Andy Reid: The New Bill Cowher/Secretly, a Walrus

STEVE KORNACKI: Andy Reid can’t win big games. We know this, supposedly, because he’s now coached in five NFC title games and lost four of them, and he also lost in his only Super Bowl appearance.

Of course, there’s another possibility, too: Andy Reid is just a good coach. And it just so happens that he hasn’t had much luck in conference championship games.

Especially when it comes to coaches, whose impact can be hard to measure at times, our sports culture likes simple narratives. For instance, when a coach hits his sixties and has a down year or two, it is decreed that he’s “lost the ability to relate to younger players” or that “the game has passed him by.” Columnists write it, talking heads on Around the Horn and PTI shout it, and the masses ape them all without questioning any of it.

They were saying this about Joe Paterno four years ago at this time. He was 78 years old. His Penn State team was fresh off a 4-7 season, which itself followed a 3-9 campaign. Over the previous five seasons, Paterno’s record was a woeful 26-39. The verdict was unanimous: the old man had stubbornly held on too long and plunged his once-proud program into a permanent decline. Penn State’s president pushed him to retire. Paterno resisted, insisting he was the same coach who’d won two national titles and posted five undefeated seasons. What was he, nuts?

The next season, Paterno, the guy who had lost touch with the game and his players, led Penn State to an 11-1 record, Big Ten title, Orange Bowl victory, and No. 3 ranking –  within one disputed last-second loss of perfection. Over the past four years, since his coaching obituary was written, Paterno is 40-11 with two Big Ten crowns, the sixth-best mark in college football over that span. Turns out, Paterno was a good coach all along. He just happened to have a few down years. It happens.

It also happens that good coaches – and great coaches – end up struggling in “big” games and get tagged, as Reid now has been, as choke artists. Sometimes, there is validity to the label. Anyone who witnessed Marty Schottenheimer’s bizarre decisions in the waning moments of his Chargers’ playoff loss to the Patriots two years ago saw a normally rational and level-headed man losing his poise under pressure. He behaved differently in that playoff game, and in so many others before it, than he did during the regular season.

But the evidence usually doesn’t fit nearly so neatly.

Take Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach. Before his 57th birthday, he was known as the classic Big Game Choke Artist. It started when his top-ranked 1983 squad, one of the most dominant ever assembled, was ambushed in the Orange Bowl by Howard Schnellenberger’s upstart Miami Hurricanes, losing 31-30 after Osborne opted to go for two after a potential game-tying touchdown.

That loss ushered in nearly a decade of big game futility. Between the 1986 and 1993 seasons, Nebraska lost every single bowl game it played in – four Oranges, two Fiestas and a Citrus, if you’re keeping score at home. Often, it was ugly. Conventional wisdom hardened: Osborne knew how to win in the feeble Big-8, but not on the big stage. Then something funny he happened: He started winning big games. Between 1994 and 1997, the Huskers won four straight bowl games – three Oranges and a Fiesta. Three times – in ’94, ’95 and ’97 – they claimed the national title (technically, it was shared with Michigan in ’97) and when Osborne retired after the ’97 season, no one was talking about how he couldn’t win the big games.

The same thing can happen in the NFL. Just look at Bill Cowher, who posted the exact same mark as Reid in his first five AFC title games, losing four (all of them at home) and winning just one (a still-debated victory over Jim Harbaugh’s 9-7 Colts in 1996). Everyone agreed: Cowher was no big game coach. Then came the 2005 season, when he guided the sixth-seeded Steelers to three road wins in the AFC playoffs and a Super Bowl victory over Seattle. Today, whenever a team has a coaching vacancy, its Super Bowl hungry fans openly pine for Cowher’s services.

I don’t see how it can’t be any different for Andy Reid. His record is remarkable – 10 season, 107 wins, five division titles, seven playoff berths, and always at least one win whenever his team has made the postseason. Unlike Schottenheimer, there is little evidence that Reid somehow changes his coaching technique as the pressure mounts. His playoff record is 10-7; Schottenheimer’s is 5-13.

And let’s look at those big games losses. Throw the 2002 NFC title game out. The Eagles played at St. Louis, a dominant team whose subsequent defeat in the Super Bowl is regarded as one of the biggest upsets of all-time. Ignore this year’s too; the Eagles were ambushed. Feeding off a deafening crowd, Arizona jumped to a big lead. Credit Reid with calming his team at halftime and spurring a second half comeback that nearly won the game.

That leaves the 2003 and 2004 conference title losses. On paper, both should have been wins. The Eagle game plan for both games was sound. To fit the “he can’t coach in big games” narrative, then, Reid’s critics would have to argue that his crime was more abstract – a failure to instill the proper mental attitude in his team, or something like that.

I have a better explanation: The hit-or-miss Donovan McNabb had a couple of bad days. In the 27-10 loss to Tampa in ’03, he fumbled it away twice and threw a pick-six in the waning minutes that padded the Bucs’ margin. In the 14-3 loss to Carolina the next year, McNabb tossed three picks and finished the game with just 100 yards of passing. I’d say those losses were on the QB.

Andy Reid has lost some big games. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to coach in them.

DAVE TOMAR: Last week, the Philadelphia Eagles were trounced in the NFC championship game by the once lowly Arizona Cardinals.  Larry Fitzgerald made a mockery of what had been the NFL’s stingiest defense, easing his way to a hat trick.  And for Eagles fans, what followed was a familiar sight.  The bedraggled looking quarterback whose brilliance will never remove questions about his conditioning, the spectators for the other team welling up with tears of joy, the verbally anemic coach mumbling impotent platitudes into a microphone.  Indeed, for those of us who, all grudges aside, recognize that the last 10 years have been numerically and practically, the best 10 in Eagles’ history, statistics don’t really compete with a deep psychic anguish concerning our civic loser-hood.  Nor do they really tell the story of Andy Reid, a big fat loser who usually wins.

Andy Reid’s tenure as head coach here has been marked with consistent success and epic failure, both invariably coming in the course of the same season.  In that regard, this past season was quintessential Reid, from the team’s dreadful performances (see its 13-13 tie to the Bengals, the NFL’s perennial short-bus) to its stunning rebounds (see its hilarious 44-6 dismemberment of the Cowboys, the NFL’s last remaining XFL team).  The highs and lows are complimented by Reid’s famously even-keeled stonewalling of the press, to which he is generally unwilling to show a scintilla of humanoid emotion, win or lose.

For many Philadelphians, it has taken a lifetime to warm up to this guy and any given Sunday to cool right back off.  That’s because in general, he gives you nothing.  You get no outbursts of resentment, no admissions of inadequacy, no strategic scrutiny.  And hell, why should we demand it?  Only Bill Belichick has a higher winning percentage amongst active coaches.  Nobody in Eagles history comes close to his 608% or his 5 conference championship appearances.  So how come this fat guy has such a hard time getting along with a city that uses Cheese Whiz as toothpaste?

Well, for all the success that Reid has managed to grease up and squeeze under a belt on its tenth homemade notch, it seems there is little room for a championship.  That space is occupied by an ample man-pouch and a lifetime supply of runner-up prizes.  Frankly though, it’s not good enough to come this close.  Football is a tiresome grind and I’d rather be spared the disappointment.

In the real world, you absolutely get to keep your job for the level of excellence achieved by an employee like Andy Reid.  But in the elite company of the NFL, this does not guarantee you a lifetime of viability amongst your peers.  By the way this season went, one has to image that his record has not earned Reid the respect of the coaching minds which he must face.  Coaches seem to know him, seem to understand his strategy and, more often then not, they know how to stop it.

Outscored in his championship bids overall by a margin of 112 to 89, Reid is one of the NFL’s least effective big-game coaches.  This is something to which those of us emotionally connected to the team will attest anecdotally, with the end of each season coming in the form of some crushing blow or another.  I think none of these losses has scarred our collective psyche so much as that 2003 NFC championship match-up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The same squad which had ushered the surging Eagles twice in two seasons through the opening round of the playoffs with benign generosity, a football team which had in its whole history never won a game in cold weather, systematically reduced the Eagles to a game plan.  The popular refrain with Reid is that once that game plan fails, he has nowhere to go.  Back then, former disciple and Tampa Bay head coach John Gruden knew it well enough to intellectually deconstruct his colleague, deflating a puffed up Philly pride and exposing a saggy underbelly to a team that seemed plated in armor for a whole season.  Now, it seems we are forever doomed to relive that moment.

With his most recent Championship failure, one has to believe that Reid has used up his best shots by now.  Donovan McNabb, a man forever linked to Reid’s fortunes and flaws, performed brilliantly in the second half of the 2008 season, overcoming injury, criticism and a controversial mid-season benching to further cement his legacy as the greatest quarterback the Eagles have ever seen.  And with Reid serving double-duty as the team’s stubborn head coach and equally stubborn GM, he has forced McNabb to do more with less than any quarterback in the game.  Thinking back to the names that have graced our receiving corps (Todd Pinkston, Torrance Small, James Thrash, Greg Lewis), I would be hard-pressed to accept the notion that T.O. is the only top-flight receiver available to the Eagles across a decade of quarterback brilliance.

Impossible.

Well, I guess if you only sit around and wait for the best Mormon wideout to appear on the market, it’s a couple of years between big free agent opportunities.  It’s like if Marv Levy had passed on James Lofton and Andre Reed so that Jim Kelly could throw to Fyvush Finkel and Mandy Patinkin.  Just between us, it’s no secret that Reid is not an equal opportunity employer.  There is a free pass for mediocre play amongst those who wear the special underwear of god.

A tangent, but still, another infuriating aspect of Reid’s philosophy.  His quality years are littered with examples of poor player personnel decisions, rigid gameday patterns, a notorious incapacity to adjust to opponents’ strategies and an unsportsmanlike unresponsiveness to the press.  He will go down as one of the great coaches the Eagles have seen.  But he will also never win a championship.  Knowing what you must of Philadelphia fans, which of these facts do you think will most define his legacy?

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