I was doing some research for a future column and something interesting occurred to me. Since the year 2000 the top three teams in the NFL have probably been the Patriots, Colts and Eagles. Where will the teams be in five years?
Tom Brady has been the driving force behind the Patriots' success. Peyton Manning has been the heart and soul of the Colts. What about the Eagles?
Donovan McNabb was our key player for most of that span, but there were times when he was hurt and the team won games without him. The 2006 team won a playoff game with Jeff Garcia at the helm. The transition from McNabb to Kevin Kolb didn't go exactly as planned, but it changed in a good way. Michael Vick came from out of left field (baseball players believe so, according to Sports Illustrated's poll this week) to emerge as one of the special quarterbacks in the league. He beat Manning head-to-head in 2010. He gets a chance at Brady in 2011.
What will happen to the Colts when Manning retires? They are starting to contemplate life without him and it's an intimidating thought. That was hardly a great franchise prior to his arrival. Can they replace him? Will they quickly descend into mediocrity? What about the Patriots? They went 11-5 without Brady in 2008. Was that an anomaly or can they do that again? Wes Welker had a great year and Randy Moss was still a difference maker back then. The offensive line was very good and the running game averaged 4.4 yards per carry. I'm always hesitant about betting against Bill Belichick, but I don't think a backup quarterback would post great numbers with the current set of Patriots skill players.
The Buffalo Bills were a great team in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s. They had multiple players who ended up in the Hall of Fame and other great players on both sides of the ball. The Bills got old together and that proved disastrous. They couldn't find good replacements for everyone and the organization has missed the playoffs for more than a decade straight. The biggest problem was trying to replace quarterback Jim Kelly. Buffalo drafted players, made trades and signed free agents. Nothing proved to be a long-term solution. The team now has journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm. He played well in 2010 and has given Bills fans reason for hope.
Building a winning team is hard. Maintaining that team is hard as well. Replacing the players and staying a winner is the ultimate challenge. You can't expect every move to work, but it is critical that you're right more than wrong. Think about the Eagles and quarterback moves. McNabb, A.J. Feeley, Garcia, Kolb and Vick were all good acquisitions. They cover up the misses like Andy Hall and Mike McMahon. Good quarterback play is crucial to staying a winner in the current NFL.
The Eagles have been good with tailbacks. Reid inherited Duce Staley and used him wisely. Correll Buckhalter looked like a stud runner until injuries limited him to a backup role. Brian Westbrook was a mid-round pick who became a special player. Now, LeSean McCoy looks to be on a similar path. There were some bumps in the road. Ryan Moats, Tony Hunt, and late-round picks like Thomas Hamner, Charles Scott and Bruce Perry didn't work out so well. But, again, they were late-round additions.
Not every position has been so good to the Eagles. The point is that things have worked out at the key positions and that is what has led the Eagles to stay a winner over time. Reid has always had a good left tackle to protect his quarterbacks. Cornerback has generally been a strength. Multiple defensive linemen have gone to the Pro Bowl in the Reid era. Reid and the Eagles focus on certain positions and make sure they are addressed aggressively.
Having good players at cornerstone positions is critical to withstanding lots of change. The Eagles have dealt with a lot of change over the years, both on the roster and the coaching staff. Think about all the assistant coaches that have gone on to new jobs. Think about the players who left, for one reason or another. If you walked in the NovaCare Complex back in 2001 and then today, you would not see a lot of the same faces. Still, the machine rolls on and the team wins year after year.
The Eagles have had a big-picture mentality since Reid arrived in 1999. Jeffrey Lurie, Joe Banner and Reid were all on the same page in terms of how to run the organization. They wanted to keep plenty of young coaches and players around. That way you were built for the long haul. Jon Gruden was the offensive coordinator of the Eagles from 1995 to 1997. He left in 1998 to go be the head coach of the Raiders. The Eagles offense fell apart. Head coach Ray Rhodes did not properly plan ahead.
The quarterbacks coach in 1997 was Sean Payton. That sounds great, but it was his first year in the NFL. Gruden was a great influence on him, but Payton wasn't ready to fill his spot when Gruden left. Gruden took offensive line coach Bill Callahan with him. That created a hole, but Juan Castillo was in place and ready to replace him. Rhodes brought in Dana Bible from outside the organization to run the offense. He was a veteran of college football, but had only four years of NFL experience and only one of those was as offensive coordinator. Bible was new to the Eagles and not exactly an NFL guru. He had a very young quarterbacks coach in Payton. He had a new offensive line coach in Castillo. Is it any wonder Bible struggled and had to be replaced late in the season? Rhodes didn't exactly put him in position to succeed. The talent on the field sure didn't help matters.
Rhodes knew that Gruden was a hot assistant coach. He should have had a successor ready to step in. That would have helped the 1998 team a great deal. Those Eagles still weren't about to win the Super Bowl, but the season didn't have to be the 16-game nightmare that it was.
Having young coaches and players in place is tricky. You never know how the timing will work out. I'm sure Reid was hoping to turn the Eagles defense over to Steve Spagnuolo. Jim Johnson was still going strong so Spagnuolo left for the Giants. That put Sean McDermott in line to succeed Johnson. Unfortunately, that situation didn't work so well for us. Not all plans will work. I do think you greatly increase your chances of succeeding by having a plan. That shows that you've spent time looking at the situation and evaluating your options. Better to do that than fly by the seat of your pants.
I am really curious to see how the Colts and Patriots fare when they finally have to face life without Manning and Brady. Depending on how they do it may make us appreciate Andy Reid as a head coach even more.
During the Reid era the Eagles have shown they can stand the test of time. Coaches have come and gone. General managers have come and gone. Plenty of players have come and gone. Heck, there have been major shifts in the game of football. The Eagles keep right on winning.
I know what the critics are screaming at their computers – still no Super Bowl wins. That will come in a few months. Whoa. What did I just write? The Eagles will win the Super Bowl? It is a sunny day in June. Of course, I expect the Eagles to win it all. We've got a loaded team. We aren't going to lose any impact free agents (because we don't have any). This is the time to be optimistic. Don't worry. For now, I'm digging the positive vibes and dreaming of that glorious day when we win it all and we see Reid carried off the field by his players.