Commentary

Eagles facing tough decision with McNabb

Football Outsiders examines the Eagles' quarterback situation

Originally Published: December 13, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

After his benching at halftime of a 36-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12, it seemed like Donovan McNabb's ticket out of Philadelphia this offseason was punched. However, two interception-free wins and five touchdowns later, some of that talk has subsided. But the fact that Eagles head coach Andy Reid would even consider removing his first-ever selection from the lineup is a sign that McNabb's future in Philadelphia is tenuous at best.

There has already been speculation as to whether McNabb will leave this offseason. The more important question is the one that Reid and general manager Tom Heckert will be asking themselves if they keep their positions this offseason: Should they get rid of McNabb?

The 12-year, $108 million contract McNabb signed after the 2002 season is no longer an impediment to his departure. If he leaves in the upcoming offseason, the team would realize over $9 million in cap savings, with McNabb only costing the team around $1.2 million in "dead money."

The obvious complaint from Eagles fans is that McNabb's performance isn't commensurate to his salary. Our advanced statistics don't see an appreciable difference between the performance McNabb has displayed over his career and how he's played this season.

Donovan McNabb statistics
Year DYAR Rank DVOA Rank
1999 -707 50 -56.4 % 50
2000 290 16 -3.9 % 25
2001 86 20 -8.6% 21
2002 263 24 -1.0% 24
2003 423 12 1.4% 16
2004 1323 6 28.9 % 6
2005 492 15 9.0 % 13
2006 658 9 18.7 % 6
2007 659 14 8.2 % 18
2008 1111* 9 14.5% 12
*Pro-rated for 16-game season

McNabb ranks in the top 10 of the league in DYAR, our metric that adds (and subtracts) the cumulative value of how well McNabb has performed on a play-by-play basis after comparing each play to how an average quarterback would do after adjusting for down, distance, game situation, and the quality of the opposing defense. This season resembles how McNabb's performed over the past five seasons, with the added benefit that he's stayed healthy for the entire campaign.

None of McNabb's other indicators is particularly below-average, either. His completion percentage (59.9 percent) is better than his career average (58.8 percent). He's averaging 6.9 yards per attempt, and his career average is 6.8 yards per attempt. He's been sacked on only 3.9 percent of his dropbacks -- the best figure of his entire career. That indicates he's retaining mobility in the pocket and keeping plays alive, something he showed off in the victory over the Giants last week.

What drove McNabb to the bench was the seven turnovers he committed in the three halves preceding his removal against Baltimore. It was an ugly streak, but it wasn't representative of how McNabb has played this year. He has thrown an interception on just 2.1 percent of his attempts this year, matching his career average. Meanwhile, McNabb lost both of his fumbles in those games; four of his six fumbles this year have resulted in a loss of possession, while the rest of the league's quarterbacks have seen their fumbles recovered by their own team 57 percent of the time.

Seven turnovers in two games isn't terribly uncommon. Since 1995, there have been 89 instances of a quarterback turning the ball over seven or more times in two consecutive games. Eli Manning did so a year ago, and his season turned out all right in the end.

Getting rid of a quarterback who's performing at this level wouldn't be unprecedented, but it would be pretty close. In the 13 years for which Football Outsiders has compiled its advanced statistics, only four quarterbacks left their teams the offseason after they finished in the top 10 in DYAR. The most recent was Brett Favre last year. Before him, Drew Brees departed San Diego for New Orleans in 2006, Elvis Grbac left the Chiefs for the Super Bowl champion Ravens in 2001, and Jeff George went from the Vikings to the Redskins a year earlier.

Interestingly enough, two of those quarterbacks' replacements made the Pro Bowl the next year, Philip Rivers in San Diego and Daunte Culpepper in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Trent Green ended up having a very successful run in Kansas City, and it appears that Aaron Rodgers will end up being a quality quarterback in Green Bay. None of the teams really had a fiasco of a quarterback situation for years after the star left.

If the Eagles were to get rid of McNabb in the offseason, they would most likely turn the position over to 2007 second-round pick Kevin Kolb. In his first significant action as a professional, Kolb took over for McNabb against the Ravens and struggled about as much as his predecessor did. It'd be impossible to extrapolate anything about Kolb's viability as an NFL starter based on one half against an elite defense.

What's usable instead is Kolb's Lewin Career Forecast, a methodology formulated by Football Outsiders analyst David Lewin. In looking at the performance of college quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, Lewin found that only two college factors bore any correlation to NFL success: Games started and completion percentage. Kolb has both in spades: He started 50 games in college and completed 62 percent of his passes. Lewin projects Kolb to be a top-five quarterback at his peak, with a performance level below only Philip Rivers among recent quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds.

So a statistical analysis of the Eagles' quarterback situation finds that the team appears to be in a win-win situation; McNabb's play has been better than it was at its nadir, while Kolb has the pedigree of an elite quarterback in the making. For a team that covets cap space and flexibility, getting rid of McNabb and potentially acquiring a high draft pick in the process seems like the most beneficial course of action. It would also free up cap space for the team to re-sign starting offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, both of whom are unrestricted free agents after the season. If they leave and the Eagles aren't able to replace them, it might not matter who the quarterback is.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.