Reid quiets critics … for the time being

Even in Baltimore, amid the supersonic swirl of his rookie season, John Harbaugh had heard the roar emanating from Philadelphia, a town notorious for its audible impatience with imperfection.

“You need to support Andy,” the former Eagles assistant said, standing in a quiet corridor underneath M&T Bank Stadium after his Baltimore Ravens had dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles during a game in which Andy Reid coached like a desperate man who was out of answers.

Photo Reid with Harbaugh after Baltimore’s romp in Week 12.
(Rob Carr/AP Photo)

“He’s a good man. He deserves better.”

Seven weeks ago, the Eagles were dead, their long-time coach at his nadir. A team that had been billed as a Super Bowl contender had careened to a 5-5-1 record on a series of Reid blunders that had the hometown faithful howling for the coach to lose his job. He was an incompetent game manager, a hard-headed devotee to the passing game, a horrible communicator and an unjustifiable egomaniac who had never delivered on the promise of a Lombardi Trophy – and those were the polite criticisms.

But in the days and weeks after that jolting 36-7 loss to the Ravens, during which he benched his hand-picked franchise quarterback, Reid regrouped. He reinstated Donovan McNabb as the starting quarterback and leaned on the veterans to keep the younger players focused on the present, not the past. Behind the scenes, Reid didn’t panic, listened to his assistants, allowed his leaders to lead and bent, ever so slightly, to allow more of a running game.

After backing into the playoffs thanks to other teams’ failures, Reid has the Eagles in their fifth NFC championship game in the last eight years and on the doorstep of their second Super Bowl in five campaigns.

Outside of the brick gates that protect the Eagles’ practice facility in South Philadelphia, beloved Reid is not – at least not yet. Like Phillies manager Charlie Manuel a few months ago, Reid needs to finish the deal. Ten hard years as the Eagles coach down, two wins to go, and then there will be love, plenty of love. It continues Sunday when the sixth-seeded Eagles play No. 4 Arizona, a team they throttled by 28 points on Thanksgiving night to begin their improbable journey into January.

“I’m glad to be here, and I want to keep going,” Reid said. “This football team wants to keep going. We’re going to work our tail off to do that.”

For Reid and the Eagles, the road to the NFC championship game doesn’t run through Philadelphia anymore, and it hasn’t for a while. But the franchise is a lifetime away from where it was when Reid took over for Ray Rhodes as a relative no-name from Green Bay in 1999. Back then, the Eagles were in disarray, much like the old concrete dungeon, Veterans Stadium, in which they played.

Minnesota coach Brad Childress was on the staff during those early days, when the coaches’ offices smelled of beer, vomit and urine from the hundreds of cats that lived in the stadium. Navigating the Vet was a daily adventure, from the homeless people who would demand money from the coaches when they arrived for work in the early-morning hours to the fans who demanded their own payment: a winner.

“I dropped my bag one morning, and went to sit in his office, and he said, ‘I’m having a bad day,’ ” Childress recalled recently. “I said, ‘So am I.’ He asked why, and I said, ‘There’s a pile of cat [bleep] in the middle of my office.’ He said, ‘Let’s go see.’

“We walk in my office, and he goes, ‘Yeah, that’s cat [bleep]. Better have the janitor come get it.’ It’s priceless. You can’t make it up, the Vet stories. That’s why you have to have a sense of humor and laugh, and he did.”

Reid scored on his first major decision, drafting McNabb with the second overall pick in 1999, and he was rewarded relatively quickly. In McNabb’s second full season (third overall) as a starter, the Eagles won the NFC East for the first time since 1988 and reached the NFC title game, losing to Kurt Warner and the Rams.

Two more NFC title game losses followed in the next two years, and then the high point of Reid’s career – beating the Falcons at the sparkling Lincoln Financial Field to reach the Super Bowl. The win validated Reid, and removed the large burden his success had placed on his back. Everyone knew he could get to the championship game, but now Reid could actually win one.

After losing to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX, the Eagles missed the playoffs two of the next three years, and frustration among fans grew. The franchise portrayed itself as the same one that had owned the conference earlier in the decade, but the results said otherwise – two non-winning seasons in 2005 and 2007, and a surprise playoff run in 2006 with backup quarterback Jeff Garcia. It wasn’t exactly the Super Bowl.

And then came this year, perhaps the strangest of Reid’s tenure. The Eagles started 2-1, lost winnable games to Chicago and Washington, improved to 5-3 after the bye then seemingly collapsed when all the small problems from the first half of the season – play-calling, third-down conversions, clock management – converged. The Eagles lost to the hated Giants, then tied the one-win Bengals, and lost to the Ravens.

Despite a maelstrom, Reid apparently didn’t crack, and as a result, the Eagles have won six of their last seven. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said last weekend that he never considered firing Reid nor contemplated a scenario without him, but he might’ve been the only one in town who felt that way.

“I have a lot of confidence in his ability,” Lurie said. “It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes leadership. It’s not how he addresses the press, or how he functions that way. That’s not what’s really the measure of the man. The measure of the man is what he’s doing with the people he’s working with, and he’s been terrific for a long time.”

The Eagles need two more wins to turn a terrible season into a stunning success. They are close, but have been close before. Close doesn’t count, but close can quiet the critics, at least for a little while.

Reid won’t let himself think about the what-ifs, or celebrate the successes. There’s too much football still to play.

“I haven’t had a chance to reflect on [the season],” Reid said. “But, the games are enjoyable.”

Ashley Fox is a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Updated Thursday, Jan 15, 2009