Football is not life and death, but to NFL coaches, it can take up an astounding percentage of life. Jon Gruden knows this well. On a Saturday night in October 2001, he sat in his Philadelphia hotel room as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Gruden had lived in Philly for three years when he was the Eagles' offensive coordinator.
So there was Gruden, in his hotel the night before the game, and he was stumped.
He called his wife.
"Cindy," Gruden said, "I was here for three years. Isn't there somebody I should call?"
He had not made a single friend in Philadelphia outside of the Eagles organization. He did not know his neighbors. That could have been one of those life-altering realizations that makes a coach stop and smell the flowers instead of throwing them up in the air to see how the wind will affect the kicking game ... but it wasn't.
Gruden left the Raiders for Tampa, won a Super Bowl and enjoyed it for a day or two before he started thinking about another one. When the Bucs fired him, he became ESPN's color analyst for Monday Night Football. He went back to Oakland for a game, sat in the Raiders' practice facility and tried to remember:
This is not a memory problem. Without hesitating, Gruden can tell you the name of a single play that he squeezed into the Green Bay Packers' game plan on Halloween Night, 1994: Fake Fox 3 Naked Right Fullback Slide. Brett Favre ran 36 yards for a touchdown.
Gruden was the receivers coach on Mike Holmgren's Packers staff back then, battling other assistants to get his plays in the game plan. He reveled in the success of Fake Fox 3 Naked Right Fullback Slide on the plane ride home, then started thinking about the next game plan. He tried to get to the office earlier than any other coach every day. Often, he got there by 4 a.m., but that didn't guarantee he got there first, because another assistant had a habit of sleeping on his office floor. The other assistant was Andy Reid.
The Philadelphia Eagles will fire Reid next week. This hasn't been announced or reported; it is just understood. I understand the reasons for it. The Eagles are 4-11 after going 8-8 last year, and in the NFL, that usually gets a man fired. Reid's time has come, and it's hard to fault the Eagles for wanting to try something new. Everybody moves on. Football is not life and death.
The firing (or "mutual parting," or whatever the Eagles choose to call it) will end the worst year of Reid's life. In August, his son Garrett died of a heroin overdose, after appearing to have his addiction beaten. It's bigger than football, more important than being 4-11, we all know that ... but when football is so much of your life, it is intertwined with death. Garrett was in a dorm room at the Eagles' training site in Bethlehem, Pa., working with the Eagles' strength and conditioning staff. His brother Britt, who has also battled a drug problem, is a graduate assistant at Temple.
Andy Reid has been in Philadelphia for 14 years, and he has spent almost all of that time on the enormous and seemingly disparate tasks of winning a Super Bowl and helping his wife Tammy raise their five children.
"I'm just sick for him, for what he's had to go through," Gruden said. "What he's shown, as a stud of a man, being there and fighting through this, how can you not give the guy a standing ovation?"
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Philadelphia sports fans are easy to typecast: loud, angry to the point of violence, capable of booing a child who slips on the sidewalk. This is a ridiculous way to stereotype an entire city's sports fans. It's unfair. But I do think you can say this: Philly fans care more about winning than fans in any other pro sports town.
New Yorkers care about winning, but they can always take comfort in feeling like they live in the center of the universe. Boston fans care about winning, but they romanticized the Red Sox "curse" for years, and Chicagoans did the same with the Cubs and White Sox. Clevelanders take some pride in surviving all their sports heartache -- it defines them as sports fans.
There is no charm in losing in Philadelphia. Losing pisses people off too much. Since 1983, the city has won one championship: The Phillies, in 2008. And the city's most popular team, the Eagles, has not won a championship since 1960. Even the Browns have won one more recently than that.
Reid has had 14 years to end this drought. He came achingly close. In 2005, the Eagles lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots by a field goal. Reid has taken the Eagles to five conference championship games. To understand how impressive that is, consider: Bill Belichick has made six conference championship games. Tony Dungy made three. If this were college basketball, we would say that Reid took the Eagles to five Final Fours.
And yet, Reid was never really enough for Philly. I don't just mean his record, though lately that has not been enough. I mean him. Fans and reporters want Reid to reveal himself. They want visible passion on the sideline on Sundays and audible emotion in press conferences on Mondays. They want Rex Ryan. Or at least Buddy Ryan. Or Dick Vermeil.
Vermeil did it right in Philly -- he got there in 1976, took the Eagles to their only Super Bowl five years later, then left because of burnout after the '82 season.
Burnout! Caring too much. Philly fans understand that completely. And Vermeil didn't coach anywhere for another 15 years -- he left 'em longing for him, wondering what he would have done if he stayed. Fans got to fill in 15 years of blanks however they wanted, and they did. When it comes to the Iggles, Philly never forgets.
Reid is the opposite of Vermeil. He says nothing. When the team loses, he takes responsibility and says he has to be better and ... well, no, that's pretty much it. Philly fans are hungry for information and Reid hides it. One of the the most revealing things he ever said was this, 10 years ago, when his son Britt was a high school star and the Associated Press asked Reid about him.
"I make it to more games than what people probably think," Reid said then. "I love those games. Sit there with a big hot dog, one that's been sitting in the heater for about two hours. I look forward to watching him play. I love that."
That is Reid at his core. Maybe that is why he doesn't reveal more. Maybe he doesn't want the job to be about much more than the feeling you get when you're eating a hot dog at a high school football game.
Gruden says that in Green Bay, Reid "was never into titles. He didn't need to be the coordinator or passing game coordinator or assistant head coach. He just wanted to coach." Reid's strengths (preparation, organization, communication with players) tend to be invisible. Instead, we see his weaknesses (late-game time management, communication with the media).
Who is he, really? Friends say he is the same upbeat, self-deprecating guy they knew decades ago. He makes cracks about his vertical leap. He jokes about how bad his Wonderlic score would be. These are little stories, seemingly meaningless jokes among friends, but can you imagine Belichick or Bill Parcells mocking their own intelligence?
How does a man last 14 years in any NFL job, let alone one in Philadelphia? You can't fool players for 10 minutes, let alone 14 years. Players like playing for Reid. They have mostly played well for him. That is the essence of his job description.
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Football is not life and death ... but how do you explain this? A few weeks ago, as you surely know, Dallas Cowboys lineman Jerry Brown died in a car accident the day before a game. Teammate Josh Brent was driving, apparently while drunk. The next day, the Cowboys played the Bengals with their playoff hopes in jeopardy. They won. And afterward, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said: "All we asked our team last night was to understand what happened and to somehow channel their emotions into honoring Jerry today."
It may seem crass or make you uncomfortable. But after the death of a loved one, we search for reasons to live; when you spend most of your life on football, that becomes one of the reasons.
The day after Garrett Reid's funeral, Andy Reid returned to practice. He told the media he came back so soon because "you feel the strength of the team ... I'm a football coach, that's what I do, and I know my son wouldn't want it any other way. I can't put it to you any more frank than that. He loved the Philadelphia Eagles. I know what he would want me to do."
If the Eagles had won the Super Bowl this year, they would not have healed their coach's heart. Devoted parents do not get over losing a child. They just learn to live again. But Reid is now facing the reality that the best years of his professional life will end without achieving that single ultimate goal.
I don't know how he is dealing with all this, and to the end, he hasn't said much. Gruden says when he calls Reid, his eyes well up just thinking about Garrett, but they don't really talk about him. Once Reid had kids, he would often get up before 5 a.m. to make them breakfast and get them ready for school, then go to work. He helped Garrett go to various treatment facilities and visited him in prison any chance he could.
"If you're not careful, you're going to blame the fact that, OK, I'm working all the time," Gruden says. "'I'm spending a lot of hours in here coming up with plays. My family, I isolated them from me, I missed some warning signs.' ... and you're gonna blame yourself for everything bad that happens. That's just human nature. But the reality is, he was there for his family. He stayed in one place. It wasn't like he was moving 19 times like a lot of coaches. His family was right there with him at camps. ...
"This is my friend. I want him to know I'm his friend and I love him no matter what happens. I'm just really sick for him that he had to go through this."
Football is not life and death. Andy Reid knows this too well. But the allure of football for a man like Reid is not just the glory of a championship. It is the pursuit of success every day of the year. Reid's final game won't change his Eagles legacy. But he will try his damnedest to win it.