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It’s Howie Time April 6, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in football.
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I love professional sports. Well, some professional sports. Okay, mostly football. I don’t write about sports much in this blog because … well … I’m not a sportswriter, and because few things that are fundamentally interesting happen in sports. If you know me, you know that my idol is Gregg Easterbrook, who works on real problems at the Brookings Institute by day, writes books like “The Progress Paradox” and “Sonic Boom” at night, and keys the TMQ (Tuesday Morning Quarterback) column for espn.com on the weekends. I may have said this before, but I think I semi-consciously style my writing after his. Gregg, if you’re reading this—and I know you aren’t—immitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Anyways, oddly enough, I am in the middle of writing a post about sports. Specifically, about how statistical analysis is becoming the way in which professional athletes are evaluated and in which personnel decisions are made. But that post will have to wait. You see, it is the end of an era. The Philadelphia Eagles, traded away their own face, quarterback Donovan McNabb. And as if that wasn’t enough, they traded 5 (Philly sports talk often refers to McNabb by his jersey number) to division rival Washington, ensuring that they will have to face him twice a year for as long as he continues playing.

Let me start by saying that I have always been a fan of 5, and that my son and daughter both have 5 jerseys. Many in Philadelphia have grown tired of his good-but-not-great performances and the fact that these performances typically got worse as the playoffs progressed. But I always blamed this more on coach/GM Andy Reid (aka “Big Red” aka “My Second Favorite Mormon”) than on 5. Big Red is a great personnel man and a great offensive mind, but he is literally and figuratively inflexible. Literally inflexible—have you seen him? Figuratively inflexible—he reacts poorly when opponents use surprising tactics, he doesn’t adjust his own tactics mid-game as it becomes evident what is and what isn’t working on that particular day, and he doesn’t adjust his playing philosophy to his personnel. This latter flaw was not fatal in most cases, because Reid has executive power over personnel decisions and so he simply acquires players who he thinks already fit his philosophy and style or whom he thinks he can mold to fit. But it was fatal in the case of 5. 5 didn’t fit, he couldn’t be molded to fit, he played the most crucial position and accommodating him would have required Reid to get a brain transplant, and the financial investment in him was so great—at one point he was signed for 10 years and over $100 million—that he couldn’t simply be jettisoned and replaced.

For the record, Big Red runs a “West Coast” offense which relies on short and intermediate timing routes, on working all areas of the field, and on a quarterback who not only makes quick decisions but can “lead” receivers out of their cuts so that they can run upfield after the catch. 5 simply does not have that latter ability and has never developed it. He is strong, he is mobile, he can sometimes escape sacks  and make something out of nothing, and he has an absolute cannon of an arm. I still remember a play against Dallas on MNF in which he scrambled in the backfield for something like 15 seconds, evaded at least three different sacks, and then hit FredEx 55 yards downfield. But 5 doesn’t have “touch,” he can only gun the ball, he can’t float it even when it needs to be floated. Worse, on routes that aren’t straight upfield (“go” routes or “seam” routes) he tends to throw to where the receiver is as opposed to where he will be. This makes running after the catch hard. 5 would have been perfect for a more traditional, run-first play-action offense, but for 11 years Big Red kept trying to mold him to the West Coast. And 5 was just cerebral enough, just creative enough, and just talented enough to win despite the obvious impedance mismatch. Except not against the very good defenses you see in the later rounds of the playoffs (see NFC championship games 2002, 2003, SuperBowl 2004, wild card game 2009). Either that would happen or the Eagles own defense would crumble when faced with a superior offense (see NFC championship games 2001, 2008, divisional playoff 2007).

Well, the great WestCoast-5 experiment is over. Young GM Howie Roseman—how much do you want to bet he doesn’t have a football background, first, you can’t play in the NFL with a name like Howie Roseman, second, my 2-year old daughter has more bass in her voice than Howie—pulled the plug on it as part of a drastic roster purge that has jettisoned all but one starter over the age of 30. Young Howie—on the job for three months—had the sense to do what Big Red hadn’t in 11 years, i.e., shit or get off the pot. With a ready replacement in house—the less athletic, less talented, but far cheaper and more WestCoast-compatible Kevin Kolb (henceforth 4)—he unloaded 5 to a division rival, essentially daring 5 to come back and beat the Eagles twice a year. Balls (sorry) move if there ever was one! Howie may sound like a 2-year old girl, but he obviously has cojones (sorry again) like a blue whale. I haven’t liked some of his other moves (see Sheldon Brown to Cleveland for 4th round pick) but this one … if nothing else, it will be one of the most famous trades of all time. And it will essentially decide what the Eagles and Redskins are for the next 10-12 years. Howie, I don’t know you, but I hope that in addition to having something downstairs (sorry for the final time), you also have something going on upstairs. This could blow up in your face big. Anyway, this is obviously your team now. You and 4. And Big Red.

E-A-G-L-E-S-EAGLES!

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