The Eagles were out of timeouts. They trailed by three points late in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. They had just scored a touchdown and executed a perfect onside kick, but time was running out. Donovan McNabb directed a 10-play drive, moving downfield fitfully, a few feet at a time. The Steelers tackled Brian Mitchell inbounds on third down at the Steelers' 25-yard line with 17 seconds left. It was fourth-and-three: The Eagles could not stop the clock.
The field goal unit raced onto the field, moving in formation like a Revolutionary War regiment. Holder Koy Detmer and kicker David Akers found their marks on the field like veteran stage actors. There were 15 seconds on the clock when the field goal unit left the sidelines. There were six seconds left when everyone was set. Mike Bartrum snapped the ball with three seconds left. "We practice that at least three times a week,'' Akers said after the game. "When the rest of the team is over on one field, Mike, Koy and I are on the other one working on it just for this situation.”
Akers’ game-tying field goal sailed through the uprights as the clock reached 0:00. Akers kicked another field goal for a 26-23 Eagles victory in overtime. The story of the game -- a second-straight overtime win by an upstart team coming off a 5-11 season -- was the precision and attention to detail with which young coach Andy Reid approached such mundane elements of football as getting the field goal team lined up quickly and properly. "You'd like to have 19 seconds on the clock. Fifteen is the absolute bottom," Reid said of the time needed to execute a late-game field goal, demonstrating a flair for minutiae. "We've done it so many times in practice that we knew we only needed 11 or 12 seconds," Akers said. "Coach Reid really lets us practice. We get 40 minutes a day, and that's a lot. Most teams get 15 minutes."
That was a long time ago: November 2000, the autumn of the hanging chad, the last days of dial-up. Robert Griffin III was 10 years old. Bill Belichick was a two-bit Bill Parcells wannabe coaching for a bad organization. And Andy Reid was a wunderkind capable of managing the clock down to the millisecond, his Eagles a team that flew in formation and won games by sweating the small stuff.
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Eagles fans saw a final glimpse of those old Eagles in Week 14. The Buccaneers led 21-10 midway through the fourth quarter, but the Eagles scored one quick touchdown, then rookie quarterback Nick Foles hit Jason Avant with a fourth down conversion to keep the game alive after the two-minute warning. But Avant was tackled at the one-yard line in the middle of the field with 16 seconds left and no timeouts. Foles hurried the Eagles to the line, everyone advancing in formation, and spiked the ball with two seconds left. Reid flipped his play chart in search of one final, perfect play: a Nick Foles pass to a sliding Jeremy Maclin in the front corner of the end zone. Eagles touchdown, Eagles win.
It was a rare moment of competence for the 2012 Eagles, an echo of a forgotten era. It was also a fleeting moment. Foles again marched the Eagles into the red zone in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter in Week 16, seeking a game-tying touchdown. This time, the rookie found no receivers open, panicked, and tossed the ball toward an offensive lineman. The intentional grounding penalty caused a 10-second clock run-off.
The final home game of Andy Reid’s coaching tenure would not end on a heroic final effort, but on a penalty. The team that could once execute a field goal in 11 seconds now wasted time. It was sadly fitting: Clock management and situational football had become such jokes in Philadelphia that younger fans might be shocked to learn that they were once Reid’s bailiwick. The NFL's longest-tenured coach at 14 seasons, Reid was reportedly fired as Eagles head coach, with an official announcement to come on Monday.
Before the so-called Dream Team, there was the team you would not dream was capable of making the playoffs. There was the young McNabb, not yet burdened by the Terrell Owens-Rush Limbaugh-talk radio nonsense that would cling to him for the second half of his career, a heads-up scrambler who sprayed the ball to an unimpressive set of weapons. Stanley Pritchett and Darnell Autry were the Eagles running backs when they beat the Steelers in 2000, along with the aging Mitchell. Torrance Small and Charles Johnson were the wide receivers. Reid cobbled an offense together from other teams’ roster filler and started them on a five-year playoff run because his detail-oriented system got the most from them.
The latter-day Eagles dripped with mismatched, disinterested talent. The Dream Team fiasco of 2011 brought the kind of big-name talent Reid would have killed for in 2000. It also brought about the collapse of the Andy Reid Eagles. The last two seasons have been an attempt to fit square pegs into USB ports. They have been about players and assistant coaches with their own agendas. The Eagles spent the last two seasons proving that Andy Reid’s organization was no longer organized. They tarnished memories of a team that did everything the right way, even when they did not do everything right.
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John Harbaugh, current head coach of the Ravens, was the special teams assistant who sent Akers and his coterie onto the field with 17 seconds left in 2000. Former Vikings head coach Brad Childress coached McNabb and the quarterbacks; current Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was in charge of Brian Dawkins and the secondary. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera handled linebackers, the recently fired Browns head coach Pat Shurmur was Childress’ assistant (the roles were reversed in 2012, when Childress was Shurmur’s offensive coordinator), and former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo was a quality control serf.
It was quite a roll call; a Dream Team, even. It also shows how long ago 2000 really was. Childress’ and Spags’ tenures came and went, Shurmur is out the door in Cleveland, Rivera may soon be fired by the Panthers, and only a superhuman effort by Adrian Peterson has saved Frazier’s job. Harbaugh has had the most success, matching Reid’s ability to come up just short in conference championship games, but he spent the final weeks of the regular season sloughing off loyal coordinators and watching the bloom wilt from the Ravens’ rose. The whole coaching House of Reid is falling away at once, and you need to peer back to 2000 to see why so many Reid acolytes became head coaching commodities in the first place.
That 2000 staff was talented and structured. The 2012 staff was a makeshift mess. Reid fired Juan Castillo, a loyalist who slid from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator simultaneously with the lockout and the Dream Team spending spree. Castillo was forced to learn his new job on the fly with limited practice time, sky-high expectations, and a roster of new faces that had never played together and had mismatched playing styles. His firing, the first “desperation move” of Reid’s 13-year career, came just as his system was starting to coalesce.
New coordinator Todd Bowles, thought to be the brains behind Castillo’s bumbling, was supposed to provide a spark, but he brought no new ideas to a defense with newly-crushed morale. Reid fired cantankerous defensive line coach Jim Washburn, whose autonomous style clashed with his coordinators. Meanwhile, the former Dream Teamers noticeably slacked; one, Jason Babin, was invited to seek employment with the Jaguars.
The firings were out of character for Reid. The coach who accepted full responsibility for every Eagles failing (to the point of press-conference monotony and self-parody) was tacitly passing blame to his subordinates. The buck-stops-here structure of Reid’s staff now had bucks stopping everywhere. The Eagles suddenly had dirty laundry, and it wasn’t isolated to a loudmouth receiver doing sit-ups in a suburban driveway. Where once even the long-snapper knew his exact place in the organization, suddenly Reid’s top lieutenants had doubts.
Two important faces from 2000 were absent in 2012. One was Garrett Reid, the coach’s son, who suffered an overdose and died in August. Garrett Reid’s drug problems became public in 2007, just as the Reid Eagles started their slow decline from a Super Bowl peak. The impact of a son’s illness and loss on a father is incalculable, but the man who built a lockstep organization in 2000 had fewer cares and a lighter burden than the man who watched his team collapse around him this autumn.
The other missing face is Jim Johnson, the defensive coordinator of Reid’s signature teams, who died in 2009. Reid tried to replace Johnson internally, first with assistant Sean McDermott (now in Carolina), then with Castillo. The cynic might think Reid was wary of hiring his potential replacement from outside the organization. More accurately, Reid was trying to maintain the sense of continuity from the Johnson-Harbaugh-Childress days, trying to maintain structure and keep the staff recognizable and familiar.
It was a doomed task. Empires had risen and fallen in the NFL since the Reid glory days. As soon as the brief rush from a few fluky September victories faded, Eagles headquarters and the locker room started to feel like haunted houses, some of the ghosts all-too literal.
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Eagles fans chanted Andy Reid’s name during that Week 16 loss to the Redskins. Outside the stadium, however, a tailgater with a karaoke machine and speakers loud enough to reach the stadium exits regaled Philadelphia with a rousing rendition of “Sha-na-na-na, Andy Reid, goodbye.”
That’s the dichotomy of Philly sports fandom: rancor mixed with sentimentality, the impassioned crowd within the stadium softening the pitchfork sentiments of the mob beyond the gates. The vast majority of dedicated fans are wishing Reid well as he moves on. The ones saying “good riddance” will command the most attention.
Somewhere, in San Diego or some other NFL city, in 2013 or 2014, Reid will return to the sideline, perhaps with a rebuilt coaching staff full of old faces like Shurmur. Time and distance, and the chance to start fresh, will serve him well. There will be no Dream Team, no McNabb and T.O., no Super Bowl disappointment, no daily retracing of the steps he walked with dear friends and family. No baggage. Reid will go back to doing what he did in 1999 and 2000: building from the ground up, measuring the field goal unit with a stopwatch. Andy Reid will lead some other team to the playoffs by constructing a sturdy organization, and by winning games with last-second precision.
When it happens, even the bitterest Eagles fans will enjoy a brief flashback to 2000, and remember how lucky they were to root for a team coached by Andy Reid.