The end of the beginning

Nearly six years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles dismissed the best coach in franchise history.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t a controversial decision. The Eagles were stuck in neutral, and it was time to part ways with Andy Reid. Past time, even.

Owner Jeffrey Lurie hired Reid in 1999 to heal a team whose wings had been clipped after a series of subpar seasons. Reid arrived from Green Bay, where he had worked as quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren. Legend has it that Reid impressed Lurie in his interview when he expounded at length on the importance of the long snapper. The dissertation demonstrated a passion for football and an attention to detail to which Eagles fans would grow accustomed over the next 14 seasons.

At the time, it was a bit of a curious hire. Philly Mag’s Dan McQuade compiled a number of reactions to the Reid decision in a 2017 article, and he included this analytical gem from the inimitable Bill Lyon, whose writing skills are eclipsed only by his deep understanding of the psyche of the Philly fan:

The fans and the fan-inflamers wanted someone with experience, someone proven. Give us Parcells, they moaned. Give us Seifert or give us Shanahan. And if not them, then give us Chris Palmer or Brian Billick or Gary Kubiak. We want a who’s who and you give us a who’s he.

The vocal elements of the fan base and the legion of talking heads who presume to speak for them on television and radio are very good at pinpointing what was or what’s now. It’s much more challenging to identify what’s next. Though it may have seemed unconventional at the time, selecting Reid was an inspired decision that would pay almost immediate dividends.

Reid was a Bill Walsh disciple, and he would bring his version of the West Coast offense to Philadelphia. Reid imported an obscure quarterback named Doug Pederson from Green Bay to run the unit until his prized draft pick, Donovan McNabb, was ready to assume the reins. Once McNabb entered the lineup, the Eagles took flight.

Beginning with the 2001 regular season, the Birds booked four straight trips to the NFC Championship game. In 2008-09, they returned for a fifth time. Only once, in January 2005, were the Eagles able to lay claim to the Halas Trophy and punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to borrow from Charles Dickens. The Eagles were finally relevant again. They were the class of the NFC East, and they were among the league’s elite. But they were never the best.

In a city that was starving for a championship, feasting on appetizers was not acceptable. Only a Lombardi Trophy would do. Reid always competed earnestly in the Super Bowl chase. He was diligent. But then, after his tenth season in Philly, he got desperate. It would prove to be his undoing.

From the 2011 “Dream Team” free agent class (see: Young, Vince and Asomugha, Nnamdi) to major draft whiffs (sorry, Danny Watkins), Reid’s personnel decisions were getting more debilitating. And then there were the curious staffing decisions, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. After the passing of coordinator Jim Johnson in the summer of 2009, the Eagles were rudderless on defense. Reid could not find the solution.

He dismissed Johnson’s successor, Sean McDermott, after the 2010 season, and opted for a piecemeal approach during the replacement search. In came defensive line coach Jim Washburn and the wide-nine, a scheme that drove many an Eagles fan crazy. Reid turned to offensive line coach Juan Castillo to lead the entire unit. It was a bold choice. It was an unconventional choice.

It was a disastrous choice, and it was likely the death knell for Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia.

Reid pulled the plug on the Castillo experiment midway through the 2012 season. He would follow his deposed defensive coordinator out the door at the end of the year.

In the course of explaining his decision to terminate Reid, Lurie cited a disjointed decision-making process. I don’t think anyone in Philadelphia, Reid included, would have argued with him.

Go West, Old Man

In January 2013, Andy Reid was out of a job. His exodus from football would be brief.

No head coach in Eagles history had won more games than Andy Reid’s 130. But it was clear by the end that the Birds had to find a new direction, the revisionist history from certain sports personalities notwithstanding.

Reid may have needed a change, too. Jenny Vrentas, who profiled Reid for Sports Illustrated’s MMQB Futures Issue, explained how Reid’s front office responsibilities impacted his coaching duties:

Back in Philly he had control of the Eagles’ personnel, but he didn’t want that burden with the Chiefs; he preferred to spend his time ironing out every nuance of the offense rather than searching for a player to replace someone who’d gotten injured on Sunday.

The adversity Reid experienced on the football field paled in comparison to the tragedy he endured in his personal life. Reid’s oldest son, Garrett, succumbed to a heroin overdose in July 2012. Garrett was working for the Eagles during training camp and was found in a dorm room at Lehigh University. He had struggled with addiction for years, and his death presaged an opioid epidemic that would envelop the entire country.

No one would have been surprised if Andy Reid took a season away from football, or retired altogether. He could have retreated to the comfort of an NFL studio, preaching from the pulpit of conventional wisdom and offering mundane observations about the weekly slate of NFL games. He could have taken a sabbatical, traveling the country to visit football programs throughout the country. He could have simply walked away.

Reid chose instead to get right back in the game. He did what so many Americans have done throughout this nation’s history. In need of a fresh start and a chance to reinvent himself, Reid went westward and didn’t look back.

Four days into January 2013, Andy Reid was named head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs, coming off a 2-win campaign, were easily the worst team in football. They had some pieces in place on defense, however, and a quick turnaround under the right coach was not out of the question.

In the meantime, the Eagles made the biggest hiring splash of the offseason when they plucked Chip Kelly from the Oregon Ducks. At the time, the decision was met with universal acclaim from the Eagles fan base. Out with the old, stale offense of the Reid era and in with the new, fresh ideas from Kelly.

In retrospect, the Eagles had the right instincts when they hired Chip Kelly. His offensive innovations, which included an up-tempo pace facilitated by a simplified play-calling structure, proliferated throughout the college game. And NFL franchises, or at least the smart ones, were starting to take notice.

The irony, however, was that the “forward-thinking coach” the Eagles thought they were hiring was the one who was walking out the door.

After signing Reid, the Chiefs moved quickly to acquire Alex Smith, who was viewed as a serviceable if limited quarterback whose talent was trumped by draft classmate Aaron Rodgers.

Smith’s professional career is a testament to the ways in which football coaches can damage prospects. Early in his career, Smith was working with coordinators who were trying to teach him to run their schemes. It was no coincidence that his career took off when Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco, and later when he was traded to Kansas City to work with Reid.

One point even Reid’s most rigid critics in Philly must concede is that Andy can win with many different quarterbacks. While Donovan McNabb defined his tenure in Philadelphia, Reid also won games with backups Koy Detmer and A.J. Feeley. Reid also punched playoff tickets with reclamation projects like Jeff Garcia and Michael Vick.

The secret to Reid’s consistent success in the NFL and his longevity as a coach is his willingness to adapt his game plan to the skill sets of his skill players, particularly his quarterbacks. As Vrentas documents in her SI feature, Reid scoured Smith’s college tape at Utah to get ideas for the offense he would run in Kansas City. Forcing Smith to play like Joe Montana in a traditional Bill Walsh West Coast offense wouldn’t work.

For years, coaches and scouts would complain during the draft that the schemes colleges were running were not suited to the NFL, and consequently it was hard to project a prospect’s success at the next level. In hindsight, it’s amazing that few people stopped to think about adapting their styles to fit their players rather than demanding the players adapt to what was becoming an outdated way of playing the game.

The shotgun formations and spread looks that have proliferated on Friday and Saturday nights on high school and college fields throughout the country have invaded the NFL. This time, the revolution has been televised. And Andy Reid was among its first faithful soldiers.

The Contender

On Monday night, Andy Reid will lead his 9-1 Kansas City Chiefs to Los Angeles to take on the 9-1 Rams. The game was originally scheduled to be played in Mexico City, but was repatriated due to a poor playing surface at Estadio Azteca. The contest will feature the NFL’s two top offenses duking it out in what could be a Super Bowl preview. If you’re a fan of defensive battles and under bets, this is not the game for you.

Reid will arrive at the L.A. Colisuem with a legitimate MVP candidate in Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs’ quarterback has already eclipsed 3,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns on the season; he’s completing passes at a rate of nearly 70 percent. The offense Reid has created around Mahomes looks more like Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack than Walsh’s methodical system. Kansas City spreads the field horizontally and relies on Mahomes’ arm talent to stretch the defense vertically. Playmakers like Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce take advantage of the space, while star running back Kareem Hunt has kept defenses honest by running at a 4.5 yards-per-carry clip.

Teams that employ spread formations typically have an easy time moving the ball between the 20 yard lines. It’s in the red zone, and particularly around the goal line, where these offenses can struggle. The space on which they rely to attack defenses becomes much more constricted.

The Chiefs have had no such problems. They have scored touchdowns on over 70% of their red zone trips, which places them in the NFL’s top five.

It’s an offense brimming with playmakers and the kind of versatility that could make it unstoppable in the playoffs.

So, is this the year Andy Reid finally breaks through in the playoffs and wins his first Super Bowl?

I wouldn’t bet against him. The Chiefs are not a great defensive football team, but they do have some decent pass rushers. If they can improve their red zone defense, they have a decent chance to win this season. If not, the core is in place to make repeated runs at the title.

In other words, in year six of his tenure as Chiefs coach, the championship window is wide open for Reid and his team. Sound familiar?

The question that remains: will Eagles fans be gracious if Reid ascends to the top of the mountain this year?

If the Eagles had not won the title last year, I think the response would have been much more divisive. Now, especially after the Eagles essentially removed themselves from contention in their dispiriting loss to the Cowboys, I think fewer fans would actively root against Reid.

But it’s just a hunch. I’m sure the topic will come up for discussion on a sports radio program in the near future. It’s not difficult to imagine a caller asking Mikey Miss or Anthony Gargano if it’s a violation to root for the former coach as his team marches into January.

But you don’t need anyone’s permission to do the right thing. Andy Reid owes this city nothing. He made Eagles football relevant again during his time here, and the influence he’s had in the development of Doug Pederson has been a major driver of the latter’s success as a head coach.

But you do what you want, Philly.

Time’s yours.