The career of one of the NFL's most celebrated quarterbacks in the past decade may have come to a quiet close last week. The Minnesota Vikings -- Donovan McNabb's third team in the last 19 months -- granted McNabb his freedom, placing him on waivers Thursday. McNabb -- who went unclaimed -- now waits for a call from a new team, a call that may or may not come this season or even next.
The Vikings, as the Broncos last week, (1) saw injuries to other NFL starting quarterbacks, and (2) disposed of an expensive player that was never going to play for them again. Like the Broncos, the Vikings were playing with house money.
As vested veterans, Kyle Orton and McNabb were entitled to the remaining balance of their salary -- as termination pay -- if released and unclaimed. The Chiefs saved the Broncos $2.6 million by claiming Orton. The Vikings were not as lucky with the $1.45 million due McNabb.
Many have asked whether McNabb gave up his termination pay for his release. When I asked a Vikings official about that, he answered with a long pause and heavy sigh: "We still owe."
McNabb has had a disappointing couple of years since being the signature player of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Eagles Rough Landing
In June of 2009, with McNabb's contract having two more seasons, the Eagles gave McNabb an adjustment that (1) added $5.3 million to his 2009 pay, satisfying his discontent about that contract, and (2) allowed the team flexibility in 2010 to move that contract without penalty. Which, of course, they did.
On Easter day 2010 the Eagles traded McNabb to Washington. After the Eagles paid McNabb close to $80 million over a long career in Philadelphia, the team then handed the keys to understudy Kevin Kolb (only to take those keys from Kolb and hand them to Michael Vick a year later).
In consulting with the Eagles at the time, I noticed the players' reaction to Vick when he arrived. Players were energized and excited to have Vick, a different vibe from their feelings about McNabb who, while liked and respected, was seen as corporate and a bit detached.
The end of the McNabb era in Philadelphia was significant but not traumatic; his time had run its course and it was time to move on. As with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, the Eagles had seen Kolb for three years and liked what they saw; it was time to bring him out of the bullpen.
Mr. McNabb goes to Washington
While coach Mike Shanahan welcomed McNabb with open arms, it never seemed like a good fit. The Redskins -- notoriously player-friendly with contracts for big names -- curiously did not extend McNabb's contract upon trading for him, content to have their new acquisition in the last year of his contract.
Strangely, the Redskins did extend McNabb's contract seven months later, announced to a national Monday Night Football television audience as an extension for up to $80 million with $40 million guaranteed!
As it turned out, of course, the extension was a mirage. The Redskins added $3.5 million to McNabb's 2010 compensation with everything else about the contract "on the come." I analyzed the deal here.
It became common knowledge in the NFL that McNabb and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son, clashed heavily. One of them had to go, and it wasn't going to be the coach's son.
Thus, in the crazy swirl of activity when the NFL unlocked its doors in July, McNabb was traded to the Vikings for a fifth-round selection.
In order to facilitate the trade and escape the Shanahan family, McNabb agreed with the Vikings on a one-year, $5.05 million deal with $2 million of incentives.
McNabb's signing was due in part to the locked-out offseason. The Vikings were not comfortable handing the keys to incoming rookie quarterback Christian Ponder without the benefit of minicamps and team workouts. They paid $5 million for an insurance policy named McNabb.
With Ponder firmly entrenched as the present and future, it was time for McNabb to go. Seeing the picture clearly, he agreed.
Having gone unclaimed, McNabb will try to negotiate a new contract for what is left of 2011, allowing him to double dip money from the Vikings and a new team. My sense, however, is that there will be scant, if any, interest. Teams that are contending will be hesitant to change at this point and teams that are struggling are going to be evaluating their young players with an eye to the future.
A bigger question for McNabb is 2012 and beyond. As I often say, the vast majority of players do not retire, they are "retired." As to whether anyone "unretires" McNabb, as the Vikings did twice to Brett Favre, we will see. One scenario is that McNabb canvasses the league in the spring and, seeing an underwhelming response, announces his retirement to pursue broadcasting or other options.
And though McNabb's career fizzled at the end, he will leave behind great success and accomplishment.
NFL careers, even the best ones, rarely seem to end well.