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Post McNabb: Where Do We Go Now?

April 27, 2010

Now that the NFL Draft has been completed, the majority of offseason player movement is complete.  With only a few exceptions, team rosters look the same way they will when training camp begins.  So now that a few weeks have passed, and we have a better idea at how the teams’ rosters stand, how do the Eagles and Redskins look after the Donovan McNabb trade?

The Redskins

The Redskins’ offense resembles the fantasy football roster of a casual fan who hasn’t paid attention to the NFL for the past few years.  Donovan McNabb!  Clinton Portis!  Santana Moss! Willie Parker!  Larry Johnson!  This would be an amazing collection of offensive talent…assuming it was 2005.  Unfortunately for them, it is now 2010, and these guys all seem to be past their primes.

So is there any hope for this collection of past-their-prime talents?  Most of the optimism in DC is based on the hope that coach Mike Shanahan will be able to build a championship caliber offense around McNabb much the way that he did for John Elway in the late 90s.

Many people – myself included – believe that a large part of the blame for McNabb’s failures in Philly came because head coach Andy Reid never really adapted the offense to suit McNabb’s strengths.  Reid’s offense is designed for an accurate passer who could hit his receivers in stride, allowing them to break away for long gains.  But accuracy, especially on short routes, never seemed to be McNabb’s strength. 

McNabb’s strengths are his mobility, his deep arm strength, and running a screen pass based offense.  I’m guessing that Shanahan wouldn’t have traded for McNabb if he was going to take advantage of these traits.  I expect to see a lot more deep throws by the Redskins this season.  Of course, in order to throw the ball deep, the quarterback needs to have decent protection from the offenseive line.  And last season, the Redskins offensive line didn’t provide much protection at all.

Wisely, the Redskins selected an offensive tackle (Trent Williams) with the 4th pick in the draft.  But while Williams might anchor the Redskins offensive line for years to come, even with the best rookies, there are always growing pains.  Even with the rookie, the offensive line might not be too much improved over last season.  And while McNabb’s mobility will help him avoid a few sacks, Redskins fans should keep in mind that he isn’t the same QB who used to run all around the field in his younger days.  He no longer has the speed to avoid top pass rushers, and will probably suffer quite a few sacks this season.

As far as the screen game goes, part of the reason why McNabb and the Eagles were so good at it was because they had Brian Westbrook, who was among the best pass catching backs in the NFL.  None of the Redskins backs have ever been known as great pass catchers, so it is unlikely that the screen game will work as well with them.

Speaking of the running game…For the past few seasons, many Eagles fans felt that the best chance the team had to win was to go to a more running-based offense.  They felt that at this stage in his career, McNabb could no longer be the focal point of a championship offense.  Based on recent results, they might have been correct.

Some suspect that Shanahan will do something similar to what he did in the late 90s, when Elway was nearing the end of his career.  He changed the Broncos offense to revolve around star running back Terrell Davis.  Elway was still asked to make plays, but Davis was now the focal point.  Thanks to this change, the Broncos won two titles.

I think that at this stage in his career, McNabb could indeed pull off an Elway and win a Super Bowl if he wasn’t the main focus of the offense. But the main question is: Are any of the Redskins’ running backs good enough to carry the offense? 

It doesn’t appear likely.  Portis had a decent season last year, but he seems to be on the decline, and he certainly doesn’t seem to be a franchise back who can carry a team.  Between nagging injuries and discipline issues, Larry Johnson seems to be on his last legs, and likewise isn’t probably somebody you can depend on as the fulcrum of the offense.  As for Parker, he hasn’t had a healthy season in years, and it would be a huge surprise if he turned out to be the answer.  Could a combination of the three backs, each in a lesser role, somehow be effective?  Possibly.

Perhaps the Redskins best hope is to complete their collection of elite 2005 talent and sign Terrell Owens.  McNabb’s best season came when he was throwing to Owens, because Owens was capable of taking those slightly inaccurate short passes, and still taking them for big gains.  While Owens isn’t the top receiver he used to be, he is still a dangerous threat that defenses have to account for.  With Owens, opposing defenses might be back on their heels a little, and that might give the running backs a little extra space to work with.  And as for the concerns that Owens is a cancer who wrecks a team from the inside…well, those concerns are probably valid, but the problems usually don’t surface in the first season with a team.  Then again, if either of the Redskins’ young receivers – Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas – finally develop into viable receivers, then Owens probably wouldn’t be necessary.

So given all that, how do I think the Redskins offense will look in 2010?  Good, but not great.  Assuming the offensive line can at least provide mediocre coverage, I think the combination of Shanahan and McNabb will be a huge improvement over recent seasons.  While not elite, McNabb is a good QB who you can win games with, and I think Shanahan will put him in the position to succeed.  They may need a couple more parts (a younger running back and another lineman to start), but some good things should come out of this season.

The Eagles

As mentioned above, McNabb never seemed to be a perfect fit for Andy Reid’s offense.  But will his successor be any better?  Due to limited playing time thus far in his career, Kevin Kolb is still largely an unknown.  Scouting reports say that his strengths are the short to intermediate routes, so that alone should make him a better fit.

The problem is, will that make him a good fit with the Eagles’ best offensive player?  In DeSean Jackson’s first two seasons, he has established himself as a dangerous deep target, and is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.  He hasn’t been as good in the short passing game, although part of that might have had to do with the QB who was throwing to him.  But if Kolb doesn’t have the arm strength to get the ball deep down the field to Jackson, will that reduce his effectiveness?

One promising sign is how well Jackson did in the two games that Kolb started in 2009.  In those two games, Jackson caught ten passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns.  So it doesn’t appear that Jackson should suffer too much, if any depreciation in his numbers.  In fact, with Kolb at the helm, his overall performance might actually increase.

In addition to Jackson, Kolb should have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal.  Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Brent Celek, and Hank Baskett are probably the best set of receivers the Eagles have had under Reid. 

And not that Reid will run the ball much, but the running backs appear to be a strength as well.  Now that Brian Westbrook is gone, second year man LeSean McCoy will be the featured back.  While it would be a reach to think he could match Westbrook’s production, McCoy showed a lot of potential last year, especially in games where he went in as the starter.  Former Saint Mike Bell should be a good backup, and fullback Leonard “Part 6” Weaver also had some big games last season.  One concern with the backs is that unlike Westbrook, none of them have proven to be a great pass catcher.  Reid loves calling pass plays to his backs, so if they aren’t able to excel in that area, it could be a huge hinderance to the Eagles offense.  And possibly more importantly, Reid calls upon his backs to pass block quite a bit.  Westbrook excelled in this area, and it is yet to be seen if the others can do as well.

Perhaps the biggest concern with the Eagles offense is the offensive line.  In their playoff loss to the Cowboys, the Dallas defense pretty much had their way with the Eagles offensive line.  And with no major offseason additions, it’s hard to see where any improvement will come.  While left guard Todd Herremans is solid, the rest of the line is full of question marks.

Left tackle Jason Peters made the Pro Bowl, but that was more due to his reputation than from outstanding play.  Starting center Jamaal Jackson is rehabbing an injury, and it isn’t clear if he’ll be ready for the start of the season.  When backup Nick Cole replaced him last season there was a large dropoff.  While it’s reasonable to expect some improvement from Cole with a full offseason to prepare, he still may not be a starting caliber center in the NFL.  The rest of the line will probably be Stacy Andrews and Winston Justice, and they are both average players at best.

Considering the weapons available, and the expected improvement in accuracy, should we expect the Eagles offense to perform better in 2010 than it did in 2009?  Not necessarily.  Going from a ten year veteran to a first time starter, there is almost always going to be some sort of drop off, if not physical, then at least mental.  While Kolb has gotten plenty of practice reps over the past three seasons, there’s a lot of things that he hasn’t seen before.  And you can be assured that defensive cooridnators are going to throw everything they can at Kolb in order to confuse him. 

Plus, with a potentially subpar offensive line, the Eagles may miss McNabb’s superior mobility.  There may be times when Kolb won’t be able to escape from a relentless pass rush.

Overall, I expect the QB switch to eliminate those games where the offense does absolutely nothing.  With McNabb and Reid together, you would get at least one or two of those games each year.  Hopefully the swicth to Kolb will prevent this from happening.

On the other hand, the offense will probably be more mistake prone than it was under McNabb.  Because McNabb so rarely threw them, I expect a large increase in the number of interceptions by the Eagles offense.  In addition, I can see more than a few drives ending due to a big sack.

As always, Reid could make things easier on his QB by running the ball more, but I don’t expect that to happen.  The Eagles will continue to be a passing based team, and will do as well as their QB does.  Hopefully, Kolb lives up to the expectations that Reid has for him.  Otherwise, the Eagles offense is going to struggle.

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