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McNabb, of all people, should know better

By Sal Paolantonio

ESPN.com

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Rewind to spring 2003. The Philadelphia Eagles were in the process of cleaning house. The team and several popular 30-something players were parting ways, and it was not going over real well in the locker room.

"You try to sit back and learn from it, because you never know," said one veteran leader. "In a couple of years, it could be you."

The veteran who said that? Quarterback Donovan McNabb.

So, when McNabb said on Tuesday he was "shocked" to learn that the Eagles drafted his possible replacement with their first pick, he should've known it was coming. Under Andy Reid, this is the way Philly rolls.

Nobody knows that better than McNabb. And any objective analysis of this Eagles team -- left on the doorstep of a championship for nearly his entire tenure in Philadelphia -- would conclude that McNabb could easily be the next victim.

He will turn 31 in November. By the end of November the past two seasons, McNabb was unavailable due to injury -- a sports hernia in 2005 and a torn-up knee in 2006. And the Philadelphia landscape is littered with productive players who reached 30 and were shown the door -- Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, Duce Staley, Brian Mitchell, Hugh Douglas and Jeff Garcia.

Nevertheless, by drafting quarterback Kevin Kolb of Houston with their first pick in last month's draft, the Eagles sent the town and the team into a tailspin tailor-made for talk radio. Privately, many players are wondering whether this makes McNabb a lame duck -- not in 2008, or some undefined future, but right now.

"It's Super Bowl or bust for Donovan this year," said a veteran defensive player. "And everybody knows it."

And right now, McNabb is a long way from taking this team back to the Super Bowl -- because he still can't get on the field. On Saturday, the Eagles will begin the first of three minicamp practices, which include the full squad, and McNabb will be a spectator. It will be the first time since McNabb's rookie year, in 1999, that the Eagles will start preparations for a new season without No. 5 taking the first team snaps.

Ironically, this weekend, Philadelphia will get a sneak preview of the future. And that snapshot could turn into a long, simmering drama this summer. McNabb professed he will be back for training camp on July 27. But for a quarterback at his age, returning from knee injury is no guarantee. (See: Daunte Culpepper.)

Actually, he went further than that in prognosticating his return. In fact, it turned out to be one of the more interesting developments of McNabb's local press tour. He pronounced that he will be ready to go by the time the Eagles play their second preseason game on Aug. 17 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. While fans may be happy to hear McNabb has created his own timetable for a return, Reid may not be thrilled the quarterback usurped the head coach's power to make that decision for the team.

It's important to point out here the manner in which McNabb spoke out Tuesday. It was not done at the Eagles' NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia -- the site of every other McNabb press event since the venue opened five years ago. No, McNabb spoke at a skating rink in South Jersey. It was handled not by the Eagles public relations department but by a fired former member of that staff whom McNabb has hired to help with media relations for his foundation and charity work. The four local media outlets invited to the event did not include the Eagles' official TV station, the local ABC affiliate.

Indeed, it seems that by going public the way he did, McNabb was trying to exert a little bit more control over his destiny. And perhaps show a little defiance.

But let's go back to his decision to announce that he would be ready to play by mid-August. Why would McNabb push it? Why would he rush back and possibly jeopardize his long-term health? (Again, see Culpepper.)

It always comes back to the money. In 2007, the Eagles will pay McNabb $5.5 million in salary. The following year, that number increases to $6.3 million. The Eagles hold an option for 2009, when McNabb is due $9.2 million. In 2010, he is owed a $10 million salary.

Let's assume that McNabb is the starter in 2007. That means this is an evaluation year. If McNabb plays well, stays healthy and takes the Eagles deep into the playoffs or back to the Super Bowl, he's most likely back in 2008. If not, the Eagles have no history of paying 32-year-old, injury-prone players who can't get it done for that kind of money. And if they were to consider trading McNabb, next offseason is the time to do it -- before his contract becomes too big and he becomes too old for a potential trade partner.

Add to this equation the contract that the Eagles will have to pay Kolb. By saying that Kolb is "a franchise quarterback," which is what team general manager Tom Heckert said on draft weekend, the Eagles will have to pay him accordingly -- or close to it. And, under team president Joe Banner, who manages the team's salary cap, the Eagles haven't been the type of team that pays two players starter's money -- if only one of them is starting.

That's why McNabb may be anxious to get on the field. He knows he has much to prove. But that's also why he shouldn't rush it. A setback could make it harder to get back.

"I've been running, I've been throwing and I've been cutting," McNabb said. "But it's not like the injury never happened. It's still there. I'm still getting stronger, but I'm not 100 percent, and that's the way I want to come back."

Lost in all this is something that finally dawned on Reid and his brain trust this offseason: This team can function fine without Donovan McNabb. That's the dirty little secret revealed by Jeff Garcia's magic act in the final two months of 2006.

Let's compare McNabb and Garcia. McNabb won five games and had a passer rating of 95.5. Garcia won five games with a rating of 95.8. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the only time in NFL history that a team had two different quarterbacks each win five or more games and have a rating higher than 90 in the same season.

The reason? Brian Westbrook. In the second half of the season, the Eagles running back -- following tackle Jon Runyan and guard Shawn Andrews on the right side of the line -- was the linchpin of the offense once Reid turned the play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. In the nine games prior to McNabb's injury, Westbrook had more than 20 carries in a game just once. After McNabb got injured, Westbrook passed the 20-carry mark three times in six games.

Westbrook gave the Eagles offense an identity. Reid -- loath to run the ball in his tenure as head coach -- brought back Westbrook's running mate, Correll Buckhalter, for the 2007 season. And he drafted a power running back, Tony Hunt, out of Penn State, signaling that the central focus of his offense is undergoing a not-so-subtle shift.

What does that mean? Well, by allowing Garcia to take his magic act to Tampa Bay, the Eagles were forced to make contingency plans for the future:

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