Friends, BooBirds, Tailgaters, lend me your ears.
I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him!
This literary audible on the famous words of renowned football commentator, Bill Shakespeare, is a fitting summary of what this humble post will attempt to accomplish. The obvious, sorry state of the Philadelphia Eagles makes it all but certain that Andy Reid will lose his position as head coach, as well as his other hat as executive vice president of football operations.
Some will view Reid's departure from Lincoln Financial Field as the end of an era. A few - for some reason - will view it as the end of an error. And many will see it simply as the final comeuppance for The Emporer Without Clothes, Philly's own Football Caesar.
No doubt those who would rather subscribe to the original Shakespearean version (i.e. to Bury, not to Praise) lost patience with Reid a long time ago. They soured on Reid's tight-lipped, team first, "I have to do a better job. Time's yours." public persona. To many fans this media approach was seen as a refusal to take responsibility, an attempt to avoid the kind of painfully in-depth scrutiny Philadelphia sports fans thrive upon, perhaps even a touch of how-dare-you-question-me football hubris. The act worked just fine for Reid when the Eagles were regularly advancing deep into the NFL playoffs, not so much once The Birds started to moult.
The fall wasn't really precipitous in my opinion; more like a long, slow glide down the slope of mediocrity.
A few facts and observations before I get to the objective of this post.
- I have always been a fairly passionate defender of Reid's, at least until recently. Again, this change wasn't an overnight development. My dissatisfaction has been slowly building as the Eagles slid down that aforementioned slope.
- Personally, I suspect that the Reid family problems played a significant role in Reid's inability to stay atop the NFL coaching pinnacle. This is not an attempt to provide an excuse, simply an observation. It's hard to imagine anyone being able to maintain their focus at the highest levels in any profession when there is trouble at home.
- The REAL and most over-riding problem however has been the failure of Reid's most recent decision-making. From poor draft choices, through questionable free agent signings, to truly mind-boggling coaching staff decisions ... The development of Michael Vick into quarterback that can run vs. running quarterback has not worked. The Juan Castillo Experiment was an abject failure. Danny Watkins, Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett ...??? Please ...
And yet, none of the above is what I really want to write about here. I'd much rather concentrate on what went right early on in Reid's tenure, and how it turned around a team and captured a city that - for some reason - so closely associates its image with those of its sports teams.
That's not to say the trip was a bed of roses. Five appearances in the NFC Championship with only ONE Superbowl appearance - and a loss at that - will stick in the craw of many an Eagles fan (mine included). One wonders just how much brighter Reid's star would have shined had he won just ONE of those five elusive Superbowl opportunities. The question perhaps comes down to this ... Is it better to be a Marv Levy (Buffalo Bills - Superbowl appearances: 4, Lombardo trophies: 0) or Jon Gruden (Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Superbowl appearances: 1, Lombardi trophies: 1)? That the Reid version of Levy involves five NFC Championships and just one Superbowl, not four or five Superbowl appearances certainly makes the issue a bit thornier, I admit.
I have always found it interesting that so many Philadelphia Eagles fans defined a "succesful Eagles season" - especially during the Reid era - as one that absolutely, positively had to end in a Superbowl. There rarely seemed to be any credit from so many fans for getting to the NFC Championship, which essentially defines an NFL team as one of the four most successful organizations in a given season, which always starts with a field of 32!
That simply never seemed to be enough, at least not after that first one.
There seemed to be little recognition of how hard it is to simply GET to the NFL's Final Four, let alone what it might take to beat the other three very successful clubs in the Lombardi Tournament. Perhaps that was the result of Reid's phenomenally quick success in reaching the NFC Championship (2001) in only his third season as head coach.
I cannot recall ever hearing that only a World Series Championship or a Stanley Cup would qualify as a "successful season" for the Phillies or Flyers. Would Reid's star retained its luster longer had his Eagles' success been built slower - over say six to eight seasons - as opposed to an NFC Championship Game in just three?
But I digress ...
When Reid was hired in 1999 by new owner Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles were coming off 3-13 and 6-9-1 seasons under Ray Rhodes. Before Rhodes, the head coach position had been held by Rich Kotite and Buddy Ryan. All three had coached to varying levels of very limited success accompanied by frustrating failure. The only playoff showing among those three coaches had occurred in 1988, under Ryan, when the season ended in abject depression with a loss to the Chicago Bears in the game still known as The Fog Bowl.
Before the 2001 season, Philadelphia Eagles fans had to travel all the way back to the Dick Vermiel years (1976-1982) to scrounge up the last memory of playoff success with the 1980 Superbowl loss to the Oakland Raiders.
Reid, hired "off the board" as a quarterbacks coach under the tutelage of Mike Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers, was able to change most of that depressing history. He impressed Lurie and Joe Banner with his binders full of detailed blueprints for the short-term revival of a lost football franchise. In the end he completed the transformation of the Philadelphia Eagles into franchise that elicited talk of The Gold Standard. Yet Reid could never quite get over the Lombardi Hump and bring Philadelphia an NFL Championship.
But the fact is he did an amazing job in a very, very short period of football time! Not only did he get the Eagles into the NFC Championship in just his third year, he completely altered the Philadelphia NFL experience. He made the Eagles FUN to watch.
His early drafts brought in many of the right kind of players ... from taking a third round chance on an undersized, local product with a questionable knee-injury in Brian Westbrook (Villanova) to grabbing cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown in that same 2003 draft, and yes, even the drafting of Donovan McNabb, the quarterback the Philadelphia Eagles needed at the time.
The 1999 drafting of McNabb was a development over which Reid was initially criticized, as anyone familiar with Eagles history will surely remember. When the talk radio yahoos clamored for the drafting of running back, Ricky Williams to the point of engineering that New York Draft Day debacle of so-called Eagles fans booing the team's first round decision to forego the University of Texas running back (They were not booing McNabb the player.), Reid stuck to his plan and selected the quarterback he knew the Eagles needed.
McNabb was taken second overall behind QB Tim McCouch (Yes, the correct response is "Who?!?"), and before QB Akili Smith ("Who?!?" again, no doubt!). The coveted Williams was not taken until the fifth overall pick by New Orleans Saints; was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002 after two 1000-yard rushing seasons; and was - by 2004 - retiring temporarily after several failed drug tests and diagnoses of depression and social anxiety disorder.
Yet you rarely heard those very people giving Reid credit for taking the best player that fit the Philadelphia Eagles needs at that time, even if McNabb also proved unable to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to an NFL Championship-starved city.
And sure, there were enough Freddie Mitchell, Jerome McDougles and Matt McCoys in there as well; but every NFL draft is a mix of Can't Misses and Hopeful Prayers. Yet Reid's early drafts were composed of many more successes than failures in the premium "money rounds" that enabled the team to compete at a high level from 2001 through 2010 (off years: 2005, 2007).
For this Philadelphia Eagles fan, who lived through the Eddie Khayats, the Marion Campbells, the Mike McCormicks, the Rich Kotites, there is no desire to return to the years of revolving-door coaches and clueless player development (See Pete Liske, Leroy Keyes, Kevin Allen, Mike Mamula). You had to live the late 1960s, 1970s and 1990s to develop a true appreciation for a head coach/general manager who can think and chew gum at the same time. Those have been few and far between for Philadelphia Eagles fans!
These experiences - growing up with football futility in northeast Philadelphia - probably goes a long way towards explaining my advanced sports anxiety at the prospects of another potential period of head coach experimentation.
So it will be interesting to see how all the Reid critics will react should their beloved Eagles spend the next several seasons wandering aimlessly in the NFL desert, going through head coaches like the late Al Davis and his Oakland Raiders. Hopefully it won't come to that. But if it does, part of me will be smirking; reminding all those haters about The Reid Years; and checking out Reid's new team, as he surely won't last very long on the open market.
So where will Reid settle in the pantheon of Eagles coaches? Certainly, he will never be considered "The Best," if NFL Championships are the only measure. Greasy Neale (a football name if ever there was one) won back-to-back pre-Superbowl NFL Championships in 1948 and '49.
Here are the highlights from Reid's Eagles reign:
- Regular season record 129-89-1 (only 10-9 in playoff games)
- NFC East Division Champion 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2010
- NFC Championship 2004
- Coach of the Year 2000, 2002 (Maxwell, Sporting News, Associated Press)
The most interesting discussion will revolve around Dick Vermeil-Reid comparisons. Vermeil - like Reid - achieved a Superbowl berth only once, but he never enjoyed the run of playoff successes that Reid did. Some will undoubtedly give the nod to Vermeil, citing Reid's four failed NFC Championship appearances as testament to Reid's poor in-game management. I guess one could argue that Vermeil might have pulled off more than one success out of those five Conference title games; then again Vermeil only managed to get there once himself during his Eagles tenure.
So as the Eagles prepare to move on to the next period in franchise history, this is perhaps the only context in which I will freely admit, I have no desire to relive the '70s!
Mike shares selected posts from his personal blog at www.crankymanslawn.com.