So Jeremiah Trotter got cut, and now lots of people, Eagles and otherwise, have ruffled feathers. Many of the fans hate the move. Most of the people I know who follow the NFL, but not the Eagles, have asked me about it with some degree of incredulity. The guy was a big-name player, once the best middle backer in the league not named Ray Lewis, had his name dropped in rap videos, four Pro Bowl appearances. He was the Axeman. He couldn't get cut.
Well, here's what I think: I don't hate the move, but I sure don't like it. And what I don't like about it goes way beyond Jeremiah Trotter -- it has to do with Donovan McNabb.
But first, the deal with Trotter. I love Jeremiah Trotter. I own his jersey. I bought it during his first stint with the Eagles, when he went from a third-round nobody out of Stephen F. Austin, drafted by an atrocious team, to one of the best middle linebackers in football. He was one of the pillars of the defense that, along with the drafting of McNabb, brought the franchise back to respectability in 1999, and, one year later, ushered in an era of consistent success unmatched in modern Eagles history. Dawkins, Trotter, Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor -- all Pro Bowl players, all Ray Rhodes guys, too young to save his job, but a hell of a dowry for Andy Reid and Jim Johnson to inherit. (It's interesting to note that as they've slowly left -- Dawkins is the only one left -- the defense has deteriorated. And yet Jim Johnson gets all the credit for the good years.) That defense deserves just as much dap as McNabb does for reviving the franchise. And Jeremiah Trotter was behind a lot of the defense's success -- as was starkly evident when the Birds failed to replace him with a pair of disasters, Levon Kirkland and Mark Simoneau. I've heard a lot of Eagles fans say that letting Trotter walk in 2002 cost the Eagles a Lombardi. He was the best Eagles linebacker since Bednarik.
So I don't think a lot of Eagles followers expected him to get cut outright, but everybody who watched the team last year knew he was a liability on passing downs. He has been his whole career, and the last few years, as he's played in pain on oft-repaired knees, it's become painfully evident that he just can't cover anyone. Rich Hoffman breaks down Trotter's decline very well in his excellent column (seriously, Rich, can't you take Bill Conlin out for a Rusty Nail or two and talk some sense into him?), and Iggles Blog offers up some relevant selections from Football Prospectus on the matter, but all you really need to do is remember that Saints game last year. It wasn't all his fault -- the tackles really sucked, so Trot had o-linemen in his grill on every run play -- but the fact was that he couldn't make the plays he used to, the plays that changed games and saved seasons. I've never seen a single player turn around an entire defense like Trotter did in 2004. The man was an absolute menace. There's a reason Tiki Barber cited him by name as one of the reasons he retired early.
But he's not that player anymore. McNabb said he'd looked good in camp. Others disagree. Nobody, not even the Axeman himself, claimed that he wasn't past his prime. The only reason the cut comes as such a surprise is because of the Eagles' other linebackers. I could write another entire post about this, and might in the future, but to sum up the situation, they have Takeo Spikes and a bunch of guys you've never heard of. Their starting strong-side linebacker, Chris Gocong, was a defensive end at a D-II school two years ago and has never played a regular season game. Gaither, Trotter's heir apparent, has never started an NFL game at MLB.
Which might explain why the move was not very well received. The only remaining member of the aforementioned defensive unit, Brian Dawkins, said the news hit him "like a ton of bricks." Andy Reid did not look like a happy man in the press conference. And, most significantly, neither did Donovan McNabb, who took the opportunity he shunned when the same thing happened a half-dozen times over the last six years, with Duce and Vincent and Douglas, et. al, the old guard being slowly cut or pushed aside. Finally, he decided to go to bat for somebody. He questioned the front office's decisions in the media. And he even wondered aloud whether he was next.
The plot thickens.
The fact that McNabb finally spoke up for Jeremiah Trotter, one of TO's biggest supporters during the Year We Do Not Speak Of, should tell us something about D-Mac's intent. He didn't do this for Duce Staley, a guy who saved his ass a hundred times when he was learning the offense. He didn't do it for Brian Westbrook, the best weapon he's ever had. I don't think he cares much about losing an aging middle linebacker. This isn't the first time this offseason that he's fired a shot across the bow. It's not even the first time he's been "shocked" by something they did or said. First there was the much-discussed drafting of Kevin Kolb with their first pick. Then D-Mac's first public comments in response came during a press conference his publicist set up outside of the team's authority -- his newly hired publicist, who happened to have just been fired by the organization. There's been a situation brewing at the NovaCare complex for a while now.
In other words, this isn't really about Jeremiah Trotter. McNabb, as he has a way of doing with everything involving the Eagles, has made this about him. This could be very bad for the team, very good, or something in between.
Why this could be very bad for the Eagles:
It’s never good to have your franchise QB and head coach feuding. Donny's obviously feeling slighted by the Kolb pick, and he's itching to shed that "company man" rep he's rightfully gotten over the years. He is, after all, the highest-paid Eagle, as has been repeatedly observed by the players and the press, during every contentious contract negotiation (TO, Westbrook, Duce, Douglas, etc.), but especially during the TO situation. There have been an awful lot of rumblings about how good he would look in his hometown Bears' uniform next year, or the year after, when his backloaded contract gets very, very pricey. I wouldn't be surprised if he really is anticipating a similar move by the Eagles sometime in the near future -- I wouldn't be surprised if he's preparing to be dealt or cut, and auditioning for other teams already, at least to some degree. If you don't know the Philly sports milieu, you probably think I'm talking crazy. But I'm telling you, I'm not. Philly never embraced McNabb, and it never will, for the same reason the locker room never has: he's the golden boy, and nobody loves that guy. Ask A-Rod. Or ask Jeff Garcia, who got more love across the board, from the locker room comments to the papers to the fan message boards, in six games than D-Mac has in eight years.
In other words, McNabb's play at leadership could further estrange him from his own teammates, who have never seemed to like him much to begin with. It could further estrange him from the coaching staff, the organization, and maybe even from the whole city. If people read this move as purely self-serving, they'll have another reason to question McNabb.
Why this could be good:
First of all, if Andy has a beef with Donovan, maybe he won’t fucking throw the ball 70% of the time! The single biggest, most intractable, cancerous, ridiculous, egregious, fucking astoundingly asinine attribute of any football coach I've ever seen is Andy Reid's absolute refusal to run the football. I will never understand it. Mentioning it makes my heart rate spike -- it has taken years off of my life. It's not just me -- ask Diesel, who mentioned it to me after watching the preseason game today (which I missed because I was at the beach -- sue me, I've gone Californian on you.) That single shortcoming has cost the Eagles a dozen games in the last four years, and that is not an exaggeration. It may have cost them a Lombardi. There are a dozen ways I could support this, but the easiest is to simply look at the last six games of last season, those games everybody in the world blew Jeff Garcia for winning. The fact was, as soon as D-Mac went down the Eagles starting running the ball more than 45 percent of the time. They won six straight games. It's not a coincidence, folks. There's a reason I and half of the Eagles fans alive want the most successful coach in franchise history fired, and swiftly. But maybe if Andy's got a grudge, he'll give the ball to the best running back corps this franchise has had since Duce/Westy/Buckhalter. Maybe he'll finally pull his head out of his enormous ass. Maybe, but I doubt it.
Second, maybe McNabb really did take the Kolb pick to heart. Maybe he really is sick of being a "company man." Maybe he really is auditioning. And all of those things would likely result in him playing like a man with something to prove. The guy's 31 and coming off another major injury. He's played like an MVP whenever he's been healthy for the last three years, and yet he's never won one. Maybe Kevin Kolb finally provided the chip on McNabb's shoulder that Rush Limbaugh and TO couldn't.
I've said before in this space that I think McNabb's going to have a historically good year this season, if he can stay healthy (of course, that's a big "if"). I think he can be the best quarterback in football, and I'm not excluding anybody. But increasingly, I'm also beginning to think that he won't be an Eagle two years from now. The window's closing faster than anybody thought.