Quarterback Comparison: Russell Wilson and Donovan McNabb


Jan 26, 2014; Jersey City, NJ, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson addresses media during press conference at Westin Jersey City. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

For a Super Bowl with such prolific combatants and tantalizing storylines leading up to Sunday’s game, the meteoric rise of Seattle QB Russell Wilson has fallen by the wayside a bit. Most years, a second-year quarterback with some of the physical limitations of the 3rd round pick out of Wisconsin leading his team to the Super Bowl would be the type of fodder that would be covered from every possible angle. Nevertheless, with arguably the greatest quarterback of this generation lining up across the field from Wilson and his own teammate soaking in the spotlight for the primary Seahawks’ angle, the 25-year old signal caller for the Seahawks has not been talked about much.

Nevertheless, the 3rd round pick of a draft noted for its high-end quarterback talent will be the first of a group that includes: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill to make it to the Super Bowl. Considering the high-end talent of his draft classmates paired with the fact that Wilson does not have the prototypical makeup of successful quarterback in today’s NFL, the fact that the Seattle quarterback is a win away from capturing a Super Bowl title is quite remarkable. While, as a whole, the Seahawks roster is among the most impressive around the NFL it is the impressive Wilson who has emerged as the figurehead of the organization. Since staking claim to the starting job prior to his rookie season, all Wilson has done is lead his team to consecutive playoff berths and a 3-1 postseason record.

Wilson’s maturity and perseverance toward the upper echelon of his position is quite admirable. The superior athlete wrestled with a decision of whether or not to play professional baseball and is still being pursued by major league clubs. The diamond might provide a more level playing field for the 5’11” Wilson, but he remains adamant that football is where his future is.

Jul 29, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie hugs former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb during a press conference announcing his retirement at the Eagles NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Over a decade ago, the Eagles found themselves in a similar situation to what the Seahawks are dealing with. Albeit with a much higher draft selection, the team brought in their quarterback of the future in the form of Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb. Much like Wilson, McNabb was drafted in a year expected to yield a handful of franchise quarterbacks. Along the likes of: Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, and Daunte Culpepper, McNabb represented hope for his respective fanbase. Unlike McNabb, who was held in high regard compared to the other quarterbacks drafted in 1999, Wilson was not considered one of the top prospects in the class of 2012. Still, Wilson impressed the moment he stepped on the field. With a strong supporting cast around him, Wilson has been able to play a relatively risk-free style of quarterback that allows him to occasionally take advantage of his world-class athleticism. Six games into his first season as a starter, Wilson had already won starts against Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

Unlike Wilson, McNabb was eased into his role as starter under then-Eagles coach Andy Reid. However; in his first full season as a starter, McNabb posted an 11-5 record and clinched a playoff spot, identical to Wilson’s first complete year under center. At first, the two players were revered for their ability to extend plays and hurt defenses with their feet. Both McNabb and Wilson won their first playoff game and reached conference championship games upon their return to the postseason. Obviously, Wilson did McNabb one better by reaching the Super Bowl in his first season but, given the circumstances, their career arcs are strikingly similar.

When comparing two quarterbacks such as Wilson and McNabb, any number of variables and extraneous factors can play into which passer comes out ahead. In the early stages of both of their careers, McNabb and Wilson came into similar circumstances. Both players inherited the starting job on a team that was not necessarily in ‘rebuild’ mode. When Andy Reid inherited the head coaching job of the Eagles, the same year McNabb was drafted with the 2nd overall pick, the team was two years removed from a playoff run. The defense was littered with emerging playmakers and the offense had a strong running back and some promising pieces along the offensive line. The threats on the outside were limited, but McNabb had a dependable tight end in Chad Lewis as a safety valve.

Jan 19, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers during the 2013 NFC Championship football game at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated San Francisco 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Wilson inherited an equally, arguably more bountiful support system when he was named the Seahawks starter. Marshawn Lynch had just burst onto the scene as one of the most dynamic backfield threats in the NFL. The defense, though not yet garnering the praise it receives in present day, clearly had the capability to keep Seattle in games and would end up posting the league’s top-ranked unit in terms of points allowed (15.3). The Seahawks had a well-constructed offensive line and a roster that was formulated with the benefit of not having a major portion of the salary cap allotted to the quarterback position.

Because of the well-formed rosters they would be taking over, there was very little asked of Wilson and McNabb at first. Young quarterbacks, either as rookies or in their first few seasons, are often praised by their ability to not make mistakes. So often, a quarterback is brought in to play ‘savior’ for a franchise that has let their roster spiral out of control. All the talent in the world from the quarterback position can only go so far. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III look to be generational talents, but both will only be able to achieve what their franchise and fans expect of them if the organization continues to build progressively around them. When the Seahawks drafted Wilson in the 3rd round, much like the Eagles taking Nick Foles in the same round, it is hard to imagine the team pegged the mid-round pick as their franchise option moving forward. Technically, neither team has inked their quarterback to a contract extension. While especially in the case of Wilson, it looks as if Seattle has found their man, they have still been able to divert draft picks and resources away from a position that usually takes top priority.

Years of strong drafting, smart spending, and luck set Russell Wilson up with one of the best rosters in the league around him. It was the ideal environment for grooming a young quarterback who is already considered mature beyond his years. Wilson has had to lead comebacks and make game-winning plays in his two seasons as starter, but to say the talented Seattle roster hasn’t helped secure two straight double-digit win seasons in the hardest division in the NFL was not a major factor is ignorant.

Despite this, it takes a special breed of competitor to be willing to go from a Heisman trophy finalist who carried his team to a Rose Bowl to playing ‘game manager’ for a team fighting for a Super Bowl. Russell Wilson had to impress every single chance he got to beat out Matt Flynn, a player the Seahawks spent a lot of money for to acquire. After securing the top spot on the depth chart though, Wilson had to refine his game and play in a way that took advantage of his team’s strengths. The most impressive thing about Wilson in his two years, from what I’ve seen, is his pulse of what the organization needs from him every step of the way. In the NFC Championship game, Seattle needed Wilson to not inflict damage on his own team while they waited out a 49ers mistake, a strategy that eventually benefited them. Aside from a fumble on his first pass attempt of the game, Wilson was spectacularly steady for his team. On the eventual game-winning touchdown, Wilson recognized he had a free play and took one of his only risks of the game.

In an entry of TheMMQB.com, Greg A. Bedard discussed the play with members of the Seahawks offense and gave insight to the process of Wilson. Against one of the most intimidating defenses in the NFL, a second-year quarterback found a tendency that his team could exploit and, with every factor working for them, managed to take advantage of the microscopic hint and launch his team into the playoffs. Some have gotten on Wilson’s case this offseason for not putting forth the staggering numbers that usually associate Super Bowl quarterbacks, including his opponent Peyton Manning. What almost everyone does not realize is the fact that Wilson cares only about his team and winning. The sound has not, and appears it might never get to the Seahawks quarterback.

Sep 19, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; A banner for the retirement of Donovan McNabb

Looking back at the career of McNabb is more frustrating every time. It is only this tantalizing knowing that he should have won at least one Super Bowl and have a much different narrative around the fanbase than the one he does. McNabb, unlike Wilson, had the expectations of the franchise on his shoulders from the second he was drafted. The kid from Syracuse with the quirky smile and the type of flare that would have a teammate take a bullet for him was not well-received by his new fanbase.

That said, despite the turnover in Philadelphia, McNabb was entering a strong support system. Much like Pete Carroll in Seattle, Andy Reid had already established himself as a rising name in the coaching ranks and the Eagles were an organization on the rise. McNabb would have the benefit of a very smart, albeit limited Doug Pederson to learn behind his rookie season. McNabb would start the final six games of 1999 and, despite a 2-4 mark, gave the same fans that booed him a tantalizing look at the future.

McNabb would start every game his sophomore season. His electrifying runs, cannon-like arm, and firm grasp of the team’s offense vaulted him to iconic status in Philadelphia. McNabb would have 21 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions, and six more touchdowns on the ground on his first of five straight Pro Bowl seasons. He would throw for two scores and run for one more in his first playoff game, a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Eventually, he would bow out at the hands of the New York Giants in the Divisional round.

From a physical standpoint, Donovan McNabb was essentially a pumped-up Russell Wilson. Early in his career, McNabb was taller, faster, stronger, and had a better arm than Wilson. McNabb, at first, seemed more inclined to hurt the defense with running plays whereas Wilson uses his feet more to make plays in the passing game. McNabb developed that aspect of his game more and more, but on the upswing of his time in Philadelphia he was a spectacular runner from his position.

If you think about it, despite all that McNabb did in his career, a Seattle win in the Super Bowl will probably solidify his spot behind Wilson in the all-time ranks. Barring an epic collapse by Wilson in his career, it is tough to imagine he could do poorly enough not to have his one, at least, ring trump anything that McNabb has brought to the table. The NFL, fans and players alike, is the ultimate ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ league. One can throw out every statistic in the book to try and justify their stance, but the only one that matters is Super Bowl rings.

I am a huge fan of Russell Wilson and think he will continue to progress and hold down a top-ten quarterback spot in the league. That said, the (immediate) success of Russell Wilson is much more a product of a team constructing their personnel in a way that the league had not yet wised up to. More and more, unless a team knows it has a top passer, franchises are opting to build up the positions around the quarterback until they find a suitable option under center. The logic behind this approach is that, while there are only a handful of ‘Peyton Mannings’ or ‘Tom Bradys’ in the league, it does not necessarily take a player like that to win a Super Bowl. If the surrounding roster is sufficient and the quarterback can do enough not to hurt his team while making players along the way, they can give themselves a chance at a Super Bowl. The success of a team like Seattle is inspiring to me, as an Eagles fan, because it looks like Philadelphia may have gotten lucky enough to nail down a starting quarterback without having to use a top pick or financial commitment on.

In my opinion, McNabb’s biggest issue during his career was well beyond his control. Of course, he could have been a bit more constructive in his post-game appearances and direct with his quotes, but no quarterback is without his faults. McNabb, simply put, was the type of quarterback that he was at the worst possible time. McNabb, a tremendous athlete and passer, entered the league at a time where defenses were starting to catch up with offenses in terms of speed. Sure, McNabb and players like Michael Vick had their occasional gamebreaking play but those were more often a result of communication breakdowns and perfect timing. During the early and mid-2000s, it was the quarterbacks who could diagnose a defense before seeing any action that excelled. Quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger often developed such a rapport with their respective wide receivers and pass-catchers that the offense seemed to be coming straight from their minds. Paired with a sound running game, precision passers like Manning and Brady dominated the era while similarly talented players like Roethlisberger and Eli Manning sprinkled in their runs as well.

McNabb had as strong, if not a stronger arm than these quarterbacks. What he did not have was: a capable crop of receivers, a consistent enough offense to develop the unconscious connection, or the accuracy to have defenses play in a way that removed them from their comfort zone. Andy Reid made it clear that he did not feel a team needed a #1 wide receiver to win, something he would stick to until the Eagles finally acquired Terrell Owens. Instead, a makeshift crop of receivers including James Thrash and Todd Pinkston made up the targets during McNabb’s prime.

One cannot help but imagine what McNabb would look like in today’s NFL. With the rise of the read-option, McNabb could take advantage of his quick release, cannon arm, and a solid ability to avoid turning the ball over. He did not have the straight line speed of a healthy Robert Griffin III, but was probably pretty close to Colin Kaepernick. McNabb was a thicker, more athletic type who ran more like a running back than a quarterback when he did decide to tuck it. It must be agonizing for a now-retired McNabb to watch an NFL that would have utilized his talents so much more. The Eagles tried for a decade to turn McNabb into one of their own Bradys or Mannings. What they, or most of the league, did not realize was the McNabb was like an enclosed weapon one did not have the combination for. It was not until the twilight of the long-time Eagles signal caller’s career that offensive minds started to construct entire schemes centered around the top-notch passer with running ability.

So often, when comparing generations of football players, people tend to forget that the game shifts so drastically across generations. Russell Wilson has had a lot working against him to get to the point where he is in his career. The Seattle coaching staff and organization has done excellent work making him the face of their franchise for now and the future. Should Wilson capture his first Super Bowl Sunday at MetLife Stadium, it will be because he was able to make more plays than Peyton Manning, arguably the greatest signal-caller of our era. That said, Wilson has yet to deal with the type of pressure McNabb had to in his career in Philadelphia. As a third round pick, the Seahawks were ‘playing with house money’ from the start with their quarterback and, had Wilson fizzled out or even gotten injured, it would be of little consequence from a big picture standpoint. Wilson plays in an era that gears officiating and on-the-field style toward quarterbacks and those with athleticism have a distinct advantage.

Wilson might have the off-the-field intangibles advantage over McNabb. I cannot imagine we’ll hear too many stories of throwing up in the huddle or air-guitaring before a playoff game when it comes to the Seahawks quarterback. That said, to doubt that McNabb was the more talented of the two would be a vast oversight. With the limited amount of teams and thousands of draft entries every year, it is a veritable ‘crap shoot’ as to what situation can provide perfect cohesiveness with a quarterback and his team. For what seemed like a lifetime, McNabb and the Eagles looked as if they were a perfect marriage that just needed the ideal ending. That situation was not to be, and McNabb’s career in Philadelphia will probably never be appreciated for how great it was. Now Wilson has an opportunity to do what McNabb could not. Should the young man capture a Super Bowl title in just his 2nd year in the pros, maybe Eagles fans can get a small outsiders look of how things would have been if McNabb earned the elusive ring.