PHILADELPHIA -- A tingle rippled up Philadelphia's spine on Monday. It pulsated with the only sensations that still cause a rush in this region of numbed sports fans. It was a tingle of change, of controversy, of someone new to fret, obsess and complain about.
"Right now we're with Michael, and that's what we're doing," Eagles coach Andy Reid said in Monday's typically arid press conference. Then came an extra phrase, like a gentle fingernail along the small of the back: "We'll evaluate as we go."
Philadelphia sports fans -- and columnists, bloggers, and radio personalities -- long ago mastered the art of extracting deep meaning from tiny kernels of information, like squeezing oil out of sunflower seeds. To hear Andy Reid say, "We'll evaluate as we go," was to hear church bells ringing, old air-defense sirens howling, bullhorns crackling from street corners. "The Nick Foles era is upon us. Please report to the local sporting goods store for jersey fittings."
Reid backtracked later during his radio program, suggesting that he misspoke in the final moments of the press conference. "Michael Vick is my quarterback," he said. "Period." Balloons do not un-pop. Toast does not un-burn. Statements like "evaluate as we go" are not said about Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Eli Manning after a loss. The tingle does not recede down the spine and disappear from memory.
Just two years ago, Reid spent September wavering between Vick and Kevin Kolb, then the anointed, unquestioned heir apparent. Reid backed Kolb, then backed down. Kolb got the vote of confidence. Vick got the starting job.
The Vick Epoch is ending the same way it started just 24 months ago: a battered, confused starter, an indecisive coach, a promising season in jeopardy and an angry mob demanding a fresh sacrifice.
If you are a quarterback, there is an easy three-question test to determine if Eagles fans like you:
1. Are you currently the backup quarterback?
2. Have you ever led the team to a Super Bowl victory?
3. Are you a once-vilified starter who has been retired more than 10 years?
The second question is a trick: No quarterback has ever led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory. If you answer "yes" to questions one or three, Eagles fans like you. Otherwise, you are soap scum.
Only a handful of individuals can answer "yes" to question three: Ron Jaworski, Randall Cunningham, some borderline cases like Ty Detmer. Philly quarterback hatred has a half-life of about 2½ years, so it takes a decade to decay to tolerable levels. Only one person can answer "yes" to question one right now: Nick Foles, the preseason rookie sensation who remains an ornately wrapped package of hopes and dreams until the moment Reid evaluates otherwise.
This is not a Philadelphia phenomenon. Every young backup quarterback is a debutante. Philadelphia has just done it longer, louder, with more scorn and less patience than other cities. Some of the antics have been overblown to urban legend status (the Santa Claus thing was during the LBJ administration, folks), but even the biggest apologist for Philly Phaithful (guilty) must admit that they came by their reputation honestly. Fans vilified Jaworski and screamed for Cunningham (in one 1978 playoff game, after Jaws led the team to its most successful season in nearly two decades, they chanted for someone named John Walton). They demanded Rodney Peete over Cunningham, Detmer over Peete, Bobby Hoying over everyone and everything for a few heady days one regrettable December.
And then there was Donovan McNabb. The Delaware Valley region still teems with McNabbers. McNabbers are people who weren't just disappointed by McNabb's 11-year tenure as the Eagles' quarterback, but are convinced that he was actually a terrible player, that the Eagles reached multiple conference championship games and a Super Bowl despite his bumbling incompetence, and that Reid sabotaged the promising career of A.J. Feeley (who spent many years answering "yes" to question one) because of a stubborn need to justify his selection of McNabb with the second pick of the 1999 draft. This isn't some fringe opinion culled from the weirdest message board on the Internet. I heard it discussed at the corner coffee shop last week, and at a wedding last month, and on WIP radio from 2005 until last September, when Kolb's failures upstaged McNabb and paved the way for Vick.
Two years later, Vick's failures just upstaged Kolb's radar blip of success, and Foles stands ready for his turn in the huddle and down the well. Foles looked solid in August, and is as eager for his shot as any rookie, though if he learned the lesson of Feeley, a tiny part of him should want to remain on the cusp of the starting job forever, answering "yes" to question one while Vick endures both the metaphorical and physical pain.
The Microverse of Failure
Michael Vick is a man besieged on all fronts right now.
He has endured 28 hits so far this season, not counting his 21 carries, many of which end in a collision. All of this after a preseason in which he took 12 snaps and needed two MRIs.
Vick takes too many hits because he runs a lot. He takes too many hits because the Eagles' offensive line is injury-riddled and Reid's offensive philosophy necessitates 50 passes per game. He also takes too many hits because he is his own worst enemy, too confident in his own (slightly diminished) athleticism, too reluctant to dump off a short pass while the potential for razzle-dazzle exists.
Vick is getting hammered on the field. He is getting hammered by fans and experts, which prompted him to defend himself after an ugly season-opening performance against the Browns: "It's all just talk. It's all speculation. It's everybody saying what they don't know anything about."
That's the last defensible ground for a quarterback: You aren't in the huddle, you aren't on the field, you have no idea why I threw that pass directly into the linebacker's belly. It's juvenile, the teenage you just can't relate to me routine, and it is unbecoming a 32-year-old who has been from video game covers to prison and back, someone who should be mellowing into the reliable, dignified portion of his career.
Vick always walked his own path, but now he is rolling down the cliff that claimed so many Eagles quarterbacks and Philadelphia sports stars before him. There was the euphoria of 2010, then the seeping regret of the Dream Team, then the arrival of Foles, the Next Big Thing. The switch flipped for good with six seconds left before halftime against the Cardinals, when Vick ignored a blitz, held the ball too long, absorbed a brutal hit, coughed up the football and punctuated the inauthenticity of the Eagles' 2-0 start. The play was a microverse of failure, a death knell for an era.
That is why Monday's tingle felt so electrifying. With the end of one futility cycle comes the promise of the start of the next.
The Life Raft
Despite Reid's best efforts, the tingle is still tangible. Philadelphia's eyes are on Michael Vick, and on Reid, the only man in the Delaware Valley who wears a bigger target than Vick. There are only two opinions being offered on the radio shows and message boards: Blame Vick for his play, or blame Reid for Vick's play. Both have equal merit, and Philly sports arguments, which usually erupt into border skirmishes, now end when both sides realize they are talking about the same thing in two slightly different ways.
That's why a little phrase like "evaluate as we go" can make the pupils dilate. Eagles energy has become Eagles entropy. When a 27-6 loss to the Cardinals finds America's angriest sports city on autopilot, it's time to start over. Even Reid cannot bury that fact beneath clichés and platitudes.
"I know he tried to clarify his remarks," legendary football writer Ray Didinger said of Reid on local television. "But it would have been very easy for him, when he was asked the question about Mike, to simply say, 'Hey, Mike's our quarterback. … The way he answered it clearly left the door open."
Didinger, Philadelphia's designated lone voice of reason on Eagles matters, added that the door should be left open. "That's entirely justified. You can't continue to keep turning the ball over at the rate that this offense and this quarterback are turning it over, and expect that you are going to win."
Reid has no choice but to keep the doors open. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie made his "evaluate as we go" speech in January, and he was far less ambiguous, using words like "disappointing" and "unacceptable." The Reid era feels as over as the Vick era. Just as some Eagles fans are hoping Vick stays down after a sack, forcing Reid's hand, some are rooting against their favorite team, hoping that a sub-.500 finish will force Lurie's hand.
Reid has less job security than he has ever had in Philadelphia. "Evaluate as we go" means that he knows that the patience that served him well for the last decade could work against him now. "It tells us that he's open to maybe trying a life raft on for size if it's clear the main vessel is taking on too much water," wrote Tim McManus at The Philly Post.
Reid will bench Vick this season, unless some opponent does it for him. It will be national news. It will be the latest chapter in the Vick story, which has gone from epic to saga to Ring Cycle; the third, fourth, or 12th act in his ascension-damnation-redemption drama, however you keep count. When it happens, it will be one of the defining events of the NFL season, and a turning point in the history of a more-storied-than-successful franchise.
But for now, it is just a tingle. One every Eagles fan can feel.