How the Eagles moved on from McNabb

Donovan McNabb watches from the sideline after being benched at halftime in a 2008 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He was replaced by Kevin Kolb.
Donovan McNabb watches from the sideline after being benched at halftime in a 2008 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He was replaced by Kevin Kolb.
Posted: July 25, 2010

Last of an eight-part series

For most of March, while all of Philadelphia argued about whether Donovan McNabb should remain as the Eagles' quarterback, while coach Andy Reid stood by McNabb as his man for 2010, few people knew the truth.

The Eagles' decision-makers had already decided to trade McNabb, the face of the franchise for the last 11 years.

Very early that month, inside the NovaCare Complex in a conference room connected to Reid's office, the core four - Reid, team president Joe Banner, general manager Howie Roseman, and owner Jeffrey Lurie - met to finalize their decision, to talk strategy.

Reid sat at the head of the oval-shaped table. Banner took his usual place to Reid's right and Roseman sat to Reid's left, across from Banner. Lurie was next to Banner, farthest away from the coach. The usual seating chart for these kinds of meetings, according to Banner.

They weren't going to announce it to the world - or even tell McNabb, not yet - but the Eagles' brass had already concluded they were ready to look to the next decade. They'd had so many discussions in smaller groups that their decision to trade McNabb felt inevitable.

"The crux of the decision, and I think everybody [involved in the decision] would describe it the same way," Banner said, "[was that] we have two quarterbacks who are very good, we think . . . capable of winning a Super Bowl - I understand that needs to be proven. Donovan didn't do it. Kevin hasn't even tried yet. But at that point, it really became [a question of] one of them has a chance to lead us for the next eight to 10 years . . . one, who knows? One year? Four years? But a considerably shorter time."

The men already had posed a range of questions they deemed crucial:

Are we giving up a chance to win the Super Bowl this year? Are we right there if we wait another year?

Do we really have to go in one direction or the other right now?

If we keep McNabb, do we let him play one year? If we keep Kolb, can we leave him in the last year of his contract?

Who had been asking those last contractual questions?

"The odds are, it was me," Banner said. "That's kind of my role in the conversation. 'Let's just think of the cap implication, the contract side of this, the timing of the contract question.' "

According to Banner, Reid basically said: "I think either one of these guys are top-quality guys and we can win [this year] with them."

Banner acknowledged that if no trade had occurred, McNabb presumably would have gone to training camp as the starter again.

"We weren't in a panic mode, because we could've waited another year and it could've played out that way - but if we waited a year, maybe there would've been much less market value for Donovan," Lurie said. "He wouldn't be under contract to us, so we probably would've had to franchise him to have market value."

"It wasn't an easy decision, just a slam dunk, for me," Reid said. "You've got to evaluate age and you've got to evaluate what's left in the tank, who has the upside and who doesn't. You want to make sure you got maximum value for your football team because I'm not into giving good players away. I don't want to do that.

"Brett Favre was the last big-time [quarterback] to go someplace, and Brett was a little bit older. Green Bay got a fourth-round pick for him, so if it was going to be Donovan McNabb, who I figured could probably pull the most for our organization, I wanted to make sure it was at least close to what he was worth."

The whole debate wasn't new to any of the men in the room. Lurie called the move toward a decision "evolutionary." So many little conversations had led toward the need to come up with a strategic plan. The talks had been casual or intense, between two of the men or among a group.

Reid talked frequently with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. One participant said quarterback discussions went from occurring "two years ago, every now and then, 'What do you think?' - to this year, quite a bit. Many of them were brief. Some of them were a little more in-depth."

"There was a lot of . . . 'What if we get in the marketplace and people are offering X on one and Y for another, does that change our thinking?' " Banner said. "All that kind of stuff. 'If we brought them both back, what's the dynamic going to be?' There was a lot of that kind of discussion."

 "We realized this was kind of an opportunity," Roseman said. "Losing both guys [McNabb and Kolb next year] and not getting any value. . . . For us, it was always on our mind."

There was no reason to make the decision earlier than the off-season, Banner said, since these issues sometimes sort themselves out, either through injury or on-the-field play. "Something [might] happen that would just make the decision obvious, which from our perspective never did happen," Banner said.

'We have a good young team'

It fit the plan. That's how Lurie put it: The decision to trade McNabb conformed with the organization's overall philosophy on developing quarterbacks. They had a young gun in Kevin Kolb, and a viable backup in Michael Vick. And all three Eagles quarterbacks had one year left on their contracts.

If there was an overriding theme to the climactic decision-making talks among the Eagles' brass, it may have come from the owner - "A sense of, 'Don't be risk-averse,' " Lurie said.

One detail of where the Eagles sent McNabb on April 4 - to Washington, a division rival they play twice a season - was a surprise. But it was also a nod to their respect for what McNabb had meant to the organization for more than a decade, and a response to a plea from McNabb for that respect.

"Donovan still was a very good quarterback, still had good market value," Lurie said, "but Kevin was evolving and showing tremendous intangibles. In practice, where we saw him every day, he was very impressive. At some point, we just felt like it was time to make that change. That doesn't mean it's the right move. Time will tell whether it's the right move. But there was trade value still with Donovan, and Kevin was more than ready to take over.

"We know we have a good young team," Lurie continued, "especially on offense. And if I weren't confident in Andy's judgment on quarterbacks, I'd be worried and I wouldn't be able to go along with that scenario. But because I have tremendous confidence in his ability to evaluate quarterbacks, it was a relatively straightforward decision. A big decision, nonetheless, but one where it fit exactly the development framework."

Lurie said he, Reid, and Banner have always wanted to bring a quarterback along slowly and not rush him into a starting role before he is ready, like they did with McNabb during his rookie year out of Syracuse. McNabb became the starter in Week 10 of the 1999 season, and understandably had the lowest completion percentage (49.1) and passer rating (60.1) of his 11-year career.

Kolb enters his fourth season with 12 games of experience, including two starts last season when he threw for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games and that one fateful half against Baltimore in 2008, when Reid yanked McNabb at halftime.

The 25-year-old Texas native has had time to evolve slowly, and that was the hope when the Eagles used their first pick in the 2007 draft, the 36th overall selection, to take Kolb out of Houston.

"This is what we always wanted to do," Lurie said. "Have a player develop for a few years and really develop all the tools necessary so that when the time was to come, you weren't developing a rookie or putting a rookie in there."

That's when Lurie said "it fit the plan."

He added, "You never know if [a player] is going to perform like you want [him] to, but it fit exactly the philosophy and the plan. And, you know, time will tell."

'This guy needs an opportunity'

Last September, the Eagles' team charter flew back from Kansas City, from an early afternoon game against Chiefs, in time for Howie Roseman to grab dinner back home in Center City.

Then the vice president of player personnel, now the GM, Roseman had a television on in the background as he ate.

"Sunday Night Football came on - there was this graphic about Kevin Kolb, how he was the first player in NFL history to throw over 300 yards in his first two starts," Roseman said.

A great day against a mediocre defense does not make an NFL quarterback. Roseman is the first to say that, just as a tough day the year before in a relief appearance in Baltimore didn't sour the Eagles on Kolb. But the third-year quarterback clearly hadn't hurt himself. Roseman said he went to his office the next morning and closely watched Kolb on tape.

"You see his decision-making, you see his poise, his accuracy - you go, 'This guy needs an opportunity to be an NFL quarterback,' " Roseman said. "He's not going to be sitting on the bench next year, whether it's here or somewhere else. I think it was at that moment, when you see him with the live bullets flying, that you knew he deserved a chance."

So Kolb had Roseman's thumbs-up, which was no small thing. When it came time to make a quarterback trade, Roseman had ascended to general manager, admitting his natural tendency is to be aggressive.

Mornhinweg, the offensive coordinator, another respected voice within the organization, a former Detroit Lions head coach, made it clear in his end-of-2009 season report, he said, that he hadn't lost confidence in McNabb.

"He's got two to three years [left] at a high level of play, minimum," Mornhinweg said of McNabb. "He has had some injury problems, got a little bit of age to him. That's what I put. The details - it was very detailed - to all of his strengths and weakness, you start adding up the strengths and you think twice about doing anything with the quarterback position. He's got a ton of strengths. That's what I put."

But his more important evaluation had to be of Kolb. If the younger quarterback wasn't deemed ready, any talk of trading McNabb would be over.

"We felt pretty good that Kevin had a real opportunity to be, at minimum, a fine quarterback before those starts," Mornhinweg said. "I'm just thinking about it, talking out loud, those starts maybe validated somewhat, just a little bit, what we thought of Kevin. . . . Kevin's at three years, just about the perfect amount of time. My evaluation on him is that he's ready to go, and last year was just about ready to go."

Mornhinweg said that Kolb's preseason performances the last couple of years factored heavily into assessments of his readiness. He said that practice appraisals can be overrated, that some players are great practice players. And some aren't. That can be especially true of quarterbacks, Mornhinweg said.

Mornhinweg also was very high on having Vick back as the No. 2 quarterback, he said.

"I think Howie felt the same way. He was probably in the same mode as I was. I think everybody was pretty much thinking the same thing. This had been thought about and discussed for a long, long time."

Mornhinweg did suggest that Kolb shouldn't be judged on the same scale as McNabb in the season opener, predicting the Eagles would be a little more inconsistent as Kolb sees things he hasn't seen before.

The offensive coordinator also offered a candid comparison of McNabb and Kolb, of their contrasting strengths: "Don, just his physical athletic ability, combined with an arm that was as good as you've ever seen. . . . His ability to make a great play, very good at the line of scrimmage, with a no-huddle, with audibles.

"Now Kevin, some of his strengths are consistency. I think he's excellent with his leadership ability, not to say Don wasn't. But they're quite different. Kevin Kolb, he's got a little [Jeff] Garcia in him - he can bring a group of guys together and we're going to run up the mountain together and we're going to get it done some way. He's consistent, typically athletic, a quick decision-maker."

The entire Eagles brass, right up to the owner, already had evaluated Kolb's makeup.

"Now he has to go out and execute, but this guy, when you spend time with him, his intangibles are off the chart - off the chart," Lurie said.

'A little bit of an age gap'

Banner said the Eagles didn't take what other players wanted into consideration in the quarterback decision.

But that's different from saying the Eagles weren't aware of what players were thinking.

"I'm sure you've probably looked into . . . other things - the locker room," said another Eagles source involved in the decision. The source said of McNabb, "He's been here a long time, had a great run. Sometimes it's time."

The locker room didn't speak with one voice.

Offensive tackle Winston Justice put it like this: "Everybody liked Donovan. We all liked Donovan as a player. There was a little bit of an age gap. We didn't laugh at the same jokes. We didn't listen to the same music. But I don't think that played into the [Eagles' decision] at all. We respected him as a football player."

Justice said McNabb had become more assertive in the huddle last season.

"I took that as a positive," Justice said. "He stepped up. I think he looked around in the huddle and there were all new faces. He stepped up. Maybe some took that as a challenge. I personally liked it."

Another Eagles offensive lineman, Todd Herremans, said, "I would say probably the majority of the players are younger players, and they drew to Kevin a little better as the last year went on, especially being able to get in there and actually play with them a couple games. The younger players in the locker room kind of wanted to see Kevin take over and get their own print on the team. As long as Donovan was on the team, it was going to be his thing, not the young kids taking over."

Entering his sixth season, Herremans said, "We would've loved to play with Donovan another year. But the majority of the locker room was leaning toward Kevin. It was not age or ability. They wanted to make their own mark in Eagles history right now."

'Kind of in limbo'

If the Eagles hoped they could keep their cards face down, waiting for the trade market to offer up a McNabb trade offer worth taking, it didn't happen.

By the time all the NFL's movers and shakers descended on the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Orlando in late March, McNabb and his representatives still had no clear understanding of the quarterback's future. Rumors were percolating, but nothing concrete. Fletcher Smith, McNabb's agent, made his way to Florida to talk to Banner.

"We didn't plan to meet - I planned to meet," Smith recalled. "I sought him out."

"He said, 'I need to be in a better position to tell Donovan and his family what's going on,' " said Banner. Banner figured there were two months after the season where McNabb was "kind of in limbo, wondering what the hell we're doing, what we're talking about, and I'm sure in his mind wondering why was this even a question."

On March 23, Smith called Banner, who invited him to his room. They sat for 30 or 40 minutes early that afternoon, Smith said, talking about their families and summer vacation plans before getting to the topic at hand.

Earlier that morning, Reid had told an Inquirer reporter that all three Eagles quarterbacks were on the market. That was the first time anybody from the Eagles publicly said McNabb was on the market. Banner then told McNabb's agent the same thing.

A number of factors were thinning the McNabb trade market. The St. Louis Rams, who had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, decided to use it on the one blue-chip quarterback prospect in the draft, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. There went the most obvious trading partner, since McNabb had a long relationship with Pat Shurmur, the Rams' offensive coordinator, who had been the Eagles' quarterbacks coach for seven seasons.

A year or two ago, Minnesota may have been the obvious destination, with former Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress now the head coach there. But the Vikings began dancing with Brett Favre last year and haven't stopped, ruling that out.

Arizona seemed like another strong possibility after Kurt Warner retired, since McNabb lives in Phoenix in the off-season. But the Cardinals, not known for throwing money around, apparently did their own internal calculations and decided they weren't a McNabb away from winning a Super Bowl. Arizona is giving Matt Leinart another shot, bringing in another veteran, Derek Anderson, to back up Leinart.

Even before specific trade partners were brought up, Smith said, McNabb was consistent. He wanted to stay in Philadelphia.

Banner said: "When he had a chance to say 'I'd rather go here [or] here,' he was saying, 'Do I really have to go anywhere?' "

McNabb's agent lobbied that a change in scenery could be good for him.

"I have to take emotion out of the equation, look at the best opportunity," Smith said. "I thought at this stage of his career, this might be a good chance to break away. Not that I ever forced the issue."

Initial offers to the Eagles for McNabb clearly weren't appealing. A third-round draft choice wasn't going to cut it. Were some teams calling the Eagles' bluff, forcing them to be more proactive, to make offers of their own? The marketplace can work like that.

"I really kind of listened - if I thought it was insulting, I said, 'No, that's ridiculous,' " Reid said. "You've got to figure out who's interested and who's not, and I didn't want to just give anybody away."

Two teams had expressed interest, Oakland and Buffalo. McNabb's agent didn't want to talk about particular teams, but Banner was keeping him more apprised of developments. Smith said there was a strong trust factor with the Eagles.

"I guess my conversations were not always geared toward the negotiations, more so the relationship - trying to do what's right by Donovan, who had given his 11 years to the Eagles, although he's been compensated for them," Smith said. "There's a certain level of trust and admiration between him and Andy. I just thought a player of his caliber should have some input. . . .

"All I could do was appeal to them on a personal level and ask they not to ship him to a team he didn't want to play for - not that he did not want to play for Oakland. There was more of a hierarchy than 'I'd absolutely not play for that team.' As we went down the list, as teams started picking up QBs, our list began to dwindle."

That personal appeal apparently had its effect.

One Eagles source involved in the discussions said that the week before McNabb was traded, he thought a deal with Oakland was going to be finalized.

Under the radar, another team, Washington, had continually expressed interest. Smith let the Eagles know that if McNabb's feelings were taken into account, "Washington would be the best fit" of any potential trading partner.

"If we'd gotten an astronomical offer from a team that was less [in terms of appeal to McNabb], we probably would've had to pull the trigger because that would not be fair to our fans, or us," Lurie said.

But the train began moving fast. There was some internal questioning about whether the Eagles could slow things down a little bit, to see if they could avoid trading McNabb within the division, but the group felt the Redskins deal could fall apart if it didn't happen quickly.

"In some cases, where you think a deal is done and it's not, and you think a deal is over and then it's not, and then all of a sudden it happens in a matter of hours - that's what happened," said an Eagles source.

'A little bit of shock'

On Easter Sunday, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake centered on Mexico's Baja peninsula sent tremors that were felt at McNabb's home in Phoenix. He never felt them, though. He had taken his family out to brunch and was catching an afternoon nap when the earthquake slightly shook his house. Meanwhile, McNabb's cell phone had been ringing.

His agent had been trying to reach him, to tell him how his employer had changed, that the Eagles had traded him to Washington for the 37th pick of the 2010 NFL draft and either a third- or fourth-round draft choice in 2011. McNabb's father woke him to tell him Smith was on the phone.

"It was a short conversation. . . . Because he was waking up out of sleep, there was probably a little bit of shock," McNabb's agent said. "And probably relief. At the end of the day, he wanted to play football."

With the deal, the Eagles didn't get the first-round pick they'd hoped for. But they'd changed quarterbacks without any blood being spilled, they ended up with a draft choice they used on a safety who will be expected to fill the hole left by Brian Dawkins, and they certainly hadn't been risk-averse, dealing McNabb to a division rival.

Everyone was satisfied. The owner who calls for risks actually got one. The coach got the chance to start over with a new quarterback. The new general manager was assured of a new era at the beginning of his watch. And the team president got just what he wanted, as usual.

"Listen, I don't think anybody's made more of a risky - time will tell, smart or not - but I don't think anybody's made much more of a risky move than trading Donovan McNabb and switching to Kevin Kolb," Banner said, sitting in his office in early June. "To take the chance of being wrong about that says a lot about the organization. We've got to be right or we deserve a lot of criticism, and we'll get it. Just to be willing to take that risk I think says a lot about the personality of the organization."

Asked if he was nervous, the owner of the Eagles chuckled.

"I'm confident and nervous, but I would be confident and nervous if Donovan were the quarterback," Lurie said. "The nervousness with Kevin is just that he hasn't played a lot of games yet, so he's got to go through those cycles of losses, injuries, and playing through things. And with Don you worry has he peaked, is he going to get better, is he going to descend, is he going to get reinjured - all the things that go with being a 34-year-old quarterback. You're nervous either way."

The Eagles made the decision with the rest of the decade in mind. Lurie said he was confident they would see a good performance the first year out of Kolb, although there was no way, the owner added, Kolb would peak that first year.

"No one does," Lurie said.

Asked if he was prepared for an off year by the Eagles in 2010, the risk-favoring owner said he didn't think that would happen.

"Listen, if it happens, it happens, yes. I'm prepared," Lurie said.


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen

at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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