The Kansas City Chiefs come to Philadelphia on Thursday night. It will be special due to the return of Andy Reid and the retirement of Donovan McNabb's jersey number. These two men are a huge part of Eagles history. It is only fitting to honor McNabb on a night when Reid will be in town. They are one of the most successful player-coach combinations in NFL history. You can't talk about one without talking about the other.
Reid Brought A Plan, A Vision
There is a lot of hype and excitement around the Eagles right now. The last time anything felt quite like this was 1999 after the arrival of new head coach Andy Reid and his rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb. They joined a losing franchise. Reid and McNabb brought with them talent, strong character and, most of all, hope.
The Eagles had a losing record in 1997, but were in the hunt for the division crown as late as December. 1998 was a total disaster, as the team went 3-13. Beyond that, the offense only scored 161 points and was shutout three times. There were another couple of games where the team only scored three points. For almost one-third of the season, the Eagles produced a field goal or less. Let that sink in for a moment.
Things were very depressing after 1998. Ray Rhodes had gone from coach of the year to being fired. Bobby Hoying went from franchise quarterback to a player who was benched for Koy Detmer. Not a lot felt good about the Eagles organization. There were some talented pieces in place, but there were no offensive weapons and the previous staff had been unable to manufacture points/yards through playcalling and play design. What good is having Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Brian Dawkins if your offense is awful and literally not competitive? The Eagles needed serious help.
Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner set out to find a coach for the Eagles. The big kahuna was Mike Holmgren, the man who had developed Brett Favre and led the Packers to a Lombardi Trophy for the first time since the days of the trophy's namesake. I hoped and prayed that Holmgren would come to Philly. He started his tour off in Seattle, but I told myself that no smart coach would choose that organization over the Eagles. Oops. Owner Paul Allen made Holmgren an offer he couldn't refuse, leaving the Eagles with "lesser" targets to pursue.
The favorite was Jim Haslett. He was the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh at the time, and good friends with Eagles general manager Tom Modrak from their days together with the Steelers. Haslett seemed like a shoo-in. But a funny thing happened. Banner and Lurie did their due diligence and one of the guys they talked to was Green Bay assistant (and Holmgren protégé) Andy Reid.
Reid knocked their socks off with his interview. He was extremely well prepared and organized. The biggest thing is that Reid had a plan. He brought with him a blue binder that had all sorts of information. There were lists of assistant coaches he would hire. There was already a Training Camp schedule laid out. Knowing Reid, there might have been a page in there on how to handle a zombie attack.
During the Rhodes era, the Eagles were an organization that lived by the moment. There was no long-term vision. There was no plan. Rhodes did a great job with that for two years, but you can't sustain success like that. Lurie wanted to find a coach who had vision and understood how to build a successful organization, not just a good team for the current year. Reid turned out to be the perfect candidate.
Where Rhodes had loaded up on veterans and lived through free agency, Reid wanted a young team that was built through the draft. Undrafted free agents were going to become more of a focus. Reid wanted young players who could be developed, so that they would stay Eagles for several years and there would be some continuity. There was way too much change in the Eagles lineup throughout the 1990s. That had to stop.
Reid put together what would be a phenomenal coaching staff. Guys like Brad Childress, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Steve Spagnuolo, Pat Shurmur and John Harbaugh all went on to become head coaches. Jim Johnson never left the Eagles after being hired as defensive coordinator, but he was a great assistant and a key reason Reid and the Eagles had so much success. Johnson went from being an under-the-radar coach to being considered a great defensive mind. To this day, coaches study his blitzes.
Reid worked well with Banner and Modrak in putting together plans for free agency and the draft. The biggest decision was what to do with the second overall pick in 1999. Many fans wanted the team to go with running back Ricky Williams. Reid was set on finding a quarterback and had his sights on Donovan McNabb, the star player from Syracuse.
It truly is amazing how a hopeless organization in January 1999 was on the path to success by the following summer. Reid was there to run the team. He designed and installed a great offensive system. Johnson was there to run the defense. Harbaugh ran the special teams. As important as anything, the team had a franchise quarterback in McNabb. That meant they had a true shot to be competitive for a while. This foundation led to great success during the Reid era.
1999 was all about decisions. Lurie made the right one when he hired Reid, who made the right ones in putting together his staff. He made the right one in drafting McNabb. He made good decisions in how he developed McNabb. Those decisions weren't always easy or popular, but they turned out to be great. They led to a lot of wins and a special time for the Eagles.
McNabb Was A Special Talent
The Eagles had a franchise quarterback in Randall Cunningham. Sports Illustrated once dubbed him "The Ultimate Weapon." But just a few years later, Cunningham was benched for Bubby Brister. That's like cancelling a date with Kate Upton to stay home and watch Law & Order re-runs on TNT. If you made that statement in 1990, you'd have been locked away in a padded room.
Cunningham didn't get proper coaching. Buddy Ryan was a defensive genius, but he had no idea how to handle quarterbacks. Cunningham developed bad habits because of this (on and off the field) and his career fell apart at the end. He was benched for an aging Jim McMahon in 1992, Brister in 1994 and finally Rodney Peete in 1995.
McNabb was lucky that Reid, Childress and Rod Dowhower had a plan for how to develop him. They coached him up. They taught him how to run the West Coast offense in a consistent, disciplined way. They developed good habits for McNabb in terms of practice and preparation. They preached ball security and he focused on that. The coaches also let McNabb be McNabb. They didn't force him into a rigid offensive system. Improvisation was viewed as a plus, as long as it didn't get over-used.
Doug Pederson was the Eagles starter for the first nine games of 1999. This bothered some fans and media, but Reid had his plan. He was getting McNabb into games and letting him get a feel for the NFL. McNabb's first start came on November 14 against Washington. The Eagles won 35-28, but McNabb hardly had a magical day. He threw for 60 yards and ran for 49. The Eagles ran for 198 yards and had a kickoff return touchdown. Washington had six turnovers and the Eagles took advantage. No matter how or why, seeing the team score 35 points was mind-blowing. After the first four games of the previous year, the Eagles had scored a total of 36 points. They never scored more than 21 in 1998. The 1999 team was still flawed, but at least was able to put points on the board from time to time.
McNabb looked like a rookie in 1999. His talent was undeniable, but so was his youth. The key is that he learned from his mistakes. McNabb listened to his coaches and worked hard to make himself a successful quarterback. Cunningham had settled for being a star. McNabb wanted to be a great quarterback.
2000 is when the McNabb era truly started. He was the full-time quarterback and carried the team on his back. Duce Staley got hurt early in the season so it was up to McNabb to make things happen as a runner and passer. He led the Eagles in rushing (629 yards) and passed for 21 touchdowns. The Eagles finished 11-5. They hosted the Buccaneers in a Wild Card playoff game and won. All this just in Year 2? Yep. McNabb was truly a special player.
He evolved as a player each year. Antonio Freeman was added to the roster as a receiver in 2002 and I think helped McNabb a lot. Freeman was the first good slot receiver for McNabb and that opened up the middle of the field. McNabb was off to a strong start that year, but broke his leg in Week 10 and missed the rest of the regular season.
In 2004, the Eagles acquired Terrell Owens and for the first time McNabb had a go-to receiver. The two of them worked brilliantly together and suddenly the deep ball became part of the Eagles' arsenal. McNabb threw for 31 touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 104.7, both career highs. McNabb led the Eagles to the Super Bowl that year.
McNabb continued to be a successful, productive quarterback through the end of his career, but injuries became a factor after 2004. A bruised chest and sports hernia limited him to nine games in 2005. There was a torn ACL in 2006. There was an ankle injury in 2007. Finally, there was a rib injury in 2009.
There are many great highlights from McNabb's career. One of my favorite memories is something completely off the radar. In the playoffs following the 2008 season, the Eagles had to play at Minnesota. The Eagles trailed 16-14 at halftime. The Vikings pinned the Eagles at their 5-yard line early in the third quarter. A quick series would have given the Vikings great field position. Instead, McNabb led a 12-play, 52-yard drive. It didn't result in points, but did flip the field and put pressure on the Vikings.
The teams traded possessions and the Eagles were pinned at their own 4-yard line to start the fourth quarter. McNabb led the Eagles on an 8-play, 47-yard drive that once again flipped the field. The next possession finished with a screen pass that Brian Westbrook took 71 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Eagles the lead and they never looked back. The two possessions where the Eagles flipped the field on the Vikings were huge. The game stayed close. The long drives also kept Adrian Peterson on the bench.
The thing that sticks out to me on those drives is that there were third-down passes where McNabb had dropped back into the end zone to pass. He stood there calmly and went through his progressions. Both times he hit
It seemed like McNabb's career happened in the blink of an eye. From the smiling kid to the superstar to the polished veteran. McNabb was a special Eagle.
Reid, McNabb Changed The Organization's Image
The Eagles never did win a Super Bowl with Reid or McNabb. Too many people focus on that fact and don't celebrate what they did accomplish. The Eagles won five division titles. They went to the playoffs eight times. McNabb was 9-7 as a playoff starter. Cunningham was 1-5 and Vick is 0-1 with the Eagles.
Reid and McNabb had a tremendous impact on the Eagles in other ways. Their success helped get Lincoln Financial Field built. They helped make the Eagles into an organization that people want to work/play for. Free agents didn't want to come to the Eagles in the late 1990s. They used the Eagles as a bargaining chip to get better offers elsewhere. Now, the Eagles are a priority destination. Players want to come here.
Maybe the biggest thing of all is that they helped create a sense of family. Reid's former players love him. He let them know that no matter how things turned out on the field, he cared about them as individuals. This didn't happen under Buddy Ryan, Rich Kotite or Ray Rhodes. Reid truly cares for his guys, whether they were Eagles or had moved on to another team. Think about how many former Eagles returned to the team late in their careers. Think about how many got involved with coaching or doing something with the Eagles. Reid made people want to be part of the organization.
Part of the credit for that goes to McNabb. He wasn't the typical prima donna quarterback who alienated some teammates. McNabb had an infectious personality and bonded with other players. He invited them to his home in Arizona for offseason workouts. Any game in Chicago meant a home-cooked meal from his mother for the whole team. There truly was a sense of team, of family.
I was lucky enough to get to enjoy the Reid-McNabb era. I'll be excited to see them return on Thursday. We'll celebrate McNabb's career and the Eagles will play against Reid's Chiefs. Hopefully, some of his former players will make big plays, kick his butt during the game and then go give him a huge hug afterward. Big Red is the enemy during the game, but as soon as the clock hits zero, he goes right back to being an Eagles legend.