Reid has made Birds fly

BEST COACH: By prospering in a difficult era, he has earned the right to be considered No. 1.

Posted: August 12, 2007

Ultimately, it is as difficult to compare coaches from different eras as players.

That became all too apparent as we tried to choose the greatest coach in Eagles history. Was it Earle "Greasy" Neale, the only Eagles coach to win two NFL championships, back in 1948 and '49? How about Buck Shaw, who won the last Eagles NFL title in 1960? Dick Vermeil established his credentials by resurrecting a wretched franchise and taking it to its first Super Bowl, after the 1980 season.

And then there is a fellow named Andy Reid. The current Eagles coach has the best winning percentage and most overall wins of any Eagles coach. He also is subject to the slings and arrows of outraged talk-show hosts, columnists and message-board messiahs for falling short of a Lombardi Trophy during his eight-going-on-nine-year tenure.

So how do you choose among these four sterling coaches? The process of elimination.

Shaw goes first. He was the Eagles' coach for just three seasons, and a lot of the credit for the 1960 season goes to quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and ironman Chuck Bednarik, a holdover from the '49 champions. And while the 1960 team won the Eagles' last NFL title, their postseason road consisted of just one game. In that era, there was the 12-game regular season and then the championship game. So Shaw won precisely one postseason game during his tenure.

That leaves Vermeil, Neale and Reid. Sorry, Dick, but yours is the next name off the list. To start with, Vermeil dumped us. At the time, his case of burnout was new and shocking and earned the sympathy of many fans. But the bottom line is that he walked out after rebuilding the franchise, leaving Eagles fans with Marion Campbell and then the fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying Buddy Ryan years. If Vermeil had stayed, the dominos don't fall that way, and modern Eagles history is completely different.

The fact that he unretired, went to St. Louis (of all places), and won his Super Bowl doesn't help Vermeil's case here one bit. Good coach? Great coach. Best coach in history? Rams history, maybe. That's up to them.

So now we're down to the tough call - Neale or Reid - and we're back to the problem of comparing eras. No matter how you evaluate the coaches, it is an absolute truth that they coached in radically different NFLs.

In the late 1940s, all American sports leagues were surging from an influx of the young athletic men who had been missing for four years while winning World War II. There were 10 teams in the NFL, which played a 12-game regular season and a short postseason: two rounds in 1947 (the first a division tiebreaker) and just one in '48 and '49.

You can't hold it against Neale that he won only four playoff games in his 10 seasons (including the co-coached "Steagles" of war-torn 1943). That's the nature of the league in which he coached. Besides, this was an era when a fresh idea - what Reid would call a "new wrinkle" in the game plan - represented an innovation in the sport as a whole. Neale introduced a new defense in 1947.

"Greasy's defense is still being used," said Bill Mackrides, the backup QB on Neale's championship teams. "No one had the four deep men before he put them in. To this day, everybody still uses that. The 5-2-4 which we had, and was called the Eagle defense, of course, changed because [Giants coach] Steve Owen was a good friend of his, except on game day when they played each other. [Neale] was looking for a different defense because he was getting hurt on passing. So what he did was he told them to take his six-man line, which he called the umbrella defense, and from the 6-1-4 evolved this 4-3-4."

Reid has a firm grasp on the latest West Coast offense derivations, and his defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, is a master of the fire-zone blitz, but neither of them can lay claim to inventing the 4-3 defense. Neale, maybe, could.

Still, you suspect that having the best player in the NFL - the preternaturally gifted Steve Van Buren - had an awful lot to do with those two titles. And then there is the matter of the game's evolution. The duties of a head coach in 1948 bore little resemblance to the demands on a coach in the modern era.

For perspective's sake, consider Vermeil. His burnout can best be explained by the shift in the job's requirements from the merely demanding to the fearfully obsessive. Working hard was no longer enough. Working around the clock and sleeping in the office was now necessary. While that broke Vermeil, it was standard operating procedure by the time Reid began coaching in the NFL on Mike Holmgren's staff in Green Bay.

Reid ultimately gets the nod because he has made himself an elite NFL head coach during the most successful, high-pressure and competitive era in the league's history. With free agency, a salary cap and competition for talent more intense than anything Neale or Shaw or '70s-era Vermeil could imagine, Reid has built a perennial contender. He has ignored intense outside pressure to draft this player or sign that free agent, built the team his way, and managed to cope with injuries to his best quarterback, best running back, and best defensive end.

Based on degree of difficulty, then, Andy Reid is the best overall head coach in the 75-year history of the Eagles. Now if he could just win a Super Bowl and rest his case forever.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

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