It is hard to grasp how things have gotten so bad for Andy Reid and the Eagles. A coach who once was reasonably compared to Bill Belichick is now just as reasonably compared to Rich Kotite and Ray Rhodes.
It doesn't seem possible.
It is almost as hard to comprehend how simple it would have been to avert this disaster.
The two things go hand in hand. In trying to figure out how the Eagles became incapable of competitive football against mediocre division rivals, you can't help noticing the whole mess would have been easy to avoid.
Reid isn't completely alone. Rex Ryan had the New York Jets in consecutive AFC title games. Eagles fans, still fond of his father, Buddy, had Ryan Envy. Now the Jets are as big a mess as the Eagles.
So it happens. How did it happen to Reid? Begin at the beginning.
One of the reasons Reid was hired in 1999 was his famous binder full of football. He had a remarkably detailed plan for building a successful program. And he executed it almost perfectly, drafting Donovan McNabb and hiring a coaching staff that combined experience (Jim Johnson, Rod Dowhower) with youthful energy (John Harbaugh, Brad Childress, etc.).
But that binder didn't cover Year 8, Year 10, Year 13. It couldn't. Neither Reid nor his mentor, Mike Holmgren, had ever been anywhere that long. Few coaches, even Super Bowl winners, last beyond seven or eight seasons.
The NFL isn't built for that kind of continuity. Neither is human nature. Winning coaches follow a pretty clear pattern: get hired, work insanely hard to build a contending team, reach a zenith, and then gradually slide back down.
For Jon Gruden, Mike Tomlin, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, that zenith was a championship. For Reid, it was reaching the Super Bowl after the 2004 season.
Very, very few coaches are able to turn that zenith into a plateau. Belichick has, to a point. The Patriots remain an elite franchise, but he hasn't won a Super Bowl since beating Reid eight years ago. Tom Coughlin has won two, but his Giants are maddeningly inconsistent every year.
When the slide started for his Eagles, Reid was unable to extend or reproduce the winning culture he had created in 1999. He'd reached the last page of his binder and had to start improvising. Unfortunately, he also strayed from the very principles that had worked the first time around, and no one in the organization had the will or the savvy to stop him.
It has been interpreted as arrogance or incompetence or both. Maybe Reid was just bored after that 2000-2004 run of excellence. Whatever it was, he started making more and more mysterious and unorthodox choices, and it has led to his downfall.
The sad thing is, if Reid had simply done the easiest, most obvious thing in most of those situations, the 2012 Eagles would almost certainly be a contending team.
If he'd just let Michael Vick sign elsewhere in 2009 and stuck with the transition from McNabb to Kevin Kolb (or found a successor elsewhere) . . .
If he'd only gone with an experienced, traditional talent evaluator instead of inventing a wunderkind GM in Howie Roseman . . .
If he'd simply made veteran Dick Jauron his defensive coordinator instead of flailing around with Sean McDermott and especially Juan Castillo . . .
If Jauron had been allowed to coach his way and not adjust to Jim Washburn's wide-nine . . .
If he'd stayed with the offensive line schemes that had worked for him for decades here and in Green Bay . . .
If the Eagles had just taken the obvious, consensus best players available (Joe Staley at left tackle, Michael Oher at right tackle, Earl Thomas at safety, Cameron Jordan at defensive end) at the top of recent drafts . . .
In every case, the easier, more obvious choice would have worked better than Reid's attempts to outsmart everyone. There's no way to be sure the Eagles would have gotten back to the Super Bowl that way, but you can be almost positive they wouldn't be the mess they are today.
What happened to Reid?
Contact Phil Sheridan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.