Commentary

Reid's decision to stick with McNabb raises big questions

By sticking with Donovan McNabb as his starter for Thursday night's game against Arizona, Eagles coach Andy Reid raises more questions than he answers, Sal Paolantonio writes.

Originally Published: November 25, 2008
By Sal Paolantonio | ESPN.com

Donovan McNabbGeoff Burke/US PresswireIn the past 11 quarters, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb has completed only 48 percent of his passes. In the past seven quarters, he has seven turnovers.
PHILADELPHIA -- On the morning after he benched the quarterback he drafted, coached, defended and sometimes coddled for 10 seasons, Eagles coach Andy Reid was tired of talking about the status of Donovan McNabb, so he abruptly departed from the stage.

It was the eve of McNabb's 32nd birthday, which the Eagles' quarterback celebrated on Tuesday in his home in South Jersey.

McNabb also perhaps celebrated going back to the starting lineup -- although the joy that comes with Reid's decision to start McNabb on Thanksgiving night against the Arizona Cardinals might be short-lived, for many reasons.

There is no telling how well McNabb will play, but recent history is not good. In the past 11 quarters, he has completed just 48 percent of his passes at a time when starting quarterbacks are on a record-setting pace of over 61 percent. In the past seven quarters, No. 5 has turned the ball over seven times, which is very un-McNabb like, Reid said.

And then there are the Philly Phaithful at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night. The growing sentiment in town is that McNabb's uneven career in Philadelphia has run its course and the heir apparent, Kevin Kolb -- no matter how poorly he played in relief in the second half in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon -- should be handed the reins and allowed to develop. Thus, there is little expectation that McNabb will be greeted by anything better than full-throated indifference.

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Which begs this nagging question: What exactly did the benching in Baltimore accomplish? Moreover, going back to McNabb for the final five games of the 2008 season raises more questions than it answers -- about the future of the quarterback, the head coach and one of the most prosperous big-market franchises in the NFL, a team about to finish the second straight year in the NFC East basement.

First, it's important to pay close attention to exactly what Reid said at his Monday news conference: "Donovan McNabb will be our starting quarterback for the Arizona game on Thursday."

Reid was given every opportunity to go beyond that -- to say that McNabb would remain the starter for the rest of the season, to say whether the franchise quarterback will be on a short leash or to say whether Kolb would be prepared better to step in.

"He's my quarterback," Reid insisted. "I'm telling you he's the starting quarterback. If thought different, then I would start the other guy."

A day after he was asked to save a game, and perhaps the 2008 season, Kolb was referred to as "the other guy."

So why not stick with Kolb as the starter? The answer is fairly complex. People inside the Eagles' organization say that had Kolb distinguished himself against the Ravens, he would be starting against the Cardinals. Reid's last-minute halftime decision to switch to the inexperienced and ill-prepared Kolb proved to be folly. Kolb completed 10 of 23 passes for just 73 yards and two interceptions, one of which Ed Reed returned an NFL-record 108 yards for a touchdown. Kolb finished with an ugly quarterback rating of 15.3, just slightly better than McNabb's 13.2. When Kolb went in, the Eagles were losing by three points. The final score was 36-7.

But what did Reid expect from Kolb? He has had virtually no practice reps with the first-team offense all season. It was on the road, in front of a lathered-up crowd. And across the line of scrimmage was Ray Lewis, smelling fresh meat. On the sideline was defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who runs his father's 46 defense with alacrity and aplomb.

Seeing how poorly Kolb performed when not prepared, perhaps Reid thought better of starting him with just four days to get ready for Arizona.

Kolb was not very talkative Monday afternoon. Who could blame him? He was asked how he was doing and his answer gave you all needed to know about his mindset: "About as best as could be expected, I guess." This was after Kolb had been told he was going back to the bench.

On Tuesday, McNabb insisted that his confidence is still intact and that he won't be looking over his shoulder.

"You are a competitor," he said. "No different than basketball or baseball. If you're a little off, you keep shooting. That's the way I feel about it."

Going back to McNabb has important long-term ramifications. People inside and out of the organization contend Reid and the front office are not ready to permanently bench the franchise quarterback -- a psychological and public-relations mountain the franchise is not prepared to climb.

For example, benching McNabb for good would require an explanation to several veteran soon-to-be free agents who might not want to come back in 2009. On that list are three Pro Bowlers: offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas and safety Brian Dawkins. All three would be subjects of non-stop end-of-the-season speculation.

Moreover, although talk radio is clamoring for a changing of the guard, benching McNabb now might severely diminish his trade value in 2009. If he's on the bench, the Eagles' leverage goes down.

McNabb has three years left on his contract. He is owed $10.36 million in 2009, none of it guaranteed. If the Eagles trade or release him, his charge against the cap drops to $1.16 million in 2009. In 2010, McNabb's base salary is $10 million.

Few expect the Eagles to entertain the notion of paying McNabb that money unless he makes a serious turnaround and the team climbs into the playoffs. But even that might not be enough.

And then there is the fan base. Coming off the euphoria of the Phillies' breaking Philadelphia's 25-year championship drought, the town is in a mood to expect more, with less patience.

As it is, the Thanksgiving-night game in Philadelphia is not turning out to be a big draw. On eBay, tickets for the game are being sold for as low as $20. The crowd is expected to be thin, and those who have the NFL Network might not show up. And if the Eagles had announced Kolb as the starter, fans might have viewed the game as an exhibition, creating more of a no-show factor.

For now, the team and the town are tied to McNabb -- at least for one more week.

Sal Paolantonio covers NFL for ESPN. His new book is "How Football Explains America."

Sal Paolantonio

SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.

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