The Washington Redskins closed the 2011 season with a 34-10 loss at Lincoln Financial Field that left them at 5-11, their fourth straight last-place finish in the NFC East. Their starting quarterback was Rex Grossman. Their future appeared bleak.
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan made a bold move in March when the franchise surrendered three first-round picks and a second-round pick to move up four slots in the draft so it could select quarterback Robert Griffin III. It looked like a hefty price, but it gave the Redskins the opportunity to draft the most valuable asset in the NFL: a franchise quarterback.
"They'd do it again in a heartbeat - and probably give up even more to be in a position to get him," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. "Because he makes that big of a difference."
The Redskins arrive in Philadelphia for Sunday's game against the Eagles at 8-6. They control their postseason fate. They can win the division that they haven't topped since 1999. The single biggest reason is their acquisition of a franchise quarterback.
In Indianapolis, a similar turnaround has occurred. The Colts transformed from 2-14 last year to a playoff team because of quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick. In Denver, the Broncos needed to rally with Tim Tebow last season just to finish 8-8. They have Peyton Manning this season, and already have 11 victories.
If the 2012 season has revealed anything, it's that the value of a quarterback cannot be overstated and that a franchise can become a contender if it finds the right one.
"Everybody wants a franchise quarterback, but they're not always out there," Shanahan said last week. "It's hard to find those guys, the guys you think have a chance. And if you can [find] one, you go out and get him."
This is the biggest concern surrounding the future of the Eagles. Much attention will go to who the next head coach will be if Andy Reid is fired after next week, but it's even more important to determine the quarterback for the next decade.
For the first time since the end of the 1998 season, the Eagles will end the campaign without a clear plan at quarterback. They drafted Donovan McNabb in 1999 and invested time and money in a succession plan for Kevin Kolb in 2010. Michael Vick took the job from Kolb and expected to be the franchise quarterback until the team collapsed this season.
The Eagles are now experimenting with Nick Foles, a third-round pick who has done enough to flirt with the idea of being the long-term answer at quarterback, but not enough to lock up that spot. The Eagles could decide to go into 2013 with Foles, sign or trade for a veteran in the offseason, spend a first-round pick on a signal-caller, or even keep Vick, but there is no clear answer to the franchise's biggest question.
The result of a franchise-quarterback search can keep a coach in his job for a decade or turn him into a career assistant. For every Luck and Griffin taken with top picks, there are the likes of Tim Couch and Akili Smith. They were selected in 1999, sandwiching the Eagles' selection of McNabb. Reid identified McNabb as the quarterback he wanted and went to five NFC championship games with him.
When Shanahan is evaluating a potential franchise quarterback, he watches every play from the player's college career and tries to unearth the intangibles. "Everyone has a list of different things they look for," Shanahan said before rattling off a list of attributes that include mobility, arm strength, poise, balance, vision, accuracy, and decision making.
"The great quarterbacks make everyone around them better," Reid said. "That simple."
The Eagles' backup quarterback, Trent Edwards, said this is not limited to the players on offense, but the entire roster. Edwards pointed to the way the Redskins and Colts defenses have become more opportunistic this season. There's also a belief that the team can come from behind. Luck has led six game-winning drives this season. Griffin has orchestrated three.
"If you sat in on a meeting with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, those guys don't just make the people on offense better, but make it a better team," Edwards said. "The quarterback's writing checks with every pass that he makes, but also that mentality trickles down to every position on the field, too."
Foles understands the effect the position can have on the rest of the team, and he has wanted that role since he was in the first grade. Foles said it's an intangible characteristic that a quarterback either possesses or lacks - "you can't really turn it on," he said - and he has tried to play that role for the last month.
"I think from the time you played football when you were in first grade to the time you play it now, the quarterback's always been the leader of the team just because he's the one touching the ball every play," Foles said.
Yet if the Eagles were convinced that Foles could be that quarterback, they would have used a pick well before the third round - or competitors would have chosen him earlier. Like Shanahan said, everyone wants a franchise QB, and they're not always available.
Is Foles on pace?
The debate on Foles has not yet dissipated, which is both a compliment to his potential and an acknowledgment of reality. He has won just one of his five starts, and his six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles) outnumber his five touchdown passes.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg pointed out that quarterbacks progress at different rates. But Foles' progress remains unconvincing.
"I will say this: He's built the right way. He's got some great qualities and great strengths," Mornhinweg said. "There are several things that he needs to work on, like any young quarterback, and we'll see how he continues to progress."
One area that Foles must work on is his deep ball. It's not a matter of arm strength, but rather the need to improve his mechanics. Reid mentioned that McNabb endured the same criticism in 1999. McNabb struggled with accuracy before improving.
"Donovan was 10 years, 12 years into it and a great player," Reid said. "This kid's just starting off, so you give him a little time to grow and see what he can do. We're talking about a guy [in McNabb] that was arguably the best quarterback in franchise history. So I don't think you can compare the two right now."
But the comparison is required because McNabb embodied much of what a franchise quarterback must become. He is the last Eagles quarterback to win a playoff game, a perennial Pro Bowler who gave the Eagles a chance each season. He took the Eagles to the postseason in his first full year as a starter, a turnaround that made Eagles fans in 2000 feel the way Redskins and Colts fans do this season.
"You have to have a guy who's an elite [quarterback] if you want to do anything of significance," Fletcher said. "That's just the nature of the game. With us getting Robert, we have someone we consider an elite player at the position - even if he's a rookie."
That's why Washington will be a different franchise on Sunday than it was when it last visited Philadelphia. And it's why the Eagles have taken the Redskins' place at the bottom of the NFC East - a spot they could keep unless they identify their franchise quarterback.