The Eagles’ much-discussed backup quarterback situation took a momentous turn Saturday, when the team announced it had signed 40-year-old Josh McCown to a one-year contract that is believed to carry a $2 million guarantee, that could pay up to $5.4 million.
McCown had announced his retirement a few months back and was set to go to work for ESPN, after spending the past two seasons with the Jets. Instead, he will prepare for a 17th NFL season (he played 2010 in the United Football League), with his 11th NFL team. If he throws a regular-season pass in relief of Carson Wentz for the Eagles, McCown will become the first player in NFL history to attempt a pass for eight franchises. Currently, McCown and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick are tied at seven teams apiece.
The Eagles released wide receiver Braxton Miller to create roster room for McCown.
“More than anything, it was the comfort level I had talking with [Eagles coach Doug Pederson], where they’re trying to take this thing and where they’re trying to get back to, and understanding the expectations that they have here,” McCown told the Eagles’ website. “I’ve been in a lot of situations throughout my career – where I was helping a young guy or serving as a stopgap kind of guy or being part of a rebuilding situation -- so to come to a situation where it was more established, where they’ve got the quarterback and a veteran defense and a lot of good players on the offense, that to me was enticing. To see how it’s done at a high level and done right, that was the dialogue with [general manager Howie Roseman] and Doug.
“It was an easy sell, to be quite honest.”
In a piece he wrote for The Players Tribune announcing his retirement, McCown addressed the peripatetic nature of his career. He reflected that as a Cardinals rookie in 2002, he would have been happy to learn that he would play so long, but not so happy to know it would be for so many teams.
“I guess it just goes to show that you don’t always get to choose your own path,” McCown wrote. “But looking back, I’m proud of how my career has gone. I don’t shy away from the journeyman label. I embrace it, full force. Because it’s been one heck of a journey.”
The Eagles pretty much had to do something, after Cody Kessler suffered a concussion in Thursday’s preseason game at Jacksonville, a week after Nate Sudfeld broke his left wrist in the preseason opener. That left only Wentz and fifth-round rookie Clayton Thorson to navigate the final three weeks and two games of the preseason. Wentz has not played so far in the preseason, and it seems more and more that Pederson isn’t going to risk playing him.
The team could have just brought in a camp arm – say, Luis Perez, the former Alliance of American Football QB the Eagles signed and released this spring. Instead, the Eagles lured a veteran out of retirement, spending enough money that it would seem McCown is guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster. A relatively inexperienced quarterback room gained a huge trove of knowledge. McCown is nine years older than QB coach Press Taylor.
Thursday night’s concussion was particularly ill-timed for Kessler, the 26-year-old former Browns and Jaguars quarterback who was competing with Thorson for a roster spot. The Eagles have indicated Sudfeld will return to his role as Wentz’s primary backup when he is healthy, which should be about five weeks from now. (Of course, McCown could change their mind on that, but Sudfeld definitely is on the team.)
The Eagles aren’t going to keep more than three quarterbacks on the active roster – they often have just kept two, with a developmental prospect on the practice squad. So unless there’s another twist, Wentz, Sudfeld and McCown are the quarterback group for 2019. Though there is a chance Kessler or Thorson could start the season on the 53, since Sudfeld won’t be ready by the Sept. 8 opener against the Redskins. Or the Eagles could go with Wentz and McCown for a few weeks, with Thorson on the practice squad, assuming he would clear waivers.
McCown is unlikely to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory, a la Nick Foles, should Wentz go down, but he probably was the best option at Roseman’s disposal. He has appeared in 99 NFL games, with 76 starts and a 79.7 career passer rating. The Jets counted on him to help develop rookie QB Sam Darnold last season.
“Universally loved as a person and a teammate,” an NFL personnel source said Saturday. “Given a lot of credit for helping Darnold develop as a rookie.”
McCown started 13 games for the Jets in 2017 and piled up career numbers – a .673 completion percentage, 2,926 passing yards, 18 touchdown passes vs. nine interceptions, and a 94.5 passer rating – but the Jets drafted Darnold the next spring, and McCown started just three games last season. It’s worth noting that they weren’t good games – one TD, four INTs, a 55.8 passer rating.
One of the concerns when you bring in a QB this late is teaching him your offense. Though he has never played for Pederson or Andy Reid, that shouldn’t be too steep a hill for McCown, whom observers describe as a virtual QB coach.
In the Eagles website story announcing his signing, McCown called himself “a huge fan of what Doug does.” and added, "I’m looking forward to seeing how Doug runs the team and how he oversees the offense. This is an ideal situation for me.”
McCown concluded his retirement story for The Players Tribune with an anecdote about his wife, Natalie, collecting his jerseys from each NFL stop and having them framed and mounted in one room in their home, as a Christmas present. (Yes, it was a big room.)
“When I step back and look at that room, I don’t just see the jerseys,” McCown wrote. “I see opportunities. Opportunities that I had to learn, to grow, and to find new ways to contribute to different teams and help win football games. Opportunities that kept me in pro football for 17 years and molded me into the man that I am today. Opportunities that I thank God for, because they strengthened my faith.
“At the end of the day, no matter what team I was on, I tried to serve it to the best of my ability, and I tried to influence my team in a positive manner. I hope I did that. And I made sure that when my number was called, I was prepared, and I gave it everything I had, every time. I may not have turned out to be the franchise quarterback I set out to be back at Cardinals rookie camp, but I’m extremely proud of the career I had.”