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August 18, 2023

What should the Eagles do at backup quarterback?

Tanner McKee has ignited the Eagles' fan base while Marcus Mariota craters in the preseason. How should the Eagles handle a position that's time and time again proved so crucial for this franchise?

There's nothing Philadelphia loves quite like a quarterback debate. In a city where the all-consuming football team called itself a "quarterback factory," everyone is on high alert whenever a dude drops back to pass. Jalen Hurts is the Eagles' clear-cut franchise QB with a future as bright as the mid-August sun in front of him, but Philly is a place where backup quarterbacks hold an unmatched weight. 

The Eagles, in a spot where many NFL franchises falter, give supreme importance to the guys on the depth chart behind The Guy himself. A fan base that saw the canonization of Nick Foles knows the importance the QB2 holds on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Hurts is beloved in the locker room and across the Delaware Valley, primed for a decade of MVP contention. Philadelphians who haven't even hit 30 yet have seen the likes of Koy Detmer, A.J. Feeley, Jeff Garcia, Michael Vick and Foles (thrice) swoop in to save the day though. You'll never know when you'll have to break glass in case of emergency. 

The best-case scenario for the 2023 Eagles' QB situation is that neither Marcus Mariota nor Tanner McKee takes a single meaningful snap, but history tells us that's just unlikely. Hurts has missed three starts of consequence in his two years as the Birds' full-time starter. The Super Bowl dream isn't dead if there's a Week 13 and 14 stretch where QB1 is out of the lineup. It's just the reality of Hurts' play style and the nature of the NFL itself. 

Through a summer's worth of practice and two preseason games, McKee has undoubtedly out-performed Mariota. The latter brings experience:  Mariota has 74 career starts to his name, plus a playoff win over an Andy Reid-led Kansas City team that saw Mariota's Titans overcome a 21-3 deficit for an eventual 22-21 win. Mariota, entering his age-30 season, however, appears severely lacking in requisite arm talent at this point to be a successful NFL QB. I'd imagine he'd look a whole lot better throwing to A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith than Greg Ward and Joseph Ngata, but the concerns about Mariota the passer are warranted.

Could I see Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson devising a run-heavy plan of attack that saw a healthy amount of read options, power runs and quick throws to put Mariota in a position to succeed if he was called upon to start? Of course. Do I have any confidence in him being able to throw the Eagles back into the game if they were trailing 21-10 at halftime? No, not in the slightest. 

It's been two preseason games against borderline NFL competition, but McKee's throws just look to be where they're supposed to be. Every toss isn't a struggle, a hope and a prayer that it's in the vague vicinity of a receiver. If you're hitting Joey Ngata in stride on a back shoulder throw while inches away from the sideline, I don't care if it's Bishop Sycamore's secondary out there. That's NFL-level touch passing. McKee, in preseason performances against Baltimore and Cleveland, has showcased poise and promise beyond anything that could've been immediately expected from a sixth-round rookie. 

Look, if it's Week 7 and the Eagles are 6-1, I find it hard to think they wouldn't just turn things over to Mariota if Hurts had to miss a game. After the Browns preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night, Sirianni eschewed any talk of McKee entrenching himself as QB2, confirming that Mariota is the team's backup signal-caller even with their happiness about McKee's play. 

That's what he's supposed to say though. Veteran loyalty and appealing to locker room hierarchy flies out the window pretty quickly though if the Eagles are trailing in a game that could be the difference between playing at home and playing on the road in the first round of the playoffs if/when Hurts misses time. If it's Sunday Night Football down in Texas in December and Mariota is throwing to ghosts and worms, do you really think the coach who preaches competition above all else is going to settle for that? Absolutely not.

This isn't an overreaction to box score numbers. It's a result of simply watching McKee throw the football. This all feels like a complete misevaluation by the prospect and NFL draft community failing to peg McKee as a guy who's a top-30-to-40 QB in this league rather than a Day 3 also-ran. 

I wrote about the Birds' QB factory and my backup quarterback philosophy as it relates to McKee's inspiring play after the Ravens game. My belief is that the QB2 on a team that thinks they can/should/will win the Super Bowl needs to have a chance to go 2-1 if the starting quarterback misses three games. I'm increasingly worried about that as it relates to Mariota. My thought process for a QB3 is that in a doomsday scenario, that dude needs to split a pair of games if thrown to the wolves. My confidence in McKee doing so rises with every pass he throws. He's approaching Meatloaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" territory. 

After next Thursday's preseason finale, Eagles fans should hope they don't see a non-Hurts QB out there until a Week 18 matchup where the No. 1 seed is already locked up. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the real world is rarely so simple. There is juice to McKee's game that I cannot rationally explain, but if you're reading this, you fully understand it. As a person who's witnessed inexplicable backup quarterback magic in my three decades as a Philadelphian, however, I know Eagles QBs are the outliers of all outliers. If it was my call when it came to QB2, I'd "throw in the Stanford kid out there," as I'm sure so many dads across the region would so eloquently put it.

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