Originally published on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 1999.
'Tis the season when total strangers come up to you in shopping malls and ask you what exactly is going on with the Eagles - and they don't tend to take a shrug for an answer.
They want predictions. They want a picture of the future and they want it painted with clarity. You tell them you thought you saw crystal balls in Aisle 9, next to the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Factory, but they are not deterred.
Boiled down, the questions all lead to the same point: Are the Eagles on the right track with Andy Reid as their head coach?
The answer comes in two parts:
1) We don't know.
2) The fact that we don't know might be a little bit uncomfortable, but it's typical, and it isn't an indictment of Reid.
It must be acknowledged up front that people aren't very happy with that answer. They want the sharp focus only hindsight can provide.
They see a football team that is young and competitive sometimes and miles away at other times. They see a defense that was a turnover machine at the beginning of the season but that can't sack quarterbacks anymore. They see a young quarterback trying to develop, but they also see a team without any game-breaking offensive weapons to support him.
Oh, and now he has a sprained knee.
They don't know what they see, a lot of them. Mostly, what they want is someone to tell them their suffering will be worth it. They want hope and they want certainty and they want it now.
After all, there are only six shopping days left until the bye week.
And, well, sorry. There will be no certainty here, only history. It might, though, offer you some comfort.
The two best coaches the Eagles have had in the last generation were Dick Vermeil and Buddy Ryan. Both took over massive rebuilding projects and both won division titles within a reasonable period of time - Vermeil in four years, Ryan in three. Both left indelible stamps on the franchise - Vermeil as the emotional, driven leader who took the team to its only Super Bowl before burning out, Ryan as the cocky talent evaluator who built a defense for the ages but whose personality got him fired before the job was complete.
The two of them, Vermeil and Ryan, presided over magical football times around here. The only point is, both had their critics as well. The truth is, after their first seasons as head coach - 1976 for Vermeil, 1986 for Ryan - it was impossible to predict they would end up being as successful as they were.
Vermeil's first Eagles team went 4-10. Vermeil's first team did not build to some great winning crescendo during the season. They won their final game of the year against the expansion Seattle Seahawks, but look at the five games before that, all losses: 17-14 at St. Louis, 24-3 at Cleveland, 26-7 against Oakland, 24-0 at Washington, 26-7 against Dallas. That was a stretch of hard games, true, but the Eagles were barely competitive. There was no obvious progress here. Those Eagles stunk.
When you look at who started for them that year, you see names such as Tom Sullivan and Mike Hogan, Blenda Gay and John Outlaw. Fewer than half of the players who would start for Vermeil's Super Bowl team were in place that first season, including quarterback Ron Jaworski.
He arrived from Los Angeles the following season. That first year, it was veteran Mike Boryla taking most of the snaps and even-more-veteran Roman Gabriel taking most of the rest.
Who knew? No one knew. People who were around that team talk about some nebulous tone being set by Vermeil in that first season, and maybe it's true on some level. But the reality is that it wasn't until 1978, the third season of rebuilding, with the arrival of running back Wilbert Montgomery and the maturing of Jaworski in his second full season as the Eagles' starter, that this team was ready to take a forward leap.
Reality: Before that, no one really knew. People hoped. People were optimistic largely because they were inspired by Vermeil's personality.
But no one really knew.
Now, move ahead a decade to Ryan's first team in 1986. That was this franchise's circus of the century and that's saying something, considering this is an often-hapless club that has quite-appropriately employed one Barnum (Leonard, a back from the early '40s) and five Baileys (David, Eric, Howard, Tom and Victor) over the years.
That 1986 team finished 5-10-1. It did show more of a logical moving-forward as the season progressed in that the losses did get closer, and those Eagles did go 2-1-1 in their last four games (with Randall Cunningham starting in place of the injured Jaworski). Still, the story of the season was disarray. There was no way to guess Ryan would get it turned around.
That was the season when the Eagles allowed 104 sacks, an NFL record that might never be broken. As with Vermeil's first team, fewer than half of Ryan's starters that first season would be starting when the team won the NFC East in 1988. Reggie White was there, but Jerome Brown wasn't. Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons were on the roster, but Joyner was an eighth-round draft choice who already had been cut once and re-signed and Simmons had been a ninth-round draft choice who hadn't started a game.
An outside event - the players' strike of 1987 - intervened and turned this into a team quicker than anyone could have predicted. Ryan told them to stay together and union reps White and John Spagnola somehow pulled it off, even with other teams breaking apart, even with Cunningham shedding tears in union meetings that he wanted to play. They became one and then they watched Cunningham explode onto the scene.
No one, though, predicted that those Eagles were on the verge of greatness in 1986. It was quite the opposite, actually.
Reality: No one knew.
Which brings us to Andy Reid and today. You watch him do some stuff and you can't understand it. You listen to him explain some stuff and you can't believe it. You forget there were days when Vermeil would become a blustering, unstable knot of emotions, and when Ryan aw-helled his way through Monday press conferences that left reporters with no choice but to consult their Mumbling-to-English dictionaries.
Reid is just like Vermeil and Ryan in that he will win when/if he gets some more talented players and when/if he gets those players some experience. All we know for sure is that Reid works for a franchise that has drafted about as badly as a franchise can draft over the period of a decade, and that you don't solve that kind of talent deficiency overnight, and that such a handicap doesn't augur well for a super-quick turnaround.