Eagles coach Andy Reid has said all the right things -- almost. So has McNabb. And that's the problem. This time of year, it's not what they say that counts but what's going on behind the scenes and how you read between the lines.
Philadelphia is the only team in the NFL with all three quarterbacks on its roster going into the final year of their contracts. Teams are calling, wondering who's available, who's not and what the Eagles would want in any potential trade.
The Eagles' front office is listening. But here's the kicker: The Eagles, according to multiple league sources, have so far told teams that both McNabb and his primary backup, Kevin Kolb, are not available.
Now, does that mean the Eagles won't trade McNabb? Definitely not. Most league insiders believe the Eagles are just posturing right now, trying to determine the market and how to proceed. If the team says publicly or privately McNabb is on the trading block, its bargaining position would tank.
Among the teams that have talked to the Eagles, according to multiple sources, are the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills. The latter two teams are believed to be interested in Michael Vick, who told Reid in his exit interview in January that he wants to be traded to a team that will give him an opportunity to start. Reid promised him nothing, team sources say.
Teams have showed varying degrees of interest in all three quarterbacks, but McNabb is the key. He has said he will be back and wants to be back. But is that necessarily the case? He often makes snide remarks about being underappreciated by both the fans and the media in town. That's nothing new. Former Eagles QB Ron Jaworski faced the same thing. Many big-media-market quarterbacks who don't take the team to the promised land of Lombardi face that kind of relentless scrutiny and rancid doubt.
Publicly, Reid left the door open on a McNabb trade -- if only ever so slightly. Reid at first said that McNabb, 33, would be back in an Eagles uniform in 2010 and reiterated that it's his call to make -- despite the recent shake-up of the team's front office. (General manager Tom Heckert was allowed to leave to take the same job in Cleveland, while Howie Roseman was promoted to take his place.)
But on Jan. 11, when making his final comments about the 2009 season to the local media, here's what Reid said that could be interpreted as he left himself an out:
"I was asked if Donovan would be my quarterback next year, and I said yes," Reid said. "That's what I'm saying now." The key word there is "now," meaning perhaps that he could change his mind later -- especially if the right offer comes along.
Three years ago, the Eagles were asked about McNabb's availability, particularly by the Minnesota Vikings. At that time, the Eagles killed the market by setting the price too high: two first-round NFL draft picks. Today, McNabb has diminished in value. Among NFL front-office executives, the talk is that the Eagles will want at least a first-round pick, but no one has heard a price from South Philadelphia.
"I hear through league sources that this is the first year Andy Reid is willing to listen to trade offers for Donovan," said Adam Caplan, an NFL reporter for Scout.com. "But it's got to be at least a first-round pick."
Still, there are those who believe a first-round pick is too much for a quarterback with a recent history of injuries and falling short in big games. Don't forget, McNabb has lost four of five appearances in the NFC Championship Game -- three of which the Eagles were favored to win.
Within the walls of the NovaCare Complex, discussions about the quarterback position have been far from unanimous. Some within the organization have argued that the Packers successfully transitioned from Favre to Aaron Rodgers, suggesting the Eagles could make the same seamless move to Kolb, who has made just two career starts.
There are many reasons that trading McNabb sometime in the next two months makes sense for the team, player and city. With 11 years in Philadelphia, McNabb has the best numbers of any quarterback who has worn the Eagles' uniform. At his Super Bowl party in Miami Beach, Jaworski, who took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1980, introduced McNabb as "the greatest quarterback in Eagles history."
But in online poll after online poll on local Web sites, a majority of respondents say they are ready for change they can believe in.
Right after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, Philly.com -- the Web site for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News newspapers -- polled readers with the following question: "Who has the best chance of leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory?"
Kolb, with just four career touchdown passes, finished first by a wide margin: 43 percent to McNabb's 32 percent. Considering Kolb's level of inexperience, that is a shocking repudiation of McNabb. (Vick got just 7 percent of the vote, losing out to "someone else," which got 17 percent.)
What's more, a recent poll commissioned by the local Democrats stuck a question about McNabb in the end: Should McNabb stay or go? More than 71 percent of the likely voters in the city of Philadelphia said McNabb should go.
So, a trade would give McNabb a fresh start and the chance to get the financial security with a contract extension he wants and deserves. Indeed, a trade would need McNabb's approval so that he could work out a deal. For example, sources say, he wants no part of Buffalo.
Here is what Eagles president Joe Banner had to say about the Eagles' quarterback situation Thursday morning on the Eagles' Web site:
"It's a priority to figure out exactly the best way to handle the situation. Andy's comments have been clear about his evaluation and Andy is the final decision-maker here. As far as do we trade any of the quarterbacks, keep all three quarterbacks, what do we do with their contact status each going into last year of their deals, the uncertainty about the collective bargaining agreement going forward, those are also parts of the decision. There's different levels of complexity about the decision. We'll have to sit down and figure it out."
Sounds as if the door is open to all possibilities.
And that is the reason the trade speculation will not die. Reid and Banner could make it go away with the stroke of a pen. The Eagles have the money. The team just renewed all but one of its main sponsors at Lincoln Financial Field, and it's one of only a handful of NFL teams that has no problem selling out every Sunday.
Essentially, the front office has put McNabb on a one-year audition. That can't be good for his locker room credibility or his fractured relationship with the fans. And it begs the question:
Can McNabb lead the Eagles as a lame duck?
Sal Paolantonio, who covers the NFL for ESPN, is the author of "How Football Explains America" (Triumph Books).