If all goes according to plan, there will be six more months of days like Sunday for Josh McCown. The 40-year-old veteran spent most of the afternoon watching from the side as Carson Wentz marched the Eagles offense up and down the field, with most of his own throws coming during a 7-on-7 period of practice. All in all, it wasn’t the most taxing of days at the office, especially when you consider that he guaranteed himself at least $2 million just for showing up. McCown may not have had it rough before, spending most of his summer playing pickup hoops, coaching high school football, and working at ESPN as an NFL analyst. But playing back-up quarterback isn’t digging ditches, either.
That being said, the Eagles decision to sign the veteran journeyman was not a nothing move. Even in the funny-money world of the NFL, $2 million is very much something. As McCown spoke to reporters in front of his new locker prior to practice on Sunday, he made it very clear that he much preferred retirement to a backup role as it exists on most rosters across the NFL. Throughout the offseason, teams would call his agent expressing interest and, one by one, McCown would turn them down. He was not coaching high school football because of the lack of opportunity to play it himself.
“It was good for me," McCown said. “I got to spend a great amount of time with my family and go through an offseason where I wasn’t traveling and having to go back-and-forth from a city, doing OTA’s and stuff like that. So I stayed focused on that. But when it got closer, and the right situation popped up . . . ”
That’s the key phrase here -- “right situation.” The Eagles were it and most other teams weren’t. There’s a reason for that. The cash value was certainly a part of it. Two million dollars is a nice chunk of change to add to the retirement nest egg, particularly for a player who has spent the entirety of his career playing on a backup’s salary. But you can be sure that, just as important as the increased purchasing power was what the Eagles signified to McCown by committing such a substantial amount to him. In other words, Nate Sudfeld may have been the Eagles’ second-string quarterback before he broke his wrist in their preseason opener against the Titans, but it will be hard to consider him that for as long as McCown is around.
As you might have anticipated, Doug Pederson was not in a sharing sort of mood with regard to thoughts about how the depth chart will play out once Sudfeld returns from his injury (he’s a little more than a week into a recovery that is expected to take around six weeks).
“We’re not there yet,” the head coach said. “We have to get [Sudfeld] back. But we’re not at that point yet, as far as who is two, who is three. We haven’t made those roster spots yet.”
Yet it’s naive to think that McCown would have signed on the dotted line without raising this sort of question himself. In which case, it is self-evident that he ended up hearing an answer that jibed with his vision of “the right situation." And it’s difficult to imagine that the answer he heard was, “When Nate Sudfeld is healthy, you’ll be inactive and watching the game in street clothes.”
Sudfeld’s injury may have lent greater urgency to the Eagles’ signing of McCown, but even if he was healthy, the addition of McCown would have given them something that they did not already have. His 76 career starts are 76 more than Sudfeld has at the NFL level. In fact, two years ago, in 13 starts for the pre-Sam-Darnold Jets, McCown had exactly the sort of performance the Eagles would be hoping for should they end up losing Wentz for any significant length of time. Of the 35 NFL quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 passes that year, his 67.25 completion percentage ranked fourth, his 2.27 interception percentage ranked 14th (ahead of Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers, to name a few), and his 94.5 quarterback rating ranked 12th. The Jets didn’t win many games on the strength of his arm — McCown averaged 225 passing yards per game in those 13 starts — but they also didn’t lose many. In fact, in his last six full starts of the season, his 16-game pace was 4,016 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a completion percentage of 65.5. That season, he helped lead the Jets to a 23-20 win over a Jaguars team that went to the AFC Championship game and a 38-31 win over a Chiefs team that made the playoffs.
What does that mean for Sudfeld? If all goes according to plan, not much. Carson Wentz will play 16 games and McCown and Sudfeld will have the best seat in the house for what has the potential to be an MVP season. But that’s assuming the plan is to carry three quarterbacks on the active roster. Which, at this point, appears to be the case. There’s some legitimacy to the question of how much utility the Eagles will gain from keeping around a 26-year-old quarterback who will be a free agent after this season and who has his eyes on competing for a starting job somewhere in the NFL. But they kept three quarterbacks last season, and if you’re going to err on the side of strength at one position, the most important one on the field is a rational choice.
At the same time, McCown is here for a reason. If Wentz goes down with an injury in Week 1, who would you want in uniform ready to replace him: the guy who has done it before in a variety of different situations, or the guy who looks like he might be able to do it someday?