Phil Sheridan: For Eagles and Philly, no comparison to Steelers and Pittsburgh

Coach Bill Cowher holds one of the Steelers' six Super Bowl trophies.
Coach Bill Cowher holds one of the Steelers' six Super Bowl trophies. (Getty Images)
Posted: October 08, 2012

It isn't much of a rivalry on the field. The Eagles have played just one regular-season game in Pittsburgh's not-exactly-brand-new Heinz Field. The Steelers have been to the Linc just once for a game that matters.

So this isn't exactly Flyers-Penguins, as intrastate feuds go. It isn't even Phillies-Pirates, at least on the field.

No, this Pennsylvania grudge match is conducted on an entirely different level. Here are two deeply passionate football towns, placed like siblings on opposite sides of a seesaw. It is impossible for one side to go up without the other dropping down. Oh, and it is always Philadelphia bumping its butt while little brother Pittsburgh exults.

Back in 1980, when the Eagles finally made it to their first Super Bowl? The Steelers of Bradshaw and Greene had won four of the previous six championships.

When the Eagles finally got back to the big game in 2004, nearly a quarter-century later? The Steelers of Roethlisberger and Polamalu have been to three Super Bowls since then, winning two Lombardi trophies.

That's a total of six for the Black-and-Gold Standard, zero for the You-Know-What standard, if you're keeping score. And Philadelphia is certainly keeping score.

The pain is even sharper, though, because the Eagles have looked to Pittsburgh for inspiration and comfort over the years. With the Eagles in disarray in the late 1990s, owner Jeffrey Lurie hired Pittsburgh's Tom Modrak to be his director of football operations. Lurie almost immediately aborted that plan, however, choosing instead to rebuild the Eagles on the model of the Green Bay Packers.

That was the change of course that brought Andy Reid to Philadelphia and vaulted the Eagles, for at least a few years, into the upper echelon of NFL franchises. The annual trips to the conference championship game were made, at first, with a sense that a parade was inevitable. When the Eagles finally did make it to the Super Bowl, their three-point loss to the New England Patriots was disappointing, but allayed by the sense that there would be more chances before long.

Of course, it was the Steelers who won the Super Bowl a year after the Eagles' failed trip. The Eagles and some of their fans endured that with a nifty bit of logic. If Bill Cowher could win his first championship in his 14th season as head coach, that proved Reid had plenty of time. That's a little bit like saying every lottery winner proves that you will eventually win millions of dollars if you keep buying tickets.

Proponents of the Cowher Theory never compare Reid to Mike Tomlin, and for obvious reasons. Consider the career arc of the 40-year-old Tomlin.

When Reid was hired by Lurie in 1999, at age 41, Tomlin was a 28-year-old defensive backs coach at the University of Cincinnati. When Reid was dominating the NFC from 2000 to 2004, Tomlin was coaching the secondary for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and yes, he was on the staff that beat the Eagles in the 2002 title game and went on to win the Super Bowl).

When Brad Childress left Reid's staff to become head coach in Minnesota in 2006, he hired Tomlin as his defensive coordinator. After just one season there, Tomlin was hired to replace Cowher.

Two years later, Tomlin won the Super Bowl. He was 36.

Cowher, not Tomlin, is the outlier. Since the 2000 season, nine head coaches have won Super Bowls. One was in his first season with his team. Three were in their second. Two were in their fourth and two more were in their fifth seasons. Only Cowher had been in place longer than five years.

That doesn't mean Reid, now in his 14th season, can't do it. It just illustrates how irrelevant Cowher is as a precedent, and it suggests that it is the Steelers' overall approach that deserves credit for all those Lombardi trophies.

The Rooney family identified Cowher as the right coach, stuck with him through a few bumpy seasons, and was rewarded with a title. Then the Rooneys plucked Tomlin out of relative obscurity, bypassing more popular choices, and were rewarded with another championship almost right away.

There is no doubt Lurie aspires to run the best, most successful franchise in the NFL. And he's done pretty well, largely because he made the right call with Reid so long ago. But it has to irritate Lurie that, by the most important measure, his is the second-best franchise in the commonwealth (and second-best in the NFC East, but that's last week's story).

So it is fitting that Reid's path toward Cowherdom runs through that little spit of land at Three Rivers, fitting that the Eagles have to play their shadow rivals in an actual game.

Maybe, finally, they can force the seesaw to swing their way.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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