What will be remembered as the second-least-surprising development of the free-agent season for the Eagles took place yesterday when the team extended the contract of reserve quarterback A.J. Feeley, effectively turning its back on a possible return by Jeff Garcia, the unexpected hero of last season's late surge to the playoffs.
The least surprising development will take place within a week or so when the Eagles also take a pass on re-signing wide receiver Donté Stallworth, whose market value will never be higher.
By deciding to cast its fate with Feeley as backup to the surgically repaired Donovan McNabb, the Eagles' front office wasn't dismissing what Garcia accomplished in 2006. The Eagles were just playing the game the way they play it. There is no point in paying three good quarterbacks, and Feeley was already under contract for 2007.
The only bit of shrewd poker on the part of the team was its determination that Feeley should be signed while keeping Garcia was still an option. In that way, if Feeley decided to play hardball, well, he would be taking a chance.
So the Eagles got Feeley signed up through the 2010 season at a reasonable price, McNabb's rehabilitation from knee surgery continues apace, and Garcia is left to choose among a narrowing set of options when the free-agent signing period officially begins later this week.
If Garcia and his camp feel somewhat used by the process - if he was merely a paper target the Eagles propped up in order to induce Feeley to sign the extension - then that's simply the other side of the free-agent blade. Garcia probably could have stayed if willing to take backup money here. But, understandably, he wanted to see what else was out there. Now, with considerably less leverage than he might have hoped, he has little choice but to take the best offer that comes along.
Sorting through the spin emanating from the team and from Garcia, it is pointless to try to separate truth from perspective. The unofficial position of Team Garcia is that the Eagles presented a catch-22 conundrum: The team would sign Garcia only before the opening of the free-agent period, but did not make a contract offer (thus making it difficult to sign a contract). According to what the Eagles might be thinking, any good and competent agent can determine his client's value through back-channel negotiations with other teams and come up with a compromise that works for both sides - if staying is his first priority.
Garcia has to view yesterday's development even more glumly as his pool of potential employers drains slowly away. Already, the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears have said they are not interested. That leaves a dwindling, and not particularly attractive, bunch of suitors at the door. Tampa Bay has the right system but hardly looks ready for a championship run. Denver has beautiful mountains. Oakland is a disaster, but it is close to home for Garcia, so he would be familiar with all the bridges from which he might jump.
All of that is his problem, though. The Eagles have made their choice and moved on. They will do the same thing in the case of Stallworth unless there is a major change of heart. If this bothers you, then you haven't been paying attention. It is how they play the game and, by the way, they are damn good at it.
The only thing that matters - to paraphrase the eternal politician's question - is whether the team is better off than it was before. Truthfully, in the case of Feeley v. Garcia, the outcome is a hung jury. Both would be effective backups to McNabb. Neither is as good as McNabb. Feeley is the younger of the two, although, at 30 this coming season, he's not that rosy-cheeked kid anymore, either.
The other important part of the equation is whether the Eagles learned something during Garcia's tenure. They took some risk out of the offense by using running back Brian Westbrook more, and they began to see the possibility of building 12-play drives that had a chance to succeed. It was a nice discovery, and one that shouldn't be discarded just because McNabb and his quick-strike ability are back in the lineup.
That may be Garcia's real legacy here - a smarter way to play - and it's one he should be proud of. The Eagles will acknowledge that eventually. Yesterday wasn't the day, though. Yesterday was merely the day Garcia's legacy began.