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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

How Short Are Our Memories?

A few years ago, the Miami Dolphins were looking for a quarterback. In their neverending quest to find the next Dan Marino, Bob Griese or Earl Morrall, they traded a second-round draft pick for then-Eagles third-string quarterback A.J. Feeley.

You remember him, don't you? He was a back-up for most of his career at Oregon (I think some kid named Harrington, among others, was ahead of him), the Eagles saw something in him, drafted him, and then, when Donovan McNabb went down to injuries and second-team QB Koy Detmer went down almost immediately thereafter, Feeley came in, and the Eagles went 5-0 down the stretch.

Instant NFL career that's more than two years long.

Now, to Feeley's credit, he showed that he could play well under pressure for a championship-contending team. That says a lot. To his detriment, it wasn't as though the Eagles were extending their offense or running the same schemes they did for McNabb. In a sense, Feeley played QB-lite, the Eagles went back to a more basic game, and it was good for everyone. Put differently, nothing in the way Feeley played suggested that a quarterback controversy was born.

Fast forward to yesterday.

The Miami Dolphins, looking to improve their QB position, traded a second-round draft pick for Daunte Culpepper, the one-time Viking starter who has been to three Pro Bowls in his short career.

I don't think that you'd ever mention A.J. Feeley and Daunte Culpepper in the same sentence except in a post like this one. One is now a perennial back-up, one who you hope you don't have to turn your season over to if your starter goes down. There are plenty of guys like that, and in his days since he was in Philadelphia Feeley hasn't convinced anyone that he's more than a part-time player. Culpepper, on the other hand, has a serious game, and if he can get back to the way he played a few years ago (and he's still young enough to do it), the Dolphins will have stolen him from the Vikings.

Which makes you wonder:

1. Were the Dolphins just plain stupid when they traded a second-round pick for Feeley?
2. Were the Dolphins just plain geniuses when they traded a second-round pick for Culpepper?
3. Has the market changed that much in three years?

(Corresponding, were the Eagles that brilliant and the Vikings that stupid?).

I don't think that the question is as easily answered as I put it. First, Culpepper is coming off major knee surgery. Second, there isn't much data on how Mo Vaughn-sized quarterbacks fare in the mid-to-late stages in their careers. Certainly, big-bodied baseball players like Vaughn and Bobby Bonilla ballooned and lost their effectiveness. While I doubt there's a true corollary in football, it could be that the big-bodied QBs take such a pounding that it's harder for them to stay as mobile and effective (Steve McNair might be an example, but one sample doesn't a theory make). Conversely, with the extra padding they have, they might be able to take more of a beating. Third, Culpepper was not enjoying a good season last year, and fourth, his wanting out suggests that he's a malcontent. I don't put much credence in factors two, three or four, however. I do put some credence in the first point, but I still think that the Dolphins got an excellent deal from the Vikings.

I'm sure the Vikings will anesthetize themselves with Brad Johnson, who has been a championship quarterback, and tell them that they can contend with him leading the offense. But he's up in years and was signed to be Culpepper's back-up a few years ago, meaning that even back then no one in the NFL figured him to be a starting QB for a contending team. The Vikes can't claim they've upgraded the position.

Retrospectively, it's easy to say that the Eagles fleeced the Dolphins, but I think that even at the time many were scratching their heads regarding the Dolphins' trade. Perhaps the Dolphins thought they were getting the next Brett Favre at the time, but few others did. Had Feeley gone on to become Tom Brady, the Eagles would have looked silly, but when he stepped in for McNabb Feeley looked more like an average NFL QB than a potential star. Score that trade as a horrible one for the Dolphins.

As for how the market has changed, it's clear that teams are reluctant to part with their draft choices, as so few of them get traded relative to prior years. The Vikings, then, were faced with a difficult choice, and they didn't have much leverage. They took the best offer they got, and I think that several years down the road the combination of Nick Saban and Daunte Culpepper could be standing on a podium accepting a championship trophy.

At least, that's more likely than Brad Childress's doing the same with Brad Johnson anytime soon.

P.S. If, as rumored, the Eagles sign Jeff Garcia, then they'll have on their roster the two QBs that Terrell Owens couldn't get along with during his career. I sense that some immediate bonding will go on in the City of Brotherly Love if that were to happen.


Anonymous Phil the Brit said...


This post could be equally at home in the Freakonomics! blog.

It's fascinating to a Brit how deals are made in US sports. In soccer, if you want a fella, you pay his club what they regard to be sufficient compensation for the loss of his services, fixing a monetary value on the player.

A key part of the wisdom of this trade is unknown, of course: who will the Vikings get with their extra draft pick?

But you're right, AJ Feeley = Daunte Culpepper, whether in a cash economy or a barter one, is Adam Smith's invisible hand working in a strange way indeed.

8:02 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Phil: It is bizarre, and I think that the Dolphins are thanking their lucky stars that the Culpepper trade comes after the Feeley one and not before it. It's hard to believe that they could get a starting QB as good as Culpepper in the first round of the NFL draft, that is, one who can step in and play right away. The atmosphere in Minnesota must have been so bad that the Vikings felt they had to clear the air and clear out Culpepper. It is a strange market, that's for sure.

5:36 AM  

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