Week 13 NFL Wrap-up: Not a Fun Time To Be an Eagles Fan
Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ’98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.
NATHAN: With Sam out again, I decided to bring in Construction contributing writer Ben Hoffman, who fortunately didn’t have to move to Canada after the election. Unfortunately, he’s still an Eagles fan, and the Eagles still started 3-1, before losing their next eight games. So, Ben, before getting to this year’s Eagles, what can you tell me about Andy Reid? It’s time to reflect.
BEN: It is, I think, uncontroversial to suggest that in some order, the most successful teams since 2000 have been the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Giants, Packers, Ravens, and Eagles. Of course, the Eagles are the only team on that list that has not won a Super Bowl during that time—or ever, for that matter. That’s right: the Philadelphia Eagles have never won a Super Bowl.
To say that Reid’s tenure has not been appreciated by Eagles fans is putting it mildly. But it is a little like the whole Susan Rice imbroglio. Is she the best candidate for Secretary of State? Perhaps not. Do the insane attacks from her critics prompt one to rally to her defense? Yes, yes they do. So let’s mount the Andy Reid defense.
First, let’s concede several points. He is not great at making in-game adjustments, he is terrible at time management, he is pass happy, he thinks he’s smarter than you, he has not been able to win a Super Bowl, he was once the world’s largest 13-year-old, and he may look like a walrus. Now, the positives:
- He does not look that much like a walrus. Not enough to inspire a FiretheWalrus Twitter account, anyway.
- His teams always played hard; the only player who ever talked shit about him to the media was Terrell Owens.
- He was successful. Really successful. His teams won double digit games in eight of 14 seasons, and went to four consecutive NFC Championship games. Before this season he was a perfect 13-0 after the bye week.
Why was he successful?
- He built his teams from the inside out, focusing on the O- and D-lines.
- He didn’t waste first-round picks on running backs (he nabbed Brian Westbrook with the 91st pick and LeSean McCoy with the 53rd pick).
- He eschewed fans, including then-mayor Ed Rendell, who took to talk radio to diss Reid, when he passed up RB Ricky Williams to select Donovan McNabb second in the 1999 draft. And he chose McNabb over other highly regarded QBs like Akili Smith, who went second, and Dante Culpepper, who went 11th (the immortal Tim Couch went first, to the Browns). In order words, Reid nailed the first and most important decision of his career.
- He also built deep teams. One of the characteristics of the successful teams mentioned above, besides strong quarterback play, is that they have been deeper than every other team in the league; every year these GMs store up more third- and fourth- and fifth-round picks than the other middle-of-the-pack teams. I’ll suggest that the reason Reid’s been less successful over the last few years is that he’s gotten away from these principles.
NATHAN: Please, tell me more.
BEN: Reid is often considered an offensive coach, but when the Eagles were really good, defense was their calling card. Then they lost safety Brian Dawkins and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson (to cancer). Unlike many Eagles fans, I never felt Reid “deserved” to be fired based on his body of work. And there’s certainly a case to be made that the team suffered—there have been too many missed draft picks over the last few years—as Reid gained more of a role in personnel decisions. He did this by winning power struggles with front officers Tom Heckert, Jr. and Joe Banner, both of whom are now in Cleveland. Why are teams always giving too much personnel power to coaches?
But I don’t know how I’ve felt about him being fired on the rationale that he couldn’t take the team any closer to a championship than he already had. I’m interested to hear about this from you, a Steelers’ fan, since Bill Cowher didn’t win his Super Bowl until his 14th season. Was there ever a point in time (perhaps when Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in his 7th-9th seasons) when fans felt, okay, he was a solid coach, but he’d taken the team as far as he could?
NATHAN: Obviously some Steelers fan wanted Cowher fired after/during the 1998-2000 non-playoff stretch, because that’s how fans operate. There were, however, a couple of factors that made this desire absurd, the primary one being that those three seasons weren’t as bad as they seemed. To wit:
1998. The Steelers were 28th in the NFL points scored, and scored less than 10 points four times, with one of those being a shutout. Kordell Stewart, starting every game, averaged 160 passing yards per game and posted a 62.9 rating for the season. This would have been okay, since these were the days of smash-mouth STEELERS FOOTBALL, if Jerome Bettis hadn’t run the bus in first gear—1,185 yards, 3.8 average, 3 TDs.
And yet, despite weak offensive capabilities, the Steelers were 7-4 heading into a Thanksgiving game at Detroit. We all remember this one, because it’s played every Thanksgiving game, every overtime game, every Steelers-Lions game, and every game referred by Phil Luckett. At the overtime coin-toss, Bettis calls “hea-tails,” the coins falls tails, and Luckett gives it to the Lions, who kick a field goal on the opening drive. Then the Steelers lose their next four games to finish 7-9.
So, which narrative do you prefer? Cowher up-coaches an anemic offense to 7-4 before the subpar talent equalizer? Or Cowher lets an unfortunate loss turn into a tailspin?
However . . . that was the rookie season for Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, and Deshea Townsend. Two potential Hall of Famers and a highly serviceable 13-year defensive back. Pay attention to this.
1999. Yes, they finished one game worse than the season before (6-10), and yes they had an even more abominable losing streak (this time they were 5-3 before losing six straight, though four of those games were by less than a touchdown). But where in 1998 their point differential was -40, in 1999 it was only -3. Kordell was still bad, Bettis was still average, and the defense was still fine, but the team didn’t regress. And also, Cowher picked up Joey Porter and Aaron Smith in the draft.
2000. The team rebounds, finishing 9-7. However, three of those losses were games after which the NFL sent written apologies to the Steelers for blowing crucial calls in the fourth quarter or overtime. Winning one of those game would have tied them with the 6th seed Colts (not sure who would’ve gone); winning two would have put them in the playoffs. In other words, they were better than their record. Also, Kordell was about 10 points better in his season average QB rating, so you could argue that Cowher’s system was starting to maximize his potential. But most importantly, Cowher had another strong draft: Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, and Clark Haggans.
What happened the next season? The Steelers finish 13-3, two games better than any team in the AFC, before losing the AFC Championship to the first Super Bowl iteration of the Brady-Belichick Patriots dynasty.
BEN: I’m hoping this historicizing is leading to a place where I can feel better about Andy Reid.
NATHAN: Well . . . um . . . let me continue. I still haven’t mentioned the two other factors that explain why Steelers fans had no reason to want Cowher fired in the late ’90s. The first is obvious: over the previous six seasons, his first run as a head coach, he had already proven himself a fantastic coach: playoffs every year (which set a record for coaches), two AFC Championship losses, one Super Bowl loss. He hired the right assistants (Chan Gailey, Dom Capers, Dick Lebeau, Marvin Lewis, Mike Mularkey, Jim Haslett), excised underperforming rookies (he traded his first first-round pick Huey Richardson and cut his 1996 first-round draft choice Jamain Stephens when he couldn’t finish the traditional training camp sprints), managed veteran stars like Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake, inspired psychos like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, stole Jerome Bettis in a trade, and exuded an overall sense of professionalism that Chuck Noll had lost with age. The idea that Cowher had “topped out” by taking the team as far as it could go is incorrect in practice and nonsense in general. To take a team anywhere, a coach has to be good at his job. If he’s not, then why is he a head coach to begin with?
During those three non-playoff years, which, as I noted, weren’t as abysmal as they are remembered, Cowher hadn’t suddenly become a bad coach. He just didn’t have a quarterback. That’s the third point. No matter how good your team is, history has proven that, in all but the rarest circumstances, you cannot reasonably compete for the Super Bowl without a QB playing at a Pro Bowl level. Unfortunately, for the majority of the 32 NFL teams trying to win a Super Bowl, every year there are only about eight or nine of these guys alive from ages 22-38. Was it Cowher’s fault for believing in Kordell Stewart? Yes, absolutely; that went on way too long. But he maintained order on defense, and relied on the draft, so that by the time he did find a real QB, he had a team that could carry that quarterback. That’s the reason Roethlisberger played so well his first two years: in addition to aforementioned draftees, Cowher took Casey Hampton in 2001 and all the great players I mentioned last week. While Cowher was a .458 coach from ’98-’00, he was in effect building the 2006 Super Bowl champions and laying the foundation for/preparing to transition to the teams that won the Super Bowl in 2008 and the AFC Championship in 2011. The Faneca-Ward Townsend trifecta was the first seeds of the Roethlisberger era; no Steelers drafted before 1998 made it that far.
What it sounds like you’re saying is that Andy Reid failed to do this. This is the eighth season since the 2004 Super Bowl team. Reid’s made the playoffs four times (pretty good), in which he has a 3-4 record (not so good). But last year they went 8-8 with a lot of marquee talent (getting worse), and this year has been an epic collapse (rock bottom). So sure, be excited for Cowher . . . but only if Nick Foles has more Ben Roethlisberger in him than Kordell Stewart.
BEN: The goal of Nick Foles seems to be to lead, one-by-one, all of Philly’s starting wide receivers into brutal collisions with safeties. Seriously, though, it’s too early to say what type of player he can be. It was rumored Reid wanted to pursue Peyton Manning this past offseason, except Peyton wasn’t interested because he would have had to play against his brother twice a year. That is sort of weird—it’s not like they have to tackle each other—but probably also for the best because Peyton Manning would have gotten killed behind this offensive line, which, I should note, is missing its three best players, including the best left tackle in the league, Jason Peters. The line will be much better next season. Give Foles some protection, and the safety net of LeSean McCoy, who isn’t going anywhere, and the speedy receivers, who, when healthy, are great, though smallish—I’m convinced part of their well-publicized red zone troubles over the last few years are tied to the fact that at no point is an end zone fade route ever an option—and the offense can be potent.
But, supporting what I said about Reid’s defensive shortcomings and recent defensive drafting woes, the defense needs gutting. Our secondary is “anchored” by Nnamdi Whatshisname, a colossal flop of a free agent signing. There are not a lot of good young linebackers, cornerbacks, or safeties on this team. On the bright side, the defensive line is all right!
So: we will lose a few more games, and then, at the end of the season, Andy Reid will be fired, and after a year off, or maybe not, he will go to Cleveland or Arizona or Carolina, and we will try to hire Bill Cowher, and probably end up with somebody else, and that will be that.
NATHAN: Since this is our last chance to discuss Reid as an Eagle, can you explain how his teams made four straight NFC Championship games but only one Super Bowl? Was he secretly meeting Bobby Cox at dim Philly-area steakhouses every Thursday night in the early aughts?
BEN: I could take the easy way out and say that winning a championship contains an element of luck, which it obviously does. But looking closer at those four straight NFC Championship seasons, I see two close losses to slightly better teams: the ’01 team’s 29-24 loss to Kurt Warner’s 14-2 Rams, and the ’04 squad’s Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. Sandwiched between them, though, are two atrocious NFC Championship home losses: the ’02 team’s 27-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the ’03 team’s 14-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers. In those two games, the Eagles combined for 7 turnovers against one takeaway, despite the fact that in both years they were in the top-8 in turnover margin during the regular season. So maybe it was bad luck, after all.
A side note about luck: I’m always interested in how much sports fans, as our understanding of statistics and sabremetrics increase, continue to believe—and increase our beliefs—in the magical notions of karma and momentum. While I still believe in not jinxing the no-hitter, one of my first major lessons against karma came in the 2002-2003 playoffs. The Eagles, down three in the Divisional game to the Packers with under a minute left, gained 26-and-a-half-yards on 4th-and-26th (this was before replay, and, yes, Freddie “FredEx” Mitchell made the catch). If you have a 4th-and-26th with the season on the line and you convert it, that means something, right? It seemed impossible the Eagles weren’t bound for a Super Bowl victory. The next week they lost to Jake Delhomme.
NATHAN: The man who threw that pass was Mr. Donovan McNabb, whom we haven’t discussed. For a decade he was always almost legendary, and then everything ended so . . . well, can we agree that the adverbial derivative of “precipitous” was invented to describe what happened to his career? He’s totally forgotten. Is he still alive?
BEN: Poor Donovan. He was never fully appreciated because one of his greatest qualities was the absence of a negative: he has the 4th lowest interception rate in NFL history—strange, since he was prone to bouts of inaccuracy—behind Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and a fourth highly ironic player. And if memory serves, McNabb was first all-time when he was traded from the Eagles. But that’s the sort of stat that fans really only appreciate when they’re watching his replacements throw yet another ludicrous interception. It’s likely that he’ll be remembered best not for his on-field exploits but for the fact that in 2003 ESPN thought it would be a good idea to employ Rush Limbaugh as a weekly studio analyst. While we’re on the topic of race and Philadelphia Eagle QBs: someday, someone is going to write an article about how the team employed, over a 20-year period, Vick, McNabb, and Randall Cunningham, each of whom was exceptional in his own way.
NATHAN: And guess who the Eagles’ longtime starter was before Cunningham? Ron Jaworski! This column is going to terminate faster than a McNabb one-hopper to Jason Avant. Just kidding, I love Donovan! Ben, it’s been fun discussing the PHILADELPHIA EAGLES of the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE. Thank you for your time, and enjoy the rest of the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE season.