Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mea Culpa Cap'n

About two years ago, Eagles coach Andy Reid had what might have been his worst day as a football coach. Down in a road game to the raging Ravens in the second half, he pulled struggling decade-long starting QB Donovan McNabb to put in the ice-cold and completely unprepared Kevin Kolb. It was indefensible on every level, even if you wanted McNabb run, since Reid was putting a player into a situation where he had no chance of success, and potentially losing his locker room in the process. The decision backfired badly, with Kolb ending his day with a 102-yard TAInt to Ravens S Ed Reed, and in the resulting media firestorm, I joined a growing chorus of people who had decided that ten years was enough with the Fat Man.

The club then went on an improbably month-long joyride through the division, with McNabb in particular shining, ending in a road loss to the Kurt Warner Cardinals in Arizona, in yet another championship game that was there for the taking, but not taken. While I appreciated the run and deeply enjoyed seeing the division subjugated under the Green wheels again, with particular delight in McNabb's scramble and phone call in the Meadowlands, I didn't change my base opinion. Reid had to go for the team to reach the next level, because he could not be trusted to make the right decisions under pressure, and you can't have that from your coach in today's NFL, since the teams are rarely more than a couple of plays apart.

(Of course, Reid and the Eagles could give the fleas off the business end of a rat for what I think; after all, I'm one of millions of followers of the laundry, and it's not as if the money they'll make from me, via TV ratings, merch and the very rare game ticket, will change all that much depending on the regime. I watched this team when the QB was Bobby Hoying. It's much nicer to watch them when they are good, but let's face it; no matter what happens, I'm watching them. It's a life sentence. Back to the column.)

Fast forward to 2009. On my way to a poker game, I tuned into a pre-season game on the car radio to discover that one of the most notorious athletes in the world, and a man who I had made considerable hay from as a blogger, was now joining the team. The player, of course, was Michael Vick, and he spent the next four months looking like a sad shell of his former self while running a set of plays that looked like they were designed for a wideout, rather than a former MVP. Vick's 2009 was the very epitome of sideshow; he no longer had great speed, still had terrible mechanics and accuracy, and gave the non-Eagles public aid and comfort by making the rest of us deeply uncomfortable due to his regrettable past. I grew to hate the Wildcat package, wondered what on Earth the coach was seeing, and added the acquisition to the list of reasons why Reid must go. (The much bigger team failing in 2009 was the inability to find tolerable linebackers. But the Vick package was far more grating.)

Now 2010. After shipping McNabb to prime vengeance position in DC, the team continued to toss off useful older pieces like CB Sheldon Brown, RB Brian Westbrook, a passel of linebackers who seemed like they could be coached up, and the special teams coach who had coaxed a fairly good year out of his charges. With the team, as always, under the cap, the suspicion was that they were going to rebuild on the cheap, endure a ton of picks from the accurate enough to be dangerous Kolb, and wait for the defensive draft picks to emerge. I didn't see more than a 6 to 8 win season, wondered if Reid would be around long enough to see the club come out the other side, and stayed in the camp of Coach Must Go.

Now? Well, not to get too exuberant over one game... but I'm going to get too exuberant over one game. Vick is the best fantasy QB in the game, and no worse than top five overall by any measure. The starting wideouts are the fastest in the league, and the reserve wideouts make plays in special teams and catches in the spread. The offense fears no down and distance, has recovered nicely from what seemed like a devastating injury to FB Leonard Weaver with castoff Owen Schmitt, and might have the best backup QB in the league in Kolb, who has shown considerable strength of character in the loss of his starting job.

On defense, they get after the passer better than they have in years, and they've managed to turn a turnstile CB (Ellis Hobbs) into an Al Harris-esque pit fighter (Dmitri Patterson) over a bye week. The linebackers, while still not world-class, are significantly improved, and CB Asante Samuel is having the best year of his career. Even the kicking game, long a source of erosion and dislike, has turned around, with K David Akers turning back time and P Sav Rocca having the best half-season of his time in the US.

And the credit for a very large part of that has to go to Reid.

He's the guy that saw Vick's potential and put his neck out on the line for him, then held the faith even when the game tape did neither of them any favors. He's the guy that was had the stones and dispassion to move on from McNabb. And in nearly a dozen years on the job, he's always had the touch with QBs, from getting the last good games of Jeff Garcia's career to making multiple teams think that AJ Feeley was worth a draft pick. Save for Doug Pederson and Mike McMahon, his judgment with the most important position on the field has been sterling.

He's the guy that has gotten out in time from any number of declining assets (Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, McNabb, Brown, etc., etc.), with history invariably proving him right. He's the guy that's fearless about identifying and eliminating problem personnel; the team rarely gets caught extending a contract on anyone that doesn't work out. (Though Brent Celek is making me rethink that a bit.) And yes, he's the guy who can't make a replay challenge to save his life, control his weight so that he doesn't look like a walrus on my screen, or give a straight answer in a press conference following a loss. I still have my doubts that he's ever going to win a championship.

But he's the right choice for the job, and I was wrong to think that he wasn't.

The saving grace for the Fat Man is that he *knows* every problem that he has, and actively works to fix them. For the first five years of McNabb's tenure, Reid saddled him with a collection of wideouts that were mostly laughed at by the rest of the league. Now, he might have the best. His special teams were a source of coverage worry; now, they grade out well, and with Bobby April in the fold, should continue to get better. His short yardage game can still make you pull the hair out of your head, but it's no longer an open sore, and as the league has moved closer to his pass-pass-pass ethos, he's looking like some kind of prophet. The team went out and got linebackers who can run in the off-season, and while the overall defense is still light against a power running game and big TEs, and too young to be truly trustworthy, they no longer look helpless against the things that always killed them before. If and when they get the penalty situation under control, they could be dangerous.

So the game hasn't passed him by, he's still one of the hardest workers in an industry filled with grindstone types, and his personnel choices are lights out -- and will be even when Vick stops being interception-free, or healthy, or any of the other calamaties that are in the future. (Remember, in the future, we're all dead. Cheers!) Hell, he might even stop wasting timeouts and replay challenges one of these years.

So Andy... here's my apology, borne out by the results, ground out over the years, and buoyed by your remarkable foresight on the quarterbacks. You've earned it back. You were right, and I was wrong. And I'm very, very happy to have been wrong. Now, please go win the rest of your games this year, so I don't have to take this back.

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