Once steady and stable, Andy Reid ended up simply stale
The good book says pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Maybe that's why supporters of the Philadelphia Eagles -- a guarded lot via generations of conditioning, perhaps the most wounded fan base in sports -- recoiled so fervently nearly a decade ago when team owner Jeffrey Lurie declared his franchise, in defiance of a championship drought extending to the Eisenhower era that long predated his arrival, "the model of what NFL franchises want to be."
The gold standard. Those words, if not a harbinger of ruin, became shorthand for what skeptics regarded as the Eagles' organizational hubris -- the telltale of a front office drunk off its auspicious but still unconsummated success.
Ownership's bluster was not without substance, however, a track record for which no one was more responsible than Andy Reid, the longtime coach whose dismissal Monday after 14 years came as no surprise. Since being plucked from obscurity in 1999, the mustachioed Mormon of many ideas and few words had led the franchise out of the darkness: from 3-13 laughingstock to perennial Super Bowl contender. The Eagles went 64-32 with seven postseason wins during Reid's first six years, finishing each season with as many victories (or more), and progressing as far in the playoffs (or further), as the year before. From 5-11 to 10-6 to 11-5 to 12-4 to 12-4 to 13-3: Under Reid, the Eagles had blossomed ahead of schedule and seemingly managed to outwit the cyclical nature of the NFL, the only league that so artificially engenders parity with the ideal of keeping every franchise competitive.
Yet Lurie's brassy proclamation soon became a millstone that mocked the Eagles' descent, manifesting itself in compulsive bean-counting and obsession with being the smartest guys in the room. In the eight years since the team's lone Super Bowl appearance under Reid in February 2005 -- and a breathlessly publicized contract spat with Terrell Owens that divided both fans and the locker room -- the Eagles went 66-61-1. (Although every Philadelphian knows the team's emotional and sentimental downfall began with its upset loss to Tampa Bay in the 2002 NFC title game, the only season in the Super Bowl era when the Eagles were the best team in the NFL.)
All of it bottomed out with this jackknifed tractor trailer of a 2012 campaign, which ended with Sunday's 42-7 mercy kill by the Giants at the Meadowlands. The Eagles, who finished 4-12, ended the year just six points from 0-16 -- after opening as the second betting favorite to win the Super Bowl. A team that seldom lost two consecutive games during the first half of Reid's tenure, almost incomprehensibly dropped 11 of its last 12.
Yet Reid, who departs as the longest tenured professional coach since Connie Mack in a city where sports mean a little too much, leaves behind a legacy far more complex than Monday's universally approved dismissal suggests. He's the winningest coach in franchise history. He's the losingest coach in franchise history. No one took the Eagles closer to the Super Bowl with greater frequency. No one was tripped up more often at (or near) the final hurdle. He was a genius and he was a dunce, often in the same barroom debate or sports-talk radio segment.
The sense of stability introduced by Reid was no minor salve to a team that had recently cycled through 10 quarterbacks in a 24-game span -- and in truth may have prolonged his run. Even when turbulence struck, the sense of a plan could pacify even Reid's staunchest critics. More than anything Reid's teams -- initially built around high-talent, high-character players like McNabb, Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Brian Westbrook, Troy Vincent -- were accountable. Certain things were always with the Eagles. They had a superlative record in prime-time games, including a 10-0 run during Reid's opening act. They were reliable late-breakers, boasting a markedly better record in November and December. Until this year's catastrophe, the Eagles were 16-1, including the postseason, when given two weeks to prepare, the lone exception being the three-point loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX. They weren't flawless, but you knew what you got.
What's more, Reid's famously hermetic news conferences were the perfect fit for Philadelphia's hyper-tempered fans -- the highs were never too high, the lows never too low. Yet that demeanor grew from curious to maddening as evidence of the Eagles' lack of blueprint mounted -- and the perception changed from Belichickian poker face to self-denial borne from thinly veiled desperation. For years, the Eagles were thin at the skill positions but reliably deep on the offensive and defensive lines: Jim Johnson's wildly creative defense kept scores low enough for McNabb to get it done in the end. By the end, the team was laden with burners at running back and wide receivers, yet was undone by the neglect in the trenches. The team's loss of identity, a fate sealed by Johnson's untimely death, ultimately proved fatal.
There's no shortage of theories why the Eagles have been rudderless and absent of any discernible identity for years, why the accountability that defined Reid's opening act was gone for good. The final seasons of the Reid era bear no resemblance to the azure skies and boundless future of his opening act: the team went 33-31 over the past four seasons -- worse even than its 36-28 mark in four years under Rich Kotite, whose name is anathema in South Philadelphia.
A combination of Reid's exhausted creativity and personal tragedy conspired against the Eagles as the end drew near. After spending their top overall draft pick on Kevin Kolb and investing three years incubating him as a successor to franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb, Reid abruptly changed tack and grasped for the short money with the signing of Michael Vick. And while the pop-psychological analysis of Reid's motives can only be taken at face value, it doesn't take a high-priced analyst to connect Reid's embrace of Vick's second-chance narrative -- and sudden abandon of the organizational long game -- to the hope for his own sons' redemption from the demons of addiction.
All of that's for the historians now. The sane perspective on Reid's tenure will arrive with time, when the memories of his ghastly denouement are safely faded by time. He will be missed, yet the final act laid bare how even the boldest imaginations and sharpest coaching minds can go stale when the well of ideas runs dry. While the legacy of Reid may be complex, the moral is plain. Nothing gold can stay.