Rich Hofmann | PRIME TIMING

Reid must wait until McNabb is ready to bring him back, and then stick with him

IF PEOPLE TOOK a second to stop talking about the punt, if they thought about the most important development of the second half of the Eagles' season and not that one play at the end, most would say that it was the demonstration to Andy Reid and to everyone that Brian Westbrook can carry a big load at running back and that the offense works well when that happens.

This will be a theme next season and you can count on it. It would be crazy for Reid to turn his back on Westbrook now, even when Donovan McNabb returns as quarterback. He probably won't turn his back on him, either - because Reid had begun to increase Westbrook's touches even before McNabb got hurt in the 10th game of the season.

There is a bigger issue, though. There is a bigger development from the second half of the Eagles' season, when they crawled back from 5-6 to last Saturday night in the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints.

It is simple, but it is fundamental:

Because of the second half of the season, Andy Reid isn't on the clock. His job is not at issue. The overall stability of the franchise is not in question. It is a huge thing.

Now, you could talk to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie or club president Joe Banner, and they would deny this up and down. They would say this is a total non-issue, not worth talking about, something that would never have been considered. They can say that all they want and have the perfect what-if deniability.

But if this team had limped home at 7-9, or something like that, Reid was going to be on the clock.

If the Eagles had followed up their 6-10 season of 2005 - when Reid and the rest of them so badly miscalculated the damage that Terrell Owens could do to the structure of their team - with another season of staggering unfulfillment, the happy chubby guy was going to be the highly scrutinized happy chubby guy. There was no way around it.

You lose once, you blame it on T.O.

You lose twice, you blame the players.

You lose three times, you kill the coach.

Game, set, Schottenheimer.

Now, all of that is no longer a relevant topic. The Eagles are as stable as they come in the NFC East right now. In Dallas, the whole Bill Parcells/T.O. dynamic has not been resolved. People think Parcells is staying but no one knows for sure. In New York, head coach Tom Coughlin has been given a 1-year contract extension and is in full survival mode - firing both coordinators, which essentially points the finger elsewhere as he tries to impress the team's new general manager. The whole thing just reeks of desperation.

The Eagles don't have any of that now with Reid. And know this: You do not want a head coach who is looking over his shoulder this year, or listening to the people in the stands this year.

Not this year, the year of McNabb's return.

This is really going to be a tricky bit of business for Reid. There are going to be hard decisions all summer for Reid, and maybe into the fall. They are hard because of a simple imperative: McNabb cannot be allowed to fail.

Assessing his health after knee surgery and months of rehabilitation will be the first task. They cannot afford to rush him, no matter how much McNabb wants to be there for training camp. He is a competitive guy and he saw what Jeff Garcia did in his absence and he undoubtedly thinks that the best way to get himself ready will be to crouch behind the center on Day 1. And that might be true - but only if McNabb is really and completely healthy.

Because he cannot be allowed to fail.

Reid is going to have to time this just right, and later is better than sooner. And once McNabb is in there, through the playcalling - more Westbrook, please - and through everything, Reid is going to have to be both prudent and patient and tailoring everything toward making McNabb look good.

Patient, prudent - those are not the usual characteristics of a coach on the clock. That is why the second half of the Eagles' season was so important. Reid is going to get exactly one shot here to get the McNabb thing right - for McNabb's sake most of all. If he were to start to yo-yo between McNabb and Garcia, he would end up strangling McNabb in the twine.

He needs to wait until McNabb is ready and then he needs to stick with him - and, all the while, the team is going to be playing games, winning or losing, with all of the emotions and such that accompany the ups and downs of a season, and all of the chanting from the crowd.

Repeat, repeat, repeat: McNabb cannot be allowed to fail. And now, at least you have a coach who can spend next season worrying about that and not himself. *

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