Garcia over Feeley stirring debate

PHILADELPHIA -- Andy Reid prides himself on being a pretty good chef. He likes to slowly smoke the holiday turkey on the barbecue. He would never serve his bird half-baked.

But if you listened to the talk show and Internet chatter in this town lately, you'd know that's exactly what Eagles fans feel they're getting: an indigestible decision to replace the injured Donovan McNabb with 36-year-old Jeff Garcia.

Garcia, who looked awful in the preseason, was nearly benched in the third quarter Sunday when he relieved McNabb against a Tennessee team ranked 30th in the league against the pass. Nevertheless, he's been tapped as the starter over A.J. Feeley. And Philly isn't happy about it.

For example, Feeley, 29, who achieved celebrity status in this town when he went 4-1 in relief of the injured McNabb in 2002, received a landslide 71 percent of the vote to be the next starter in a readers' poll published Thanksgiving morning in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

While obviously nonscientific, the poll and the resulting debate have raised intriguing questions: Why would the Eagles go with the aging, ineffective Garcia? What are they afraid of by starting Feeley?

Perhaps it's this simple: If Garcia falls on his face, or wins five in a row, he will never be a legitimate threat to replace McNabb, who is expected to return at some point next season. Garcia will be 37 in February and, after short, unsuccessful stints in Cleveland and Detroit, he is now officially in his final NFL act. So McNabb can rehab and come back to the team without looking over his shoulder.

"I brought Jeff in here for this situation. I have a lot of trust in A.J., too. I think they are both very good quarterbacks, but I brought Jeff in here for this season, and now he has an opportunity to do it."
Andy Reid on the decision to start Jeff Garcia over A.J. Feeley

Now, what would happen if Feeley performed a bit of magic and revived the 5-5 Eagles? Popular and with pop-star looks, Feeley would emerge next spring as a direct threat to McNabb, who has been knocked out early in three of the last five seasons.

Feeley's success would force the Eagles to confront a question that it may not be ready for: Life after No. 5.

If Feeley finished the season a winner, this town would be involved in a full-blown quarterback controversy that would make last year's meltdown over Terrell Owens feel like a walk in the park.

So in essence, by starting Feeley now, Reid and the organization would be pushing the fast-forward button on the future of the team -- and perhaps the head coach.

Then, there is the issue of money.

When he was released by San Diego in August, Feeley signed a two-year deal. Say he played well enough to be considered the starter. Then, with McNabb still in rehab, Feeley remained the starter during spring minicamps and training camp. McNabb is not supposed to come back from knee surgery for 8-12 months. At that point, Feeley would deserve to be paid like a starter. The right thing to do would be to extend his contract beyond 2007.

Tough to do when the organization is in the midst of paying McNabb's 12-year, $115 million deal that doesn't expire until 2014.

And it's something team president Joe Banner, the Eagles' salary cap maven, has no history of doing. His philosophy is based on matching worth to roster spots. The Eagles have too much stadium debt to pay two quarterbacks as the starter -- that's why they always finish the season under the salary cap, and why they sign young players to cap-friendly extension deals. They need the cash every year to make the loan payments.

So a successful Feely spells a QB quagmire.

Reid insisted inserting Garcia is strictly a football decision.

"I brought Jeff in here for this situation," he said. "I have a lot of trust in A.J., too. I think they are both very good quarterbacks, but I brought Jeff in here for this season, and now he has an opportunity to do it."

The key words in that quote: "this season." Reid clearly knows that Garcia is not the future. So why delay the development of Feeley? Even if the Eagles should somehow slide into the playoffs under Garcia, what does it accomplish for a team reeling on many, many fronts: an anemic running game, receivers with a bad case of the dropsies, a porous run defense, and a secondary rife with dissension?

Indeed, it's difficult to make a good football case for starting Garcia. This Eagles team has been built for, and heavily criticized for, its unusually heavy reliance on the big play.

For almost every week of the first half of the season, the Philadelphia offense was ranked first in the league in yards gained, but last in time of possession. Without a between-the-tackles running attack, McNabb was forced to employ his big arm. And for a while there, he was successful, connecting on big touchdown bombs with Donte' Stallworth and Reggie Brown.

Garcia doesn't have that arm. During most of his career, he has been criticized for not being able to make the big throw (see: T.O.). Last Sunday was a good example. The Titans simply dropped everybody in coverage and allowed Garcia to dink and dunk his way down the field.

He engineered a six-play drive that went 19 yards (punt); a nine-play drive that went 48 yards (field goal); a 12-play drive that went 22 yards (turned over on downs); and two more drives that took 10 and 12 plays and went 47 and 49 yards, respectively, and resulted in no points.

Garcia's only touchdown drive was an 11-play, 80-yard slugfest that came in the fourth quarter when the Eagles were down 24-6 and needed a quick strike to get back in the game, but couldn't get one.

In all, against Tennessee in the second half, the Eagles had the ball an alarming 22 minutes and 47 seconds and had just seven points to show for it.

Teams know this about Garcia. Hit him with the blitz, play deep cover behind it and force him to execute long, low-percentage drives.

It's an offensive plan the Eagles are not equipped to run and Reid has been loath to attempt this season, and for most of his highly successful career in Philadelphia.

Yet in the face of that overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Reid has decided to keep Feeley on the bench. And Reid has already shown confidence in Feeley -- twice. In 2001, Reid drafted Feeley in the fifth round out of Oregon, even though Feeley spent most of his college career injured, watching Joey Harrington campaign for the Heisman.

Reid's rationale for drafting Feeley then was that his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, strong arm and quick release were perfectly suited for the Eagles' offense. The following season, when McNabb and Koy Detmer both went down in successive weeks, Feeley helped secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by going 4-1 as a starter.

McNabb came back, but not without a seriously loud debate in this town about whether it would be a better idea to stick with Feeley. Perhaps Reid remembers that, and he doesn't want to encourage it again.

Feeley was traded to the Dolphins in 2004 and the Eagles were stuck with Detmer and Mike McMahon last season when McNabb was lost for half a season with a groin injury. Perhaps last season could have been salvaged with Feeley at the helm -- but that would've created more doubt about McNabb.

The Dolphins traded Feeley to the Chargers, who released him. Truth be told, Feeley never flourished like he did here in Philadelphia. But he's proven that he can run this offense. And if Reid didn't think he could, why would he draft Feeley, then quickly bring him back when he became available this summer?

Feeley was seen warming up on the sideline during the third quarter of the Titans game. Clearly, he didn't make the decision to do that on his own. Reid must've given him the green light to loosen up his arm, which prompted questions this week about whether Garcia had enough psychological space to succeed.

"It's not a short leash," Reid replied. "He's the quarterback."

Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-94, covers the NFL for ESPN.