On Easter Sunday, Andy Reid committed a cardinal sin in the NFL: He traded a star player to a division rival.
At the time, the Philadelphia Eagles coach faced the kind of hard decision NFL teams have to make from time to time. He had an aging key player in quarterback Donovan McNabb, and promising successor on hand in Kevin Kolb. Even great players get old, and in the end everyone must be replaced. The questions are, when and how?
Thereís another old maxim in professional sports that says better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late. That must have entered Reidís thinking with the 33-year-old McNabb, though it wouldnít have been an option if Reid hadnít determined Kolb is ready to play.
But trading McNabb to NFC East Division rival Washington? Thatís another matter.
Reid said publicly he did it out of respect for McNabb, who preferred the Redskins over other suitors. The quarterback also had some say because he could threaten to not sign a long-term contract with a team he didnít like.
But knowing the NFL, and the stakes involved, the smart money says Reid didnít send McNabb elsewhere because in the end he trusted his own judgment to the hilt.
McNabb, a six-time Pro Bower with a 92-49-1 record as the Eaglesí starter, turns 34 in November. His decline has begun. Reid obviously determined itís time to replace an aging star with a player he considers on the rise, endure a tough year if need be, and get the best deal he could, which was from the Redskins. Washington gave up a high second-round pick (No. 37 overall) this year and a conditional third- or fourth-rounder next year.
The risks are huge. McNabb still might have a really good year or two left in him. Heíll be highly motivated and could embarrass Reid by beating the Eagles twice this year and finishing with a better record, maybe making the playoffs while Reid misses out. Imagine the reaction among the Eaglesí fan base if that happens.
Now look at the flip side. By defying NFL conventional wisdom, Reid has foisted upon a rival a star player heís judged for imminent decline, and at a substantial cost to that rivalís future. Reid is betting that in two years his franchise will be much better off with Kolb and the draft picks than with an old McNabb. If heís weakened the Redskins over the longer term, so much the better.
No doubt, thatís as hard a call as an NFL franchise has to make. It provides a compelling case study for executives around the NFL, and, of course, contrasts with what the Green Bay Packers did under similar circumstances in 2008.
General Manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy determined then that Aaron Rodgers was ready to play and that it was time to get him on the field rather than deal with Brett Favre, an aging star whose soap-opera vacillations on retirement had become too much to bear if there was an alternative. Itís, shall we say, an understatement to declare that Rodgers has vindicated the decision.
But when it came time to deal Favre, the Packers did what almost every other team in the NFL would have done: They refused even to consider sending him to their great rival in the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings, even though the Vikings would have offered the best deal. Minnesota was desperate to win and acquire a compelling player to help their bid for a new stadium. Itís a given neophyte owner Zygi Wilf would have surrendered at minimum a first-round pick in the 2009 draft Ė Favre was traded in August 2008, remember Ė and perhaps more.
The risk for the Packers would have been enormous. Thompson and McCarthy would have been excoriated by pundits and executives around the NFL, just as Reid was for sending McNabb to a divisional rival. And just imagine the reaction in state, where fans and pundits would have eviscerated the Packersí top brass. Then think what would have happened if Favre and the Vikings had beaten the Packers twice and, heaven forbid, gone to or even won the Super Bowl that first year. Talk about heat.
Now, the flip side. Even if Favre had delivered a title, the Packers would have passed along to a rival what they considered, on balance, a problem. They also would have weakened the Vikings by taking their first-round pick in í09, which happened to be Percy Harvin, who as a rookie last year already proved to be a difference maker.
So what are the lessons?
Well, if youíre running an NFL team, you have to make some tough and ruthless decisions. Thompson and McCarthy did, and anyone at the time who said theyíd regret it, including me, were dead wrong. Reid has done the same in choosing Kolb over McNabb, though we wonít know for a couple years whether he made the right call.
Itís also easy to sit in the cheap seats and say the Packers should have sent Favre to the Vikings when you donít have to live with the consequences. It would have outraged a majority of their fans, and the fallout would have been brutal, at least for a while.
But then again, was it any worse for Andy Reid this year? Maybe the Eaglesí coach has shown itís time to question conventional wisdom. Maybe NFL teams shouldnít dismiss a major trade with a rival out of hand, just because itís always been so.