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In Defense of Andy Reid

The Eagles are sure to part ways with their embattled coach, but that shouldn't tarnish his legacy

What sort of legacy is Andy Reid leaving behind in Philadelphia? At the moment, it doesn’t appear to be a particularly positive one. Eagles home games have become rallies — worse, sparsely attended rallies — for weary fans to boo both a team that’s given up on 2012 and a head coach whose 14-year tenure with the club appears to be coming to a close. It’s as if Philadelphia fans know that they won’t get a chance to boo Reid’s decision-making after this year and want to make sure they get their last licks in before he leaves town. You can’t blame season-ticket holders for thinking about the short-term, but how does Reid look if we put his long-term career with Philadelphia in context? How will those booing fans look back at the Reid administration? Was his tenure with the Eagles a success or a failure?

In truth, the Reid era isn’t given its just due by either of those polarizing labels. Unlike most of the coaches who also had lengthy tenures with one team over the past 15 years, Reid’s run was noticeably marked by brilliant highs and dour lows. Coaches like Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, and Jon Gruden might have had higher peaks, but none had to traverse lower valleys or struggle with a steady amount of criticism. It would be impossible to talk about Andy Reid’s legacy without mentioning some glaring missteps, but Reid is in many ways a model coach for this upcoming generation of NFL bosses. And, in most cases, the most pointed criticisms he has received are either misdirected or shortsighted.

It’s fair to say that the Reid Era plays better on paper than it does in real life, but part of that is because the Eagles coach raised expectations to feverishly high levels during the beginning of his tenure and then kept his squad within distance of meeting those expectations for virtually his entire run. The numbers are actually rather impressive. With two games left to go in what is expected to be his final season, Reid has a 130-91-2 record as head coach of the Eagles, producing a .588 winning percentage that ranks sixth in the league across that time frame. The five teams ahead of him are your standard-issue best teams in football: the Patriots (a league-best .710), Colts (.674), Steelers (.636), Packers (.620), and Ravens (.602). Reid’s Eagles sit well ahead of the seventh-place Titans, who are packed tightly in a group with the Giants and Broncos. Cynics will correctly note that the five teams ahead of the Eagles have each won the Super Bowl (and have combined to win eight of the 14 Super Bowls over that time frame), but I’ll get to that in a second.

Reid’s work in the playoffs was also very impressive. If his run finishes after this season, Reid’s teams will have made the playoffs in nine of his 14 seasons with the team, including a Super Bowl run in 2004. Reid is 10-9 in playoff games, too, which is a .526 winning percentage that tops the percentages of the Packers and Jets (both .500) as well as the Colts (.474).

The playoff runs Reid made look even better when you compare them to what the Eagles did before he arrived in town. From 1970 (the AFL-NFL merger) to 1999 (at which point Reid took over), the Eagles played 30 seasons of football and only made the playoffs 10 times. Reid is one playoff appearance away from equaling that in half the time. Those Eagles teams went 5-10 in the playoffs, making the Super Bowl as frequently in 30 years (once) as Reid did in 14 years. Particularly bitter Eagles fans will argue that Reid needed to win a Super Bowl to justify his existence, but that argument doesn’t carry a ton of weight these days. How many people have either mentioned or noticed without saying it that the most important thing about the NFL playoffs is merely getting in? The Giants have made a living off of limping through the regular season before dominating in two different postseason runs.1 If it is really that much of a crapshoot, shouldn’t we be crediting Reid for gaming the system properly and getting as many cracks at the postseason as possible as opposed to lining up to attack him for only reaching the Super Bowl once?

Fourteen years is a long time in the NFL. It’s enough to draft and develop a whole generation of talent, see them age, and then be forced to replace them with a second generation of talent, players who Reid drafted to replace guys he had drafted toward the beginning of his run who had either left in free agency or become too old to start. That takes a lot of skill and a lot of trust in your development process, a level of faith the Eagles deserved. Although their drafting slowed down some over the past several years, the early days of the Andy Reid–Joe Banner team produced a number of notable stars. Each of Reid’s first seven drafts after he joined the organization produced at least one Pro Bowl player, with those first seven drafts2 producing 16 Pro Bowl appearances from eight players.

As with many long-running coaches, we commonly associate the coach with his most notable starting quarterback from the era in question. Belichick and Brady. Dungy and Manning. Gruden and … OK, it doesn’t work for everybody. Reid is very clearly linked with Donovan McNabb, whose run with the Eagles seemed to mirror his head coach’s. McNabb, perhaps unfairly, served as the calm spokesperson for controversial team decisions in the media. After the 2004 season and the fallout from the Terrell Owens disaster that began to sprout up in 2005, McNabb’s job security and long-term status with the team were questioned far more regularly than those of other quarterbacks of his stature. Eagles fans actually spent time debating whether a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback should be benched for the likes of Mike McMahon or A.J. Feeley, arguments that seem almost comically naive in hindsight.

In fact, Reid’s ability to handle his quarterbacks and know exactly when to move along serves as one of his biggest strengths. In virtually every case, Reid dealt a quarterback available to him away at exactly the right time, commanding a larger-than-deserved bounty while giving up a player who struggled mightily elsewhere. Feeley threw 168 middling passes with the Eagles before the Dolphins gave up a second-round pick for him; he lasted half a season there before being benched and let go. Reid dealt McNabb to the Redskins for a second-round pick, and he didn’t even last a full season as the starter in Washington. He made it to Minnesota and got six starts there before being benched. That opened up an opportunity for Kevin Kolb, but when Kolb got hurt and lost his job to Michael Vick, Reid extracted a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has been Philly’s best defender this year. And, yes, he signed Vick off of the scrap heap for nothing and turned a quarterback who had been wildly inefficient in Atlanta into one of the league’s most valuable properties until the bottom fell out this year. In virtually every case, Reid sold high on his quarterback and got significant value for a player who was way worse outside of Philadelphia than he was in town. Some of the credit for that simply has to go to Reid.

But, oh, that passing game. It eventually became the subject of derision in Philly, as fans and media members alike groused that the Eagles simply didn’t run the ball enough. Graphics departments churned out misleading cause-and-effect charts noting that the Eagles were 373-1 if they would just run the ball 35 times per game (without realizing that the Eagles would exclusively run the ball that frequently in games where they were ahead and killing clock). In reality, though, Reid’s Eagles didn’t fail because they weren’t running the ball frequently enough. If anything, throwing the ball that frequently contributed to their success! Reid’s pass-heavy attack anticipated the coming shift to pass-happy offenses and shotgun-reliant attacks that showed up toward the end of the last decade.

The league is throwing passes on 56.4 percent of their offensive plays this year, which represents the highest rate that’s shown up during Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia. That’s actually just below Reid’s average pass rate of 57.0 percent, but it’s not a sign that Reid threw too much. The simple facts are that passes produce more yardage than run plays do: The average first-and-10 pass in a 14-point-or-fewer game last year produced 8.0 yards per attempt, even after you consider all the incompletions. Run plays averaged a mere 4.5 yards per attempt. You don’t want to throw the ball on every single first down because the first figure is larger than the second one, but it’s also clear that the equilibrium between the two figures — the point at which both figures are maximized for the largest possible gain on first down by your team — has yet to be reached.3

In addition to creating more big plays, that allowed the Eagles to build their offense around an undervalued asset class, specifically the undersized pass-catching running back. It would be years before teams like the Saints started doing the same. The Eagles were able to get Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy in the middle of the draft, pay them below the market rate on extensions, and keep them relatively healthy by managing their workload and avoiding runs into the middle of the line for no gain. When you consider just how bad the Philly receivers used to be — the 2001-03 teams went 34-14 while starting James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, and Chad Lewis at the three receiver spots — and how much the Eagles invested in the trenches on either side of the ball, it’s clear to see just how traditional the Philadelphia model was. The Eagles were (at least in the early days of the Reid era) building their team through the lines out. The only difference was that they were building it for a modern, pass-oriented league.

The one place where Philadelphia’s run woes hit home most fervently was in the red zone, where the Eagles became the league’s running joke over the past two seasons. Before the days when Ronnie Brown would debate whether to run or pass the ball as he was falling down, though, the Eagles were actually a very good team in the red zone. Teamrankings.com’s red zone stats begin in 2003, at which point the Eagles actually had the league’s seventh-best red zone offense, a rate that would improve to fourth in 2004! The Eagles were 12th in 2005 and 2006, but fell off to 25th in 2007 and 2008 before two years around league-average. In 2011, though, the Eagles actually weren’t terrible in the red zone. They scored touchdowns on 51.5 percent of their drives inside the 20, which was good enough for 14th in the league; bad, but not bad enough to become a cause célèbre. Through Week 14 of this season, though, they were 27th in red zone touchdown percentage.

The biggest factor in all that is that when most teams don’t score touchdowns, they normally just settle for field goals. The Eagles were (and have been) replacing the “settle for field goals” part with “catastrophically give the ball away.” Since 2007, the Eagles have turned the ball over 28 times in the red zone, which is the largest total for any team in football. If you adjust it for the number of plays the Eagles have run in the red zone, they have the second-highest turnover rate in the red zone in football, ranking behind the lowly Rams.4

So if it wasn’t the obsession with throwing the ball or the red zone performance that brought the Reid Era to its conclusion, what was it? Well, just based on Philadelphia’s points scored and points allowed totals from season to season, it seems fair to say that a defense that routinely ranked below league-average had more to do it with than a top-10 offense. And there, the soft causes seem obvious.

The team never recovered from the death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson; since Johnson left the team and passed away, an Eagles defense that ranked fourth during Johnson’s final year with the team has ranked 19th or worse in points scored during three of the four ensuing seasons. The only year when that wasn’t the case was 2011, when Juan Castillo was scapegoated for the failure of the “Dream Team”‘s defense, despite the fact that the Eagles ranked 10th in points allowed. I wasn’t immune to this, either, but it sure seems a lot clearer when you consider how bad the Eagles have been since they fired Castillo during the bye week this year. Castillo’s predecessor, Sean McDermott, was also fired under murky circumstances before the 2011 lockout.

On a personnel basis, the Eagles seemed to get soft up the middle. After trying myriad options at middle linebacker as a long-term replacement for Jeremiah Trotter, they eventually settled on DeMeco Ryans, but Ryans hasn’t been enough to stem the tide this year. Even more noticeable has been Philly’s inability to replace Brian Dawkins, who was allowed to hit free agency in 2009. While Dawkins only had one good year in Denver before getting hurt and playing at a subpar level, the Eagles have cycled through umpteen draft picks (Jaiquawn Jarrett) and veterans (Marlin Jackson) at both safety spots in an attempt to find even competent play. It’s instead become the bugaboo of the Philly defense, with the big play coming against them far too frequently. Over the past two years, only the Saints and Raiders have allowed more plays of 40 yards or more than the Eagles have.

The biggest reason why the Reid Era went down, though, was that the big-name free agents they brought in simply failed to live up to expectations. Outside of perhaps Asante Samuel, the big money the Eagles threw out in free agency at veteran superstars just didn’t result in a commensurate return. Although everybody remembers the Eagles adding Terrell Owens for the 2004 season, their equally notable signing on the other side of the ball was Jevon Kearse, who never showed the burst that got him the “Freak” nickname after his 14.5-sack rookie campaign with Tennessee. Years later, when the Eagles went all-in to sign Nnamdi Asomugha and upgrade their secondary with arguably the league’s best cornerback, they ended up signing a player who wasn’t his old self. If Kearse is at his peak level as a pass rusher in 2004, maybe it’s enough to swing the Super Bowl over to Philly’s side. And if Asomugha was the shutdown cornerback the Eagles expected, maybe they produce a top-five defense and win those games against the Bills and 49ers at the beginning of last season and work their way into the playoffs. As much as Reid’s time with the Eagles is associated with the lengthy tenure of McNabb at quarterback, its end will be associated with the failures of Asomugha and Vick.

With that being said, there’s clearly too much good here for Reid to be seen as a failed head coach.5 He was the best coach the Eagles have had during the modern era of football by a fantastically wide margin, and both his longevity and his effectiveness suggest that he’s one of the best coaches of his generation. It’s also foolish to believe that he’s done. If he wants to come back to coaching (and reports say that he does), he would be at the top of the list for many of the league’s coach-needy teams. There’s a track record of guys who fizzled out after a long run with one team immediately succeeding elsewhere, too. John Fox followed a 2-14 year with the Panthers by going to Denver and winning two consecutive AFC West titles. Tom Coughlin peaked at 12-4 and had three years of below-average football before being let go by the Jaguars, but when he caught on with the Giants, he had them in the playoffs in two years. It may take another chance with another team for people to realize just how valuable Reid is as a head coach. And it may take an inferior new head coach in Philadelphia for Eagles fans to realize how lucky they were to have Andy Reid all these years.

Filed Under: Andy Reid, Bill Barnwell, People

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell