Andy Reid doesn't believe in the sink-or-swim theory for young quarterbacks.
In an era when most coaches tend to rush their young quarterbacks into the fray before they're ready to cope with NFL defenses, the Philadelphia Eagles coach was careful to pick his spot to give Donovan McNabb his first start.
He's finally found the spot. Reid will start McNabb today against the Washington Redskins, the worst defense in the league, at Veterans Stadium.
"It's right on schedule," Reid said.
It couldn't be better for the second player picked in the draft, who signed a $54 million deal.
With the Eagles at 2-7 and out of playoff contention, there's no pressure to produce right away, and the Redskins' toothless defense isn't likely to terrorize him. The Redskins have just 17 sacks.
Not that McNabb is likely to put 34 points on the board against the Redskins the way veteran Doug Flutie of the Buffalo Bills did last week. The Eagles will be happy just to see him not make many mistakes.
The Redskins figure to blitz. Most teams do against young quarterbacks. But he's not likely to suffer the same fate he did in his first appearance against Tampa Bay when he was sacked six times in 20 pass plays.
"You saw people blitz him like crazy," Reid said of his earlier relief appearances. "He'd come in a game and all of a sudden there would be a load of blitzing, and I did not think he was prepared early in the season to handle that. Nor did I feel the offense was as prepared to handle that."
They find out today if he's ready.
The McNabb debut adds some spark to what otherwise figures to be a dreary game. The Redskins, who boast the No. 2 offense in the league, should have no trouble scoring against a Philadelphia defense ranked No. 22.
The Eagles are the fifth losing team the Redskins have played this year, and they won the first four, which is why they're 5-3 and have a good shot at the playoffs this year.
The Redskins play eight losing teams this year. If they win all eight, they just have to repeat their victory over the New York Giants, the only winning team they've played, and they'll be 10-6 and probably in the playoffs.
The final score, though, won't mean much to the Eagles.
What's important is how McNabb looks. It's hard to overestimate what he means to the future of the franchise and to Reid.
Reid staked his future on McNabb by selecting him over Akili Smith with the second pick in the draft.
If McNabb is successful, Reid is likely to have a successful tenure in Philadelphia. If he isn't. well, Reid and the Eagles don't want to think about that.
They're too busy thinking about what McNabb may become.
Offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, who once coached John Elway in college, dropped Elway's name in talking about him.
"Having been around both of them, they're very similar. John has great mobility. He's able to throw without setting his feet and throw accurately. Donovan is big and strong and has similar size. You're talking about 6-2, 6-3 and 220 pounds, with a strong arm and quick feet," he said.
McNabb said of the comparison with Elway, "It's special to have your name mentioned with his. But here's a Hall of Famer and here's a guy waiting his first opportunity to start. And we know, Elway struggled in his first year. He was still learning in his second year, came out and played well, and we all know what happened after that."
Dowhower said some of his friends have asked him after games when they were going to start playing McNabb.
Dowhower said he told them, "We just don't want to put him in too quick. You can ruin him with all of your stuff."
The Eagles don't have to worry too much about Mike Nolan, the beleagured Washington defensive coordinator, ruining him. Nolan's been under fire all year from impatient owner Dan Snyder. Coach Norv Turner had to placate Snyder by bringing in retired coach Bill Arnsparger as a sort of consultant, but it hasn't helped much.
No matter what schemes Nolan and Arnsparger use, it won't make much difference if the players don't produce.
"You can take them to the party, but they have to make their own fun," Nolan said.
The Redskins' defense hopes to have just enough fun to keep McNabb from embarrassing them.
Defensive end Kenard Lang said, "We have to keep McNabb in the pocket, make him beat us with his arm, not his legs. We've got to try to confuse him, make him think instead of just react."