Donovan McNabb – By The Numbers

Trade Reaction

Reaction to the recent trade of Dovovan McNabb from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Washington Redskins has been every bit as polarized as the fans’ feelings about McNabb himself. Beloved or hated, a Franchise Savior or an overrated and petulant primadonna.

Eagles fans seem just as divided as to why the Eagles didn’t capture a Super Bowl title during McNabb’s reign as the starting quarterback. Was it McNabb’s inaccuracy and his inability to come up big at crunch time? Or was it Andy Reid’s Ego and Arrogance, inflated to proportions that would make Arachne gasp?

By any statistical measure – other than number of championships – Donovan McNabb is the best quarterback ever to play for the Eagles. I’m inclined to defer to Ray Didinger, who says here that Donovan is second to Norm Van Brocklin in Eagles’ history. Still, he’s been pretty damn good for a long, long time.

The trade was made for myriad reasons; it isn’t simply about McNabb’s skills. It’s a money move, a future move – it’s time to turn the page. It’s difficult to find anyone who – once they set aside their emotions – could disagree. Whether Kevin Kolb is the answer no one can say. I’m cautiously optimistic, but of course I’m an Eagles’ fan.

But in Philadelphia, Donovan’s had 10 seasons as the starter, and we just couldn’t seem to get it done with him.

Crunching The Numbers

One of the more startling numbers that jumped out at me is Donovan McNabb’s winning percentage. The usually reliable Len Pasquarelli argues here that  “[Kolb] will struggle to approximate the .651 winning mark McNabb accomplished in 11 seasons with the Philadelphia franchise.” Donovan won 10 (of 14) games just last year, a mark of .714. (On the misery index, let us consider that the Detroit Lions won just 9 games in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons combined.)

But in the NFL, you are either rising or falling. Is Donovan on an upward trajectory? Does he have his 5 best years ahead of him or behind him? Let us marshall the evidence. For this breakdown, I left out the 1999 season. While Donovan did see action, he wasn’t the full year starter, it was his rookie year, and Andy Reid’s rookie year. And also that makes 11 seasons and a weird breakdown. So I used the last 10 seasons, during which he was the Day One Starter.

2000 to 2004: 5’s First 5? Fine!

Donovan’s first five years were awfully good. A gaudy .740 winning percentage and a Super Bowl Appearance. During that span, Donovan missed 6 games due to injury. The Eagles made the playoffs each of those years, reaching the NFC Championship game 4 consecutive years. He ran for 2,146 yards during that time and scored 120 points. He appeared in 13 playoff games, going 8-5.

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 GP W L Pct.
11-5 11-5 7-31 12-4 13-22 73 54 19 .740

Note 1: McNabb missed the final 6 games of the 2002 season, but returned for the playoffs.

Note 2: McNabb was a healthy scratch for the final game of 2004, as the Eagles had wrapped up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

2005-2009: The Middle Years?

From 2005 through 2009, Donovan missed 17 games due to injury. The Eagles made the playoffs 3 of those 5 years, one of which was not with McNabb (2006). He ran for 790 yards and scored 48 points. He appeared in 4 playoff games, going 2-2.

2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 GP W L Pct.
4-5 4-53 8-6 9-6-1 10-4 624 35 27 .564

Note 3: Jeff Garcia went 5-1 to lead the Eagles to the playoffs, and won a Wild Card game.

Note 4: I didn’t include the Tennessee Game. My memory says that game was long lost before McNabb got hurt, but let’s just leave it out, just in case.

“Feeley and Garcia did just as well… McNabb is the Problem!”

I took a look at the seasons where Feeley (2002) and Garcia (2006) took over due to injury. Both of them led the Eagles into the playoffs and both performed reasonably well. After all, the bottom line is: WIN. These guys did and the Eagles didn’t seem to miss a beat.

“Feeley and Garcia did well because they ran more … Reid is the Problem!”

Not so fast. I broke each of those seasons down, and looked at how many pass attempts were made by McNabb prior to injury and attempts made by Feeley and Garcia after the injury. To get an “average,” I divided that by 60, which is pretty close to the NFL average of offensive plays per game (See also: Pro-Football-Reference.com and Advanced NFL Stats ). Again, the comparison was done within the same season only.

Not surprisingly, in 2002, the Eagles threw the ball 46% of the time with Feeley, with McNabb, 60%. Similary in 2006, McNabb was throwing 58% of the time, and Garcia 45% of the time.

The NFL average in both seasons favored the pass: in 2002, 55%-45%, in 2006, 53%-47%. So the Eagles, doing quite the opposite, did quite well.

But what does this say about the play calling? Regardless of who calls the plays, the head coach – especially in Philadelphia – has significant input. Yes, people, it says here that the Eagles need to run more.

Summary

A lot of pundits mention Donovan’s 5 NFC Championship games. What they fail to mention is: only 1 in the last 5 years. It was time. The numbers support it, the performance supports it. Could McNabb have been more successful with a more “balanced” attack? Yes, I think the numbers support that as well. But in the end, in the big games, Donovan has come up short. And his contract expired in 2011, and Reid’s in 2014.

So it was pretty easy to see who was going.

The Eagles have historically been pretty savvy about knowing when to let go of a player. As much as it hurt to see Brian Dawkins leave, he didn’t beat the Eagles in their game last year, and the Broncos only finished 8-8. And with the youth movement clearly under way, it was time to hand the starring role to the youngster. Welcome to the Kolb era: may it be slightly more successful than the McNabb era.

And did I say the Eagles should run more? Can’t hurt to mention it twice.

Post Script: But to a Division Foe?!

The Washington Redskins seem to make a big splash every offseason. Once upon a time it was Steve Spurrier; last year it was Albert Haynesworth. This year, it’s Donovan McNabb.

I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. As Brett Favre proved, if you want to play in division, you’ll find a way. All the Packers got out of that deal was a 6-10 first year with Aaron Rogers and the #83 pick in the 2009 draft. For Brett Favre. A 3rd Round pick, #83 overall. And of note: that pick didn’t come from the Vikings, who still had all their picks – it came from the Jets. So you essentially gave Favre to the Vikings at no cost to the Vikings.

By contrast, the Eagles, also going with the young quarterback this year, got a 2nd (#37 overall), and a conditional 3rd or 4th pick next year. That’s 2 draft picks. And that’s 2 draft picks the Redskins won’t have.

Some camps say never trade in division. I say do what’s best for your own football team, and the rest will take care of itself. Considering the history of the Eagles and Redskins over the past decade or so, I’m willing to give the Eagles the benefit of the doubt here.

Goodbye, Donovan

So Goodbye, Donovan. Thanks for a great ride, a fun time, and for being a damn solid citizen. My family have been big fans – after all, my son’s name is Trent Donovan. Good luck in Washington.

But not too much.

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