ARLINGTON, Texas -- The way Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie looked at it a year ago, the end of a four-win season and the firing of a long-tenured coach was a hard time, yes, but also a time filled with possibilities. “When you’re down,” he said, “it gives you an opportunity to change things.”
We all know the change he made, from Andy Reid to Chip Kelly. After nearly 3 tortured hours on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, we all know the result. The Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys, 24-22, and won the NFC East in the process. The turnaround happened in a year, in a blink. The reward is a wildcard playoff game on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field against the New Orleans Saints.
And in a locker room full of exhausted smiles, on a night that Lurie admitted was “extremely nerve-wracking, and that would be an understatement,” the owner talked about the man he hired to replace Reid, the man to whom he entrusted his franchise.
“It was an outstanding coaching job,” Lurie said. “But I think the main thing was outstanding leadership, outstanding handling of an NFL team coming in, in every way -- showing leadership, motivation, class at all times, understanding where the players are coming from, instituting a new offense and defense, hiring great people.
“The main thing, when you change coaches -- and we do it so rarely -- is to institute a new program and a new culture. Can you get that across? Can you create it and then can you get it across?
“Tonight, winning the division in Chip’s first year, is spectacularly outstanding,” Lurie said. “But we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Minutes earlier, the whole thing was in serious doubt. Seasons come down to games in the NFL, and games come down to plays, and plays come down to seconds, and sometimes slices of seconds. And there we all were at AT&T Stadium, slicing seconds deep into the night.
Could the Eagles’ season really be coming down to this?
With 2 minutes left, the Eagles were punting the ball away to the Cowboys while only holding a two-point lead. It was not supposed to be this way. The Eagles were a touchdown favorite on the road against the Cowboys and their backup quarterback, Kyle Orton. This was to be their moment, their statement that the NFC East was going to belong to them, not just in coach Kelly’s first season as coach but into the future.
The statement was supposed to be as loud and as bold as the Eagles’ offense has been all season. That was the expectation. That the NFL routinely crushes expectations like soft fruit was barely acknowledged.
But there they were, punting -- punting and hoping that the defense could hold. It was 24-22 and the building was in full roar. It was 24-22 and the loser was going home for the winter.
And then it happened. With 1:43 left, Orton made the big mistake. He threw behind receiver Miles Austin on a pass over the middle and Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin stepped up and made the interception that effectively ended the game and put the Eagles into the playoffs.
“This was one win,” Lurie said. “I think everyone in this locker room treats it as an important win. We won the division. That opens the door to next week but that’s all it does...We’ve got to celebrate but we’ve got to celebrate in a way where it motivates us even more to succeed next week. That’s the key.”
Around the NFL, several coaches will be fired on Monday. One coach, Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski, was fired on Sunday night by old pal Joe Banner, fired after only one season. It is such an insecure business and such an inexact science.
Lurie, who does not do this very often, hit on Reid and now he appears to have hit on Kelly. He was painted by some as a crazed college coach whose ideas would not translate in the NFL, but the results are the results. LeSean McCoy leads the NFL in rushing and Nick Foles is a revelation at quarterback. His defense improved greatly after a rough start and his team won the division.
Kelly schemes so well on offense that other people are routinely incorporating his stuff as fast as they can into their game plans. But it’s more than that -- he clearly hired a great staff of teachers, and he also has done a fine job handling a pro locker room for the first time, from the Riley Cooper incident this summer, to the changing from Michael Vick to Foles at quarterback, to the multitude of little things that happen in every locker room, little things that we don’t know about because they were not allowed to become big things.
“There’s just so much to Chip,” Lurie said. “He’s obviously extremely bright, but what we really saw was that leadership at all times, whether we were riding high or riding low. Big obstacles, small obstacles, attention to the details -- but at all times, bringing people together. That’s what he does -- brings coaches together, brings players together. That’s what we were looking for.
“It’s not easy to change coaches and find a coach you really want to go after. That’s why we were patient and went after Chip.”
Honestly, I don’t think Lurie’s comments would have been much different if the Eagles had lost to the Cowboys. That Kelly has established himself, for now and for the future, is that obvious.
The only thing that changed was the smile on Lurie’s face -- that, and his repeated insistence that Chip Kelly’s first season as coach of the Eagles is not over.
DN Members-only: Join our weekly Daily News football picks contest to win big prizes.