2010) and Jaiquan Jarrett (2001).  Then there’s Kolb (another second round pick of 2007) and guard Danny Watkins, a 2011 first round selection (23rd overall) who has struggled for playing time despite a decimated offensive line — which certainly contributed to the Eagles struggles in 2012.  

Be that as it may, no one transaction, whether it be the trading/release of a player, coach or administrator (and there have been many significant moves that many have been justifiably critical of over the years, but most notably Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Brad Childress, Tom Modrak and Tom Heckertt) has caused the same level of fallout as the exit of McNabb.  Even despite losing the late, great Johnson and the sure Hall of Famer Dawkins after the 2008 season, the Eagles made the playoffs in 2009 and 2010.  They have now made the postseason in four of seven seasons since Childress’ departure to Minnesota, beating his Vikings in the first round of 2008.  Though they’d later reconcile on their mistake to let the four-time Pro Bowler Trotter leave for Washington, going to the Super Bowl after reuniting with the linebacker in 2004, they still went to the playoffs throughout his 2-year hiatus, winning 12 games in both 2002 and 2003.  Yet, without McNabb they have been in a consistent, steady decline.  Yes, they made the playoffs by winning the East in 2010, but they were able to do so with one fewer win than the year prior (for all those who have themselves convinced that the “down” NFC East allowed the Eagles to win five championships during McNabb’s reign) and have since won a total of just eight and four games in consecutive years.  They never went two straight seasons outside the playoff picture with McNabb on the roster.

Justifying A Potential Hall of Famer

I think it’s ridiculous to postulate that since McNabb didn’t make the playoffs during his one year spent respectively in Washington and Minnesota the Eagles were right to trade him.  Statistically speaking he was not too far off the path of the numbers he produced during his 11 years in Philadelphia, numbers that will keep him in the Hall of Fame conversation when he officially retires.  In 2010 he led a Redskins team to as many wins as they had the year prior (four) through eight games.  After winning his debut game over a Dallas team that many prognosticators had tagged for the Super Bowl in week one, McNabb had DC slated for a 2-0 start in completing 28 of 38 passes for 426 yards and a touchdown in Houston, but the meltdown of a defense that would become ranked 21st in points allowed on the season essentially begun after the half with the ‘Skins holding a 20-7 lead.  Washington lost, 30-27 in overtime, but after losing the following week to St. Louis (a game in which McNabb struggled), important wins over the Eagles and eventual champion Green Bay followed.  .In the Packer game, McNabb would engineer a late drive that had Washington set up for a game-winning field goal attempt as regulation expired, but Graham Gano missed the 47-yarder before getting redemption in overtime.  

A month later McNabb would produce his 26th and final (to date) game-winning drive in a 19-16 overtime win at Tennessee. Of the 26 game-clinching drives he orchestrated, 17 came via 4th-quarter comeback.  That’s a lot more than the “none” his detractors seem to think he had.  In all, he’d collect more than 3,300 yards in 13 games in Washington that year, a pace at which was leading him to have more yardage in a season than he ever had with the Eagles (3,916 in 2008—without Terrell Owens, mind you, who only played in one Super Bowl, the same one McNabb did).  He did throw more interceptions than touchdowns (by a mere 1 at 15/14) for the only time in his career, but I don’t think that’s the greatest crime for a QB playing in a new system.  Had a botched snap not occurred on a game-tying extra point attempt with nine seconds remaining in a week 13 game against Tampa Bay, an attempt that was preceded by McNabb igniting a 13-play, 75-yard drive to trim the lead to one, there may have been a better outcome to that contest instead of a changing of the guard in DC.  Instead, McNabb was replaced by backup Rex Grossman, who would throw four interceptions in the final three games, losing two of them. 

For those who argue that McNabb’s numbers took a nosedive after leaving Philly, that stance simply doesn’t hold up. Even in Minnesota in 2011, where the sample size is relatively small in terms of trying to compare to the rest of his career, his 60.3 completion percentage is identical to the number he posted in 2009.  However, with his mobility in clear decline (even his biggest proponents can’t deny that) the Vikings eager to see what they had in 2011 first round draftee Christian Ponder (which occurred prior to acquiring McNabb) after their 1-5 start.  It was tough to fault them; however I find it hypocritical that the 30th-ranked defense that shared the field that year doesn’t harbor most of the blame around here, considering all the credit some Eagles fans give to the Birds’ D in making the Super Bowl run.  On that note, it’s worth pointing out that Johnson’s best unit wasn’t the 2004 team, but the 2001 team, when considering points scored against.  In the same vein, I find it hardly coincidental that during McNabb’s injury-riddled years of 2005 and 2006, Johnson’s defense posted its worst two consecutive seasons with rankings of 27th (his worst unit of all) and 15th, respectively.  Imagine, a quarterback’s and an offense’s success aiding a defense’s productivity.

It’s hard to fathom that I should still feel the need to defend someone with the success McNabb had in this town, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more scrutinized athlete in Philadelphia. Just don’t tell that to Mike Schmidt or Ilya Bryzgalov.

Submitted by ASI Guest Blogger, Joseph Darrah

(c) 2013 Joseph Darrah All Rights Reserved


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. My favorite stat is the 17 4th quarter comebacks that no one in Philly seems to remember. I guess he smiled too much for Philly?

  2. Yeah, when people have "too many smiles" as a complaint against someone, you know they're pulling at threads.