The Sports Daily > Redskins Hog Heaven
Donovan McNabb and Labor Uncertainty
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Redskins

One of the blemishes on this first offseason for the new Redskins’ front office, in my opinion, was that they got the worse end of the Donovan McNabb trade.  Context is everything.  If neither Kevin Kolb or Jason Campbell had existed, and for sake of argument, the trade was occuring between the Eagles and the Redskins in a vacuum, a second round pick is not a hefty price to pay for the back end of a player like Donovan McNabb’s career.  There should be a legitimate concern that the receipiant in the trade only receives maybe a year or two of quality play in return (if that), but McNabb is a good enough quarterback where even one year at his expected level of play can justify a second round pick.  In fact, McNabb’s $12 million figure for this season is well below the market rate for a quarterback of his stature.

The problems with the trade come in when you consider who Kevin Kolb and Jason Campbell are in the NFL hierarchy of quarterbacks.  Bascially, the Eagles had an internal problem of holding two quarterbacks on the roster who they wanted to start next year, and couldn’t afford to outright release McNabb to get to Kolb.  They needed to find a trade partner, and the Redskins assisted the Eagles out of their mini-mess, offering in return a valuable draft choice (now Eagles S Nate Allen).  What the Redskins got in return looks good in a vaccuum, but makes little sense when you consider what they had before.  McNabb’s $12 million contract is team friendly, but not moreso than Campbell’s $3 million.  McNabb has quality years left, but certainly fewer left than Campbell.  McNabb has been to pro bowls, but neither McNabb nor Campbell is particularly likely to make it to one in the future.

To take the Eagles problems off their hands, you’d expect a big upgrade in terms of on field play, but truth be told, you can probably expect more immediate impact out of a high second round pick in terms of wins than this QB upgrade will get you.  The Eagles take a big risk by moving forward with an unproven Kolb, but they know it’s a risk that’s likely to pay off, just as deep down, Redskins fans realize that somehow, someway, the McNabb trade has all the makings of an awful move.  In the past, I’ve compared it to the Jason Taylor trade, but while I think the outcomes will be similar, the fundamental error here is not a repeat of the past.  The Redskins are in uncharted waters after this trade.  Thing is, with McNabb’s career getting to a breaking point — either his production explodes in Washington and drives up his legacy consistent to that of a hall of famer, or he plays fewer than 20 games with the Redskins and kind of drifts off into a forgotton land of very good quarterbacks who never did bring home the title, and simply were never dominant enough to be in the Hall of Fame.  Honestly, that’s not a bad point to take a risk on a player with a great legacy.  Better than doing it five years from now.  Problem is, at the price of the trade, it’s hard to envision a winning scenario.

One scenario under which a McNabb acquisition might have made sense is if the Redskins hadn’t won four games with a middling passing game and putrid running game, but rather, couldn’t make plays through the air or on the ground en route to a 2-14 season.  It’s possible, especally if the Redskins had lost to the Rams, that the team (if they had legitimately struggled at quarterback last year) would have been in position to take Sam Bradford with the 1st overall pick.  It’s just another example of why I don’t think McNabb made/makes sense for the Redskins, when one of the only reasons that the Redskins didn’t get the first overall pick with their luck/inept coaching last year was competent veteran QB play.

All of that is water under the bridge.  The Redskins found a taker for Campbell in Oakland, and received a future pick that — while having no present value — will help offset some of the future imbalance of this McNabb deal over time.  I felt it necessary to preface the following discussion about McNabb and how his legacy in Washington may depend more on an agreement between the NFL owners and the Players Association, than on anything McNabb or Mike Shanahan can do.  Right now, the Redskins are between a rock and a hard place in terms of their ability to win under Shanahan, and while I think I’ve shown pretty conclusively that this trade doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Redskins, I also believe that the Redskins might have had their hand forced by external factors that they cannot control.

In 2010, the Redskins will compete against perhaps the toughest schedule they’ve ever had in the NFC East.  While there have been years, (consecutive years actually in 2007-2008) where no team in the division finished with double digits in the losses column, this will be perhaps the first year that both the Eagles and the Cowboys will be top five teams in the NFL going into the season.  Meanwhile the Giants have a chance to be a top ten team, and the Redskins should be a top half team.  There’s a lot of divisions that the Skins could compete and win this year, but the NFC East likely is not one of them.  There are plenty of wild cards available for NFC East teams to grab, as always, so I’m not predicting that the Redskins won’t make the postseason, but if they do, it will not be as a favorite to advance.

Following the 2010 season, the Collective Bargaining Agreement ends.  There is a very high probability that there will not be football in 2011.  Faced with the reality of the situation, the Redskins decision makers knew, going in, that they had very little time to make a play at winning the super bowl right away.  It’s probably a correct assumption that keeping Jason Campbell on board for this upcoming season doesn’t give the team a good enough chance of winning under the current CBA, so they took a risk, and made a change.  If I was going to go balls out like that in an attempt to win now, I think it would make more sense to take a chance on an unknown quantity than to go with McNabb, but perhaps there is an unknown quantity to the McNabb that the Redskins are planning to utilize.  Like I stated, I have an expectation for how this will end, but the Redskins still are in uncharted waters, and just because there is no apparent plan doesn’t mean one is absent.

I do wonder what the Redskins’ plan for the 2012 season is.  All we know about the NFL three years down the road is that there might have been two seasons played between now and then, or just one.  On November 25, 2012, McNabb will turn 36.  It’s hard to see him as a quality quarterback at that point.  Pro football reference offers this list of statstical comparables for his career through 11 years:

Career Mark Brunell, Steve McNair, Terry Bradshaw*, Jim Kelly*, Troy Aikman*, Boomer Esiason, Roger Staubach*, Drew Bledsoe, Ken Stabler, Bob Griese*

Brunell was still effective at that age, but there was little downfield component to the Redskins offense at that point.  McNair (RIP) is a much better comparable, and his last hurrah came right around McNabb’s current age.  If the Redskins had acquired McNair in 2006, he wouldn’t have made it through the 2010 season.  Bradshaw was still effective around his retirement, which occured consistent with the McNair timeline.  Jim Kelly, like Bradshaw and unlike McNabb didn’t have to change teams at the end of his career, but he was able to play like an average NFL QB past his 33rd birthday for about three years.  Aikman’s injury profile fits in next to McNabb’s and he was effective through his age 33 season, but then ineffective at 34 when Lavar Arrington drilled him to end his career.  Boomer Esiason had some really ineffective years at the end of his career, which lasted a lot longer the other McNabb comparables, but he won 8 games and made the pro bowl in his first year after leaving Cincinnati.  Staubach was awesome in his mid to late thirties.  Bledsoe had a league average year as Cowboys QB in 2005, then was done.  Stabler was never good after leaving Oakland.  Griese made it through 33 at the top of his game, then dropped off.

McNabb’s comparables have scattered league average performances after their 33rd birthdays, but most of them chose to retire before getting up into their mid thirties, oftentimes due to injuries.  I’d feel a lot better about McNabb’s chances of playing to 2012 and beyond if not for his injury history and the upcoming labor dispute.

Realistically, I think the Redskins are looking to squeeze one year plus out of McNabb, but whether or not this trade makes sense for the future certainly seems to hinge on whether anyone at all plays football in 2011.  If McNabb misses more games in 2010, and things don’t appear to be looking up, it’s certainly a lot to ask a quarterback who has accomplished as much as he has to hang around through the 2011 non-season as QB of this team waiting to try to win as a 35-36 year old quarterback on the other side.  Put simply, not many quarterbacks who weren’t durable in their early thirties played enough to win in their mid to late thirties.

What does this all mean?  Well, it appears from a quarterbacking standpoint, the future is now for the Redskins.  Pending an extension that seems like a formality, McNabb is the QB of this team for the next two seasons.  Whether the NFL even plays that second season is out of everyone’s control, and whether McNabb is still in the NFL at age 35 in 2012 is his choice alone, and depends heavily on how well the Redskins do this season, and how healthy he is at the end of the season.  McNabb comparables seem to confirm that it is very likely that he will hit the ground running as a Redskin, and if nothing else, should be a constant that allows the coaching staff to evaluate it’s young talent on offense.  If the NFL plays it’s 2011 season, McNabb is almost certain to be the Week 1 starter for the Redskins.  If history suggests anything, it’s that the window to win might already be closed at that point.

Certainly, the Week 1 game THIS year will have extra meaning when Dallas comes to town.  The Redskins are going all in gambling that they will win it, and carry that momentum through the rest of it’s early schedule, and be the talk of the NFL at midseason again.  After all, the reputations of a bunch of really high profile people depend on the success of this plan.