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August 13, 2023

Tanner McKee and the philosophy of the Eagles' quarterback factory

Tanner McKee looked like an actual NFL quarterback in the Eagles' preseason opener. That proves that the team's infamous quarterback factory is a winning industry.

I have an overarching mindset when it comes to backup quarterbacks. If you're a contending team, it has to be in the realm of possibility that you could go 2-1 in a three-game span in the event that your starter has to miss time. 

I believe that's the case with Marcus Mariota. He's started 74 NFL games, plus two postseason contests, going 1-1 in those matchups. With the quarterback running capabilities ingrained in the Eagles' playbook, their elite offensive line, and a damn great receiver duo, that's on the table. Jalen Hurts has missed at least one game in his two seasons as the Eagles' full-time starter. Expect Mariota to start, at minimum, one game of consequence this season. Accept that reality and be comfortable with it.

I thought that was the case with Gardner Minshew the last two years as well. In the three meaningful games Minshew started, the Eagles went 1-2. Minshew played well in one, okay in another, and then bad in his last Eagles start. The formula was there to get through at 2-1, but not everything shakes out perfectly. The Eagles don't make the playoffs without Mishew's victory against the Jets in 2021 and they still made the Super Bowl in spite of Minshew's two losses during the 2022 season.

In that light, trading a sixth-round pick to the Jaguars in late-August 2021 was an absolute win.

The stakes are lowered when it comes to a third-string quarterback though.

The gold standard of QB3s in Eagles lore is A.J. Feeley. Coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance with an elite defense in 2002, Donovan McNabb went down with a regular season-ending injury in Week 11. The Eagles were 7-3 and a path to the Super Bowl was still viable if the chips fell correctly with Andy Reid's reserve signal-callers.

Koy Detmer played valiantly the following week in a Monday Night Football win in San Francisco with three total touchdowns, but he got carted off before that game even ended! In came Feeley, the second-year, fifth-round QB out of Oregon.

Feeley closed the season with a 4-1 stretch, locking up the No. 1 seed for the Birds in the NFC. I can't remember what happened during the NFC playoffs that season (bad wi-fi isn't allowing me to look it up), but that is an incredible turn of events when it comes to a third-stringer, speaking to the strength of the coaching staff, the offensive line, and the three-headed monster running back trio of Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter, and Brian Westbrook.

Feeley's numbers weren't that good even when adjusted for a 20-year era shift, but he didn't lose them any games. That's the key, or the "McKee" if you will.

A third-string quarterback should give you a shot, even if it's unlikely, to go 1-1 in a two-game stretch as a contender. No one's asking them to be 2001 Tom Brady or 2017 Nick Foles. The goal is to prevent complete implosion.

If that's not the case, you need to upgrade. A lot of teams cast this aside, but the Eagles don't. The "quarterback factory" jokes were innumerable when Howie Roseman uttered that infamous phrase in 2020 (and I joined in on them!), but the last two decades of Eagles football has taught me that's how elite organizations with Super Bowl aspirations should carry themselves. There is no playoff win over Eli Manning at the Linc, no Double-Doink victory, or no Super Bowl parade without that edict being seeped into the fabric of this franchise.

That brings us to Tanner McKee and the Eagles' current quarterback depth chart.

At any point since claiming Ian Book off waivers last August, I would have close to zero confidence that the Eagles could pull off a 1-1 split if Book had to step in under center. I knew the Notre Dame fight song by heart before I knew my ABCs and none of that Golden Dome magic erases the limitations of Book's game, ones that were blatantly on display in the Eagles' preseason loss to the Ravens. There is an inherently erratic element to Book's game at the pro level. South Philly is not South Bend.

The sample size is small, but on Saturday night in Baltimore, I saw enough to know that McKee is real. No, I am not proclaiming him to be a high-end starter in the league one day. I'm simply acknowledging that he belongs here. He's an NFL-caliber QB who should be holding down backup quarterback jobs for the foreseeable future.

McKee was decisive against the Ravens' defense, taking shots downfield unlike anything he's done in camp this summer. McKee attacked one-on-one coverage, put touch on the ball when necessary, and had a couple of zip throws in the middle of the field. That's legit. The goal would be that McKee can be the Eagles' QB2 on an uber-cheap rookie contract come 2024 and beyond. I can see the vision. 

If McKee was thrown to the wolves on the offense of, say, the Cardinals or Texans, yes, sure, maybe he's looking like a scrub. McKee found a dream destination for a Day 3 quarterback though. McKee will play for the best coaching staff in the NFC, which has a history of maximizing QB play. The Eagles have the sport's best offensive line. He can throw it to A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert or hand it off to D'Andre Swift and Kenny Gainwell. McKee has been thrust into a system where failure will be minimized as much as humanly possible if he finds himself under the bright lights of Lincoln Financial Field this fall.

Tanner McKee is not the next Nick Foles. He might be the next A.J. Feeley though and that's a reassuring thought for the organization with the greatest possible emphasis on the most important position in sports.

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