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Monday, October 20, 2003
Hope Springs Eternal

by Graham Hays
ESPN Fantasy Games

Can Donovan McNabb turn it around?

A consensus second-round fantasy pick, and the first quarterback off the board once Michael Vick went down with an injury, McNabb has fewer points through seven weeks than Gus Frerotte, who has played just three games, or Joey Harrington, who has played so poorly in Detroit that his job is in jeopardy.

Pending the results of Monday's game involving Rich Gannon and Trent Green, McNabb ranks 31st among quarterbacks based on traditional scoring and 32nd based on performance scoring. Sticking with the more popular traditional method, McNabb is 38 points out of the top 10 and 23 points out of the top 20. That may not sound like a huge amount, but four to six points a week is a lot to make up for a guy averaging just nine points a game.

Using last year's numbers as our guide, it becomes apparent that the best jilted fantasy owners can hope for is a more modest loss on their investment. Consider where last season's top 20 quarterbacks stood after seven weeks of play.

2002 Quarterback Rankings
Player Final Rank Week 7 Rank
Daunte Culpepper 1 7
Rich Gannon 2 4
Michael Vick 3 19
Peyton Manning 4 10
Drew Bledsoe 5 3
Aaron Brooks 6 1
Tom Brady 7 8
Steve McNair 8 12
Trent Green 9 5
Jeff Garcia 10 14
Brett Favre 11 9
Donovan McNabb 12 2
Kerry Collins 13 20
Chad Pennington 14 30
Jake Plummer 15 18
Jon Kitna 16 40
Brad Johnson 17 16
Drew Brees 18 13
Matt Hasselbeck 19 43
Tommy Maddox 20 27

Only three of the final top 10 were outside of that ranking after seven weeks, and only Vick was worse than 14th. And to make even that jump, Vick had to average a Herculean 21.3 points, fed in part by more than 500 rushing yards in his final 10 games. McNabb should see his value boosted by rushing numbers in the final 10 games -- he's rushed for more yards than any quarterback this side of Kordell Stewart but hasn't found the endzone -- but it's still a pace far short of Vick. Of the 213 points Vick scored in his final 10 games, 86 came via rushing statistics. McNabb could conceivably get half of that, but that still leaves him needing around 17 points a week purely from the passing game. Can McNabb average 250 yards and two touchdowns the rest of the way? Not likely.

The good news for owners contemplating kicking McNabb to the curb is that the prospects are better for a partial recovery. Specifically, the 2002 success of Chad Pennington, Jon Kitna and Matt Hasselbeck is encouraging. All three were ranked 30th or lower through seven weeks but finished in the top 20.

Weeks 8-17
Player Weeks 1-7 Rank Weeks 8-17 Rank
Michael Vick 19 1
Daunte Culpepper 7 2
Peyton Manning 10 3
Matt Hasselbeck 43 4
Jon Kitna 40 5
Chad Pennington 30 6
Jeff Garcia 14 7
Rich Gannon 4 8
Steve McNair 12 9
Kerry Collins 20 10
Jeff Blake 50 11
Tom Brady 8 12
Tommy Maddox 27 13
Jake Plummer 18 14
Drew Bledsoe 3 15
Trent Green 5 16
Aaron Brooks 1 17
Brett Favre 9 18
Tim Couch 26 19
Brad Johnson 16 20

The bad news? The Bengals and Seahawks ranked in the top half of the league in pass attempts last season, something the Eagles are unlikely to do with Brian Westbrook averaging 5.6 yards per carry and Duce Staley running serviceably. In fact, the Eagles currently have the fewest pass attempts in the league, a fact only slightly ameliorated by their recent bye week.

But before McNabb owners lose all hope, ponder a little more evidence that slow starts aren't the kiss of death. Here are the top 20 fantasy quarterbacks from Week 8 through the end of last season. Obviously, the numbers skew slightly in favor of quarterbacks with 10 games played.

Benches in fantasy football run deep, and that makes it tough to believe most teams don't have room to stash McNabb away for a few more weeks. But while it may be too early to give up completely on McNabb, the numbers suggest it's too late for him to completely turn things around.