In Rhodes' paranoid regime, Gruden decided it was better to be unseen and unheard. So he moved from pillar to doorway to stairwell in the Vet netherworld without being seen by reporters. When he did find himself trapped, Gruden would arch an eyebrow and speak in careful code, conveying the thanklessness of his challenge without provoking Rhodes or anyone up on the fourth floor.
And then he disappeared for good. The Oakland Raiders hired Gruden to be their head coach in 1998. See if what followed sounds familiar.
With the man in charge of his offense gone, the defensive-minded Rhodes needed to make a very good hire. Instead, he decided to shock everyone by bringing in a relative unknown named Dana Bible. When that move blew up on him almost immediately, Rhodes replaced his handpicked coordinator in midseason. He wound up getting fired himself at the end of the year.
If you're Andy Reid, comparisons to Rhodes are not especially complimentary. Reid is a much better all-around head coach, as his record proves. But there is a parallel. The value of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was never so clear as it became after he was gone. The same was true of Gruden back in 1998.
Our story takes place in October of that year. Your narrator, then a beat reporter, received a tip that Rhodes had taken away Bible's play-calling responsibilities. Bill Musgrave - now the offensive coordinator in Minnesota but then just one year removed from an unremarkable playing career - would take over, starting two days later in San Diego.
The challenge: Confirm the tip. That meant lurking in the very corridors that Gruden had haunted for three previous years and asking the coaches and players who passed through.
Hoying, then the starting quarterback, and Peete claimed to know nothing.
Now here was Bible himself. He looked miserable, but so did everyone associated with that wretched team. He denied the story, said he was still the coordinator and slid away.
Here came Musgrave. He had been hired just a few weeks before and was a cipher to those of us who covered the team. He barely broke stride when he got wind of what was being asked. No confirmation.
The next guy through would know. He was the quarterbacks coach. He was in all the meetings.
He was Sean Payton.
He wouldn't confirm the change, either. He was clearly agitated but didn't say much about it.
Finally, Rhodes: "That's just not true, man," he said, staring right into my eyes. "I've thought about it, but no. Nothing has changed this week. I would tell you if it had."
Here was a flat denial. So much for the scoop.
On Sunday morning, I awoke in San Diego to the news. One of Rhodes' pals working in television reported that Bill Musgrave had replaced Dana Bible as offensive coordinator. After the game, the scramble was on to get reaction. Told that his demeanor Friday suggested he was upset about the change, Payton recoiled.
"I've been here for two years," he said. "It would have been nice to get a chance myself. I've now been passed over twice."
Once for Bible, once for Musgrave. If Rhodes had simply promoted Payton, who knows? If Jeffrey Lurie had held onto Gruden at the expense of the erratic Rhodes, who knows? Eagles history might have been completely different. Payton went on to win a Super Bowl with the Saints. Gruden went on to win a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.
Both men could be available after this season. Payton's contract reportedly was voided after his bounty-scandal suspension by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Gruden has an out in his ESPN contract if he chooses to return to coaching.
Payton will be in the Superdome only in spirit Monday night as his Saints take on Reid's Eagles.
Reid will be on the Eagles sideline.
Gruden will be in the broadcast booth.
Any of these three men who once worked in the Vet netherworld could be coaching the Eagles in 2013. Maybe they're all long shots. But the twist is that Reid has become the longest shot of the three.
Contact Phil Sheridan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan