In just over five days the Eagles will face their division rival Dallas Cowboys for a chance at winning their first division title since 2010. What started out as a ‘rebuilding season’ has quickly turned into one of the more entertaining, exciting roller-coaster rides of an Eagles campaign. With the fanbase abuzz and the locker room seemingly bursting with confidence, it is hard not to dream big as far as this team’s prospects are moving forward. In lieu of all of the optimism, one cannot help but hit the rewind button to where this team and fanbase were a year ago. The 4-11 Eagles had come off their 10th loss in 11 games, and were heading into a completely meaningless season finale against the New York Giants (a game they would lose 42-7). Their week 16 loss to the Redskins would be the Eagles final home game of the season and, despite only losing by seven (a relative nail-biter considering how miserable last year’s team was), there was zero energy in the stands and fans and analysts alike only had one thing on their mind: had Andy Reid FINALLY coached his last game as an Eagles coach in Philadelphia?
Sure enough, following the team’s embarrassing season finale, Reid would be fired before entering the final year of his contract. Despite the tailspin of his last two season’s at the helm, Reid’s departure was one of class. He had led the team through their longest period of sustained success, helped the franchise reach their second Super Bowl, and set the record for most wins in organizational history as head coach (130). Still, all indications were that, much like the fanbase, the organization had soured on Reid and felt that a new start was necessary to avoid the team falling deeper into negativity.
Yet, as widely accepted as the termination of Reid was in Eagles circles, it was that much more panned on the national scale. Analysts of all outlets rallied behind Reid, insisting that the fanbase did not know how good it had with Reid, and they would be in for a rude awakening when they would not be able to achieve the sort of year-in, year-out success as they had with the long-time coach. Talking heads such as Steve Mariucci stood up for their colleague and made it seem that the residents of Philadelphia had personally ushered Reid out the door.
When they were finally able to convince Chip Kelly to leave Oregon and test his mettle at the NFL level, it was a clear indication that the organization was ready for a splash after over a decade of repetition and routine with Reid. While things have not always been rosy with Kelly, the team has rounded into form over the second half of the season and appear to be far beyond expectations set out at the beginning of the year.
As far as Reid goes, he has achieved nominal success in his first season as the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Including a week 3 win on Thursday night over the Eagles in Philadelphia, Reid’s Chiefs have tallied 11 wins on the year and secured a playoff spot as a wild card team. Considering Kansas City finished the 2012 campaign with just two wins and secured the first pick in the draft, one has to give the veteran coach his due on bringing about the best effort from his team. The Chiefs are far from world-beaters and, much like the Eagles, have benefited from a favorable schedule. They have faltered as of late, dropping four of their last six contests after winning their first nine. Their supposedly dominant defense was exposed in a big way over a three-week stretch, when they allowed a total of 103 points in losses to the Broncos (2x) and the Chargers. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but generally speaking no one is giving Kansas City much of a chance as far as making a run at Reid’s first Super Bowl title.
Shifting back to the Eagles perspective, while the concept seems ridiculous now, there was legitimate concern that Reid would return to finish out the final year of his contract and see if he could not solve some of his team’s problems. In the spirit of looking back, one has to wonder where this Eagles team would be had Reid been granted his final year.
Much like Mike Shanahan in Washington, Reid had total control of the organization by the time of his departure. With the exception of managing the salary cap, a responsibility mainly handled by current GM Howie Roseman, Reid had final say on all matters and had sculpted the organization with his reputation on the line. There are those that speculate that Roseman was in charge of the team’s excellent 2012 draft, there is no reason to believe that Reid did not at least have last judgement on every selection. All of the team’s day-to-day operations were signed off by the long-time coach, he selected the location and style of his training camps, and he dictated the type of relationships he had with his players. There were those that questioned whether Reid was too much of a players’ coach, as he rarely allowed criticism to fall on anyone but himself. Whether or not that was the case, Reid’s players loved him and expressed those sentiments upon his departure.
Considering the differences between Reid’s new role in Kansas City compared to what it was in Philadelphia, it is tough to imagine what the 2013 season would look like for the Eagles. For one, the backlash from the fanbase would be like nothing seen during the Reid era. Many felt like Reid was saved from being fired in 2011 when the team, albeit with nothing on the line, rattled off four wins to close out the season. The support for the organization would be most likely at its lowest since the turn of the millennium, and there would be zero buzz coming out of the season.
From a personnel standpoint I would imagine that Reid, in the final year of his contract, would try to patch things up via free agency and trades. Whether it would be an attempt at trying to outdo the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offer for Darrelle Revis, trying to acquire a big-time receiver, or any sort of splash move is tough to say. The team had so many issues on the field in 2012 that any addition would be addressing a problem, thus satisfying the fanbase to an extent. I would expect that he would probably attempt to have taken more of an impact player at the #4 slot in the draft. Despite Reid’s penchant for drafting linemen at the top of the draft, the team’s returning offensive line was one of the few strong units and Reid would want to be building more toward one year. Instead of taking a developing, albeit talented Lane Johnson at #4, one has to wonder if Reid would have had eyes on Tavon Austin or Cordarrelle Patterson. One of the highlights of this year’s Eagles team is the contributions they have gotten from young players being rotated in, thus demonstrating the organizational depth that has become a higher priority. It would not be too far off, but one would have to think there would be fewer players making contributions. Reid always seemed to roll with his top guys, and poor drafts and free agency selections often put him in a bind when it came to finding a suitable replacement.
On a related note, the innovations from a day-to-day standpoint that Kelly has implemented are night and day from what Reid preferred. After years of Reid’s intense, high-contact training camps in Lehigh, Kelly shifted toward an interval-based, circuit style camp with no tackling and an emphasis on post-session teaching. Gone were Reid’s days of ‘Taco Tuesdays’ and ‘fast-food Fridays’ and in were the extensive stories of Kelly’s personalized smoothies and nutrition plans. What might have been looked at as an afterthought at the beginning of the season, could be the wrinkle of Kelly’s coaching style that is adapted most quickly. The Sports Science philosophy that Chip Kelly has infused into his coaching staff and methodology gains more momentum as a story every week. This is mostly due to the fact that the Eagles, with the exception of a freakish pre-season injury to Jeremy Maclin, are relatively injury-free and appear to be picking up steam while other clubs have their nicks and bruises slowing them down. Veteran players like Trent Cole, who was left for dead, metaphorically speaking, in his final year under Reid, are experiencing career rejuvenation with Kelly’s staff’s assistance. Should the Eagles defeat the Cowboys in the final week of the season, barring unforeseen circumstances, they will probably have one of the healthiest clubs to enter the postseason in recent history. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, players that were essential to their 9-0 start are slowly breaking down and have become a question mark moving forward. Pass-rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have missed substantial time, and are difficult to depend on to make weekly impacts against top competition. While there are no guarantees and often times in the NFL, injuries are a matter of luck, it is tough to imagine the veterans that have made such a big impact this year would be able to do so on a weekly basis without the health / nutritional innovations of Kelly’s staff.
Finally, the coaching styles from a gameplanning, play-calling, and philosophical standpoint are probably as different as they come. Reid was often lauded for his expertise gameplanning, and more times than not was able to construct a plan of attack that took advantage of the opponent. However, Andy Reid’s inability to make in-game adjustments and stubbornness against running the ball became his downfall from knowledgeable fans and analysts. Often ignoring the fact that he had a world-class running back, Reid’s pass-heavy playbook required near flawless play from his quarterbacks and was derailed more and more by defenses. The Eagles struggles to score in the red zone only magnified the team’s inability to establish the run, and probably cost them several wins over Reid’s last two seasons. Reid was, and still is looked at as a generally conservative coach when it comes to guiding his team through the season. He rarely took risks that he deemed unnecessary, and would often jump at the chance to rest his players or approach a game more lightly to preserve his roster. Even in his first year with Kansas City, the assumption is that Reid will rest his starters for week 17 to prepare for the team’s road playoff game. Were Reid still running the show in Philadelphia and the Eagles were in the same situation they were entering Sunday night, he probably would have seen the fact that the Cowboys beat the Redskins and taken his starters out after a few series.
Kelly’s playcalling and coaching style is improving every game and, looking no further than Sunday’s game against the Bears, one could argue that the only thing stopping Kelly is himself. The first-year coach still has some rough edges to smooth out as far as being an NFL coach in terms of clock management, challenging plays, and situational plays. That being said, everyone knew what was coming along with Kelly. It was his unorthodox, untraditional approach at the college level that made him one of the most intriguing coaching candidates to ever enter the league. The longer Kelly stays in the league, the more he will improve as far as his feel for the game on this level and the more fans and analysts will get used to some of his decision-making. The fascinating thing about the Eagles gameplans is Kelly’s ability to isolate weaknesses in the opponent and manufacture ways to take advantage of them. If he recognizes the opposition struggles covering tight ends (like the Arizona game), he will emphasize that until the opponent adjusts. There are no scripted plays to start out the game like Reid insisted upon and Kelly has no qualms with running consecutive plays to see if the opponent adjusts. Many feel that Kelly utilizes a complex, bottomless playbook with dozens upon dozens of plays. That could not be further from the truth, as Kelly insists he runs minimal plays and places more emphasis on creating new options out of those plays by utilizing multiple sets. Everything Reid ran, despite a huge stockpile of plays, seemed so predictable. Every game started with a play-action deep ball, and every goal line set needed at least one shovel pass mixed in. Ironically enough, Kelly takes pride that his team has no problem running the same play over and over, because opponents cannot stop it due to the execution. Finally, Kelly knew he was going to play his starters in week 16 against the Bears before the Cowboys took the field in D.C. He knew that the team had a serious letdown against the Vikings and could not make a serious run at success without showing they had the ability to bounce back. Sure, Kelly risked injury by having his starters play in a relatively meaningless game, but he is not in the business of backing into the playoffs, as he so eloquently put.
“Very simply. We’re from Philadelphia and we fight. That’s it. If there’s a game on, we’re playing, end of story. All this stuff with backing in, not worry about things. I have no idea. So many different scenarios, could have been a tie. What if there’s a tie when we go play Dallas next week and we gave a game away last week. If we are going to lineup and kickoff, and you tell us what time to show up and we will be there.”
Kelly’s rallying cry blew any quote of Reid’s out of the water and, as if he couldn’t anymore, endeared himself to the Eagles fanbase. By rolling past the Bears, the Eagles were able to demonstrate they could get the bad taste out of their mouth from the Minnesota game and will be riding a wave of momentum into Dallas.
Reid and Kelly’s fates will always be linked. Should Reid make the playoffs and Kelly miss the playoffs, regardless of the circumstances, he will have drawn the first blow in the debate. The Eagles have exceeded expectations, but the NFL is a results-based business and the coach that leads his team to the playoffs is looked upon with higher esteem than the one that does not. I think that Reid needed a change so he could move to a situation where he was not in charge of so much. With the Chiefs, he can focus more on coaching than putting together a staff and managing a draft board. He will probably have to wait for Peyton Manning to retire, but Reid should achieve long-term success with the Chiefs.
That being said, I am far more confident in Kelly’s long-term prospects. I do not think that Reid will ever win a Super Bowl as a head coach. Unless he is able to acquire an elite talent at the quarterback position, a difficult prospect considering the Chiefs successful season, Kansas City looks like a team that is near their plateau. Kelly was much more of a risk / reward hire. Between the looming thought that he would return to the college ranks or his offense would falter at the first sign of resistance, hiring Kelly was a gamble by the Eagles’ organization. However, it was a calculated gamble that took into account that, should Kelly’s collegiate success transition into the NFL game, it might be innovative enough to help the franchise capture their first Super Bowl.
Had Reid stayed on board with the Eagles, this year probably would have hinged all on injuries. Had any impact starter gone down, much like Jason Peters in 2012, the team probably would not have been able to rebound and, while I do not think a 4-12 record would be the result, I cannot picture them being in the playoff picture. Even at full-health, the league had clearly diagnosed some of Reid’s tendencies in Philadelphia and it made winning against good teams nearly impossible. I cannot envision a scenario, even at perfect health, that the Eagles could finish above .500 mostly due to the fact that Reid had nothing new to bring to the table in the NFC. Nick Foles probably would not have gotten the opportunity to start, as Reid would prefer a veteran presence in his final year and the long-term prospects for the franchise would have been much worse off than as they appear. Clearly, when it comes to matters of hindsight, everything is speculation. However, after following this team as close, if not closer than any in year’s past, I just cannot compute any way that bringing Andy Reid back for one more season would not have ended in both short, and long-term disaster for the Eagles franchise.