The Philadelphia Eagles hadn’t planned on fielding a 40-year-old quarterback in Sunday’s wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks. But after starter Carson Wentz left with a concussion in the first quarter, all eyes turned to Josh McCown, who became the oldest part-time high school football coach to make his NFL playoff debut.
Philadelphia lost, 17–9, but McCown performed about as well as you could expect from a quarterback of his caliber and age (about as good as Tom Brady on Saturday, anyway). Coming into the game, the Eagles were already quite thin on offense, suffering injuries to their receivers and linemen throughout the season, so whoever was under center would’ve been dealt a tough hand. As shown with this surprisingly electric option play in the second quarter, head coach Doug Pederson placed no limitations on McCown—except for, you know, the fact that he’s 40 and had never been in the playoffs before.
McCown was 18-for-24 for 174 passing yards and no touchdowns or turnovers. The Eagles had a chance at a game-tying drive before the two-minute warning, but McCown was sacked on fourth down and that was basically that. Despite exceeding the expectations of everyone but possibly his mother, McCown took the loss hard. It was very clear that he cared.
What’s interesting about McCown’s case is that before this season, the Eagles basically had to coax him out of a short retirement. In June, he had gone through the standard steps of a tenured NFL player’s send-off: a Players’ Tribune article and an analyst gig on ESPN. The only thing missing was a CBD sponsorship. He signed with Philadelphia in August, when the Eagles were desperate for an able-bodied backup. McCown agreed to join because Philly is somewhat close to Charlotte, where his family lives, and the team allowed him to continue coaching football at Myers Park High School. The Eagles agreed to this because they were using him as an insurance policy, and besides, Myers Park’s season ended in November. (The Mustangs went 11–0 in the regular season but lost in the third round of the playoffs to Richmond. Those teens and McCown can now commiserate.) During the regular season, as ESPN’s Tim McManus reported, McCown usually took private jets on Mondays to help out with the Mustangs’ game plan and would head back to the high school team on Fridays for the actual games before returning to the Eagles on Saturday morning.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. If anything, McCown’s competent performance in the wild-card round shows the league places too much emphasis on absolute, 24/7 commitment from its players. Sunday’s Seahawks-Eagles game should silence the notion that players must eat, sleep, breathe, and puke football in order to succeed in the NFL. That argument has been a principal excuse that league defenders have proffered to explain why Colin Kaepernick is still a free agent. Kaepernick, observers may notice, does not coach a high school football team. Nor has he threatened to start coaching any high school sports teams should he acquire an NFL job. And yet, unlike McCown, he’s regularly accused of not wanting to play in the NFL, this despite his continued avowals that he does really, truly want to be a professional football player.
There’s no valid reason as to why Kaepernick isn’t on an NFL roster. The “he’s been out of the league too long” argument became void when Josh Johnson signed with Washington in 2018 after a five-year layoff between actual game snaps and led the team to a win in his first start. The “he’s not good enough” argument has been debunked given that Nathan Peterman and many more bad QBs have been signed and re-signed over the past few seasons. The “he’s not committed” argument should’ve been dead when he held his own workout in November and looked like a fresh-armed quarterback ready to compete for a roster spot. But McCown’s retirement and unretirement really seals the deal. If a veteran quarterback can prepare for his primary job while also maintaining a coaching gig on the side, Kaepernick could surely handle his various interests. A pro football player doesn’t need to be a north-south meathead with blinders on to succeed, as has been proved not only by McCown but by Kenny Stills (who’s on the Houston Texans and still in the playoffs), Eric Reid, Arian Foster, Chris Long, and others.
The NFL has gone to great lengths to pretend that Kaepernick—who became the target of every Facebook uncle’s ire when he began taking a knee during the national anthem and spoke out against social injustices against black Americans—is being held back only by his own skills. Meanwhile, someone like McCown is able to play competently and maintain an immensely more complicated work-life balance with little to no backlash from NFL personnel or fans. What, pray tell, could be the difference here?