Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reflections on the End of the Andy Reid Era in Philadelphia

Sunday I got to witness the final death throes of the Andy Reid era in person at the Meadowlands. It was not a pretty sight. In fact, the 42-7 final score did little to convey the extent of the carnage inflicted by the Giants on the Eagles and the ignominy heaped on the team's longsuffering fans, of whom, as St. Paul might have said, I am chief. I have been watching NFL football in earnest since 1964. That means I have vivid memories of such inglorious Eagles teams as Joe Kuharich's 2-12 team in 1968, which started 0-11, only to win two straight to lose the O. J. Simpson sweepstakes. I likewise remember Ed Khayat's 2-11-1 1972 team that cumulatively was outscored by a whopping 207 points (352-145!) and Ray Rhodes' abysmal 1998 team, which finished 3-13 and was outscored 344-161. In all these 49 years, however, I never witnessed a more humiliating, pathetic effort than the one Reid's team gave on Sunday. As Philadelphia's revered Hall-of-Fame writer Ray Didinger angrily opined following the game, the team's total lack of effort was an embarrassment, not only to the Eagles, but to the National Football League. Didinger expressed his hope that Coach Reid, rather than taking the blame himself for the "performance," would express his disappointment of the "effort" expended by his team.

Reid did nothing of the sort, of course, and therein lies some of the problem. Reid is a good and honorable man, after all, and clearly understood the responsibilities incumbent upon him by virtue of his highly-paid position. His players, on the other hand, awash in their millions granted because of what former Dallas Mavericks coach Dick Motta used to call "physical genius," clearly are too myopic to see the responsibilities their good fortune lays on them. Ultimately, however, Reid was right. The team's composition was his responsibility.  It was he who assembled this motley crew of untalented hacks and underachieving prima donnas. It would be easy to blame the team's 4-12 record—indeed, it was only 8 points away from being 0-16—on the slew of injuries, beginning with the loss of all-pro tackle Jason Peters, that decimated the roster. But to do such would be too easy. This team, for whatever reason, showed no life, urgency, or even intelligence the entire season, and would have been hard-pressed to match 2011's 8-8 record even had they not succumbed to multiple concussions and appointments with the surgeon's scalpel.

Reid, by any objective standard, had simply come to his expiry date. The late, great Bill Walsh, the architect of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980s and mastermind behind Reid's favored "West Coast offense," famously believed that the effective life cycle of a coach was ten years. In Walsh's ten years, he won three Super Bowls. Reid lasted 14 with the Birds, winning a franchise record 130 regular season games and ten more in the playoffs. Other than Greasy Neale, he is arguably the best coach in franchise history, better even than more beloved figures like Dick Vermeil and Buddy Ryan, who couldn't (Vermeil) and didn't (Ryan) last as long at the helm as Reid did. But, in my estimation, Reid was not a great coach. He was a good coach. And his flaws ultimately turned into his undoing.

Reid, at the beginning, adhered to a principle which I believe was the key to his success: draft and sign "character" guys, i.e., players with a good work ethic and team orientation who would not cause the team to fly off the rails by causing dissension and extraneous, off-the-field distractions. This principle led Reid to make his first, and arguably best, decision as coach: the drafting of Donovan McNabb over Ricky Williams with the second pick of the 1999 draft. This move paid almost immediate dividends. In McNabb's second year, just two seasons removed from the wreckage of the Ray Rhodes era, the Eagles won 11 games and earned a wild card playoff birth. The next four years (2001-2004), the team compiled a 48-16 record, won four division titles, and played in four NFC championship games, earning a birth in the Super Bowl following the 2004 season. But, of course, they lost that game, the enduring image of which is McNabb's puking in the huddle in the midst of a painfully slow drive late in the fourth quarter to bring the team to within a field goal: too little, too late, executed with an unimaginable lack of apparent urgency. What galls the Eagles faithful, however, is that this disappointing Super Bowl finish would ultimately prove to be the high water mark of Reid's tenure. Though his teams would make the playoffs four more times, even making the conference finals in 2008, they would never again achieve the dominance that characterized Reid's 2001-2004 teams.

Arguably, the seeds of collapse may have been sown prior to the triumphant 2004 season, when Reid lured mercurial wide receiver Terrell Owens into the fold. Owens is, other than Jerry Rice and (perhaps) Randy Moss, the most talented wide receiver I have ever seen play in the NFL. He certainly was the best player on the 2004 Super Bowl team, turning McNabb, a certifiably good, Pro Bowl-caliber player into what appeared, for that season at least, to be the great player he considers himself to have been (his recent, self-serving comments to the effect that we Philly fans are only now realizing how lucky we had it when Reid's teams were winning and he was the QB—even comparing himself to the immortal Dan Marino—are embarrassing and only serve to confirm the ambivalent attitude we always had about him). But Owens was, even then, obviously not a character guy, and his personal implosion the following year led to a 6-10 record, depths from which the team has yet fully to recover. Even worse, Reid, having been given a taste of the dark side, continued to draft and sign players not in the Reid mold, such as DeSean Jackson, Jason Babin, Asante Samuel, and Nnamdi Asomugha—not to mention the seemingly reformed, but vastly overrated Michael Vick—signings that have only hastened the team's decline into irrelevance. The result is what we see now: a team in total disarray and in need of a total overhaul. The only question is whether his successor will find enough inherited talent on which to build for future success.

Reid's failures stem both from his basic coaching philosophy and his suspect ability to evaluate the talent of prospective players outside of what are usually called the "skill positions" (he is to be commended for his drafting of such smallish running backs as Brian Westbrook and Shady McCoy). With regard to his philosophy, two are particularly "offensive" (pun intended). Like it or not, the Eagles play in a northern, "cold weather" city. But Reid always constructed teams and devised game schemes as if they had miraculously migrated to Los Angeles or played in a dome. The "pass first, second, and third" philosophy—indeed, at times it seemed the only times he would run the ball came when the team faced a second-and-long scenario—not only conflicted with the team's talent level (remember the wide receivers they had when they had Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter, and Brian Westbrook all available at running back?); it made holding leads in the 4th quarter a precarious undertaking even in the best of times. And his insistence on drafting small, quick defensive players resulted in a team unable, and at times unwilling, to hit hard, let alone tackle and stop opponents when need be. Indeed, what often goes unnoticed and/or unrecognized is the extent to which Reid's early success was more due to defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and four hard-hitting, classic Philly-style defensive holdovers from the Ray Rhodes era—Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, and Hugh Douglas—than it did to McNabb and Reid's arcane offensive schemes. Reid, of course, must get credit for hiring Johnson, but the latter's untimely demise signaled an end to Reid's coaching success. With regard to Reid's drafting mistakes, just consider the following first round picks: Freddie ("First, I'd like to thank my hands") Mitchell (2001), Jerome McDougle (2003), Brandon Graham (2010; taken ahead of Jason Pierre-Paul), Danny Watkins (2011). Indeed, the abysmal drafts of 2010 and 2011 have already taken their toll. And, given the current talent levels of all three of the Eagles' divisional rivals, it may take a while before that toll can be reversed.

Despite these criticisms, which I have been articulating for years, I applaud Andy Reid for his Philadelphia career. Nine playoff appearances in 14 years is not something any seasoned Philadelphia fan can gainsay. I will look back on these years with a somewhat wistful appreciation, thankful for the good times but always longing for the ultimate prize which thus far has eluded our grasp. But when (if?) the team finally scales the heights that had eluded it since 1960, the victory will, like the Phillies' first World Series title in 1980, be all the sweeter. In the meantime, my fervent hope is that Jeffrey Lurie hire a new coach who does not champion a trendy or idiosyncratic offensive scheme (read: Chip Kelly), but one who recognizes the need to build a team that wins games in the trenches and that fits the city's geography and fan base: hard-hitting defense, running the football, and passing the ball downfield. I leave you with one name: Lovie Smith.

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