It wouldn’t have been Daunte Culpepper. It wouldn’t have been Tim Couch. It definitely wouldn’t have been Ricky Williams.
If the Eagles hadn’t picked Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb with the second pick in the 1999 draft, they would have taken …
That revelation came from owner Jeff Lurie Monday in an interview after the Eagles retired McNabb’s No. 5.
It had always been assumed that if the Eagles hadn’t taken McNabb, they would have taken either Culpepper, Couch, Cade McNown or Akili Smith, one of the other quarterbacks projected as possible top-10 picks that year.
The Eagles had a new coach in Andy Reid and coming off a 3-13 season in 1998, they had their highest draft pick since 1964.
As it turned out, Couch went No. 1 to Cleveland, Smith No. 3 to the Bengals, James No. 4 to the Colts and Williams No. 5 to the Saints. The Vikings took Culpepper with the 11th pick and the Bears drafted McNown at No. 12.
“It was dubbed as sort of the year of the franchise quarterback,” Lurie said. “New coach was here, Andy, and we were interviewing very intensely every one of these quarterbacks and the top players at the top of the round with the second pick. This was a very, very important pick.
“We, ironically, going back, didn’t have a lot of confidence in most of the quarterbacks in that draft. And the only quarterback that we all -- with Andy leading the way -- felt very confident in was Donovan. And it wasn’t just his athletic ability, it was his years at Syracuse, his being able to learn a complicated offense, the way he was as a person, stable family background compared to some other quarterbacks in that draft and elsewhere, so it all came together that he was really the quarterback that was really far above all the others for us.”
As it turned out, Couch, Smith and McNown were absolute busts. Couch was 22-37 as a starter and was out of the league by 2004, Smith won just three of 17 starts in a four-year career, and McNown won three of 15 career starts. Culpepper had three Pro Bowl seasons but also finished well under .500 at 41-59.
McNabb quarterbacked the Eagles to the playoffs seven times between 2000 and 2009 and went to five Pro Bowls before he was traded to the Redskins before the 2010 season. He was 98-49-1 in the regular season with the Eagles but then won just six of 19 starts with the Redskins and Vikings the rest of his career.
James? He ranks 11th in NFL history with 12,246 rushing yards. Williams had an up-and-down career but still managed 10,009 rushing yards, 27th-most in NFL history.
“I remember, we had one running back we thought was outstanding, Edgerrin James,” Lurie said. “But it was a no-brainer to go with the potential franchise quarterback than the running back, although Edgerrin became a super player as well.”
The Eagles had won only two playoff games in the 19 years before McNabb became a full-time starter. He won nine. They haven’t won one since he was traded.
The big surprise here is that the Eagles’ second choice wasn’t Culpepper or one of the other quarterbacks, it was a tailback.
But from what Lurie said Monday, McNabb was the obvious choice among those in the draft room -- Lurie, Reid, senior vice president of administration Joe Banner and general manager Tom Modrak.
“Does he have the aptitude, the desire, the ability, and with Andy Reid, stability was a big factor in terms of their family backgrounds and their ability to devote themselves to football, and through that process it was really Donovan or yikes, what are we going to do,” Lurie said.
“The answer was Edgerrin. We thought this was a potential Hall of Fame running back.”
McNabb said Monday he had no idea the Eagles were also considering James, who was on the 2008 Cardinals team that beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
“One thing I will say for the draft … you just don’t know,” he said. “Agents talking, GMs, owners, coaches, you really don’t know.
“Perfect example is the NBA draft, where everyone expected Nerlens Noel to go first, but he didn’t get drafted till a little later.
“Cleveland was looking at Akili Smith and Tim Couch. I could have gone first, I could have gone second or third. All I knew was I was going to be the first pick for somebody.”