Andy Reid's return to Philadelphia a historic trip back in time
He is the only man having already made the same trip down memory lane that Andy Reid faces this week in his much-anticipated return to Philadelphia, and somewhat predictably, he predicted cheers will greet his fellow former Eagles coach Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
Of course Dick Vermeil did. Vermeil, the perpetually positive thinker who has spent a lifetime appealing to the better angels of our nature, believes that a wave of appreciation will roll over Reid when he leads his undefeated Kansas City Chiefs onto the field against Chip Kelly's 1-1 Eagles. Even if the frustration felt by Philly fans at the dismal end of Reid's long, 14-year coaching era remains painfully fresh.
"I think you're going to hear mostly cheers for Andy Reid,'' said Vermeil, from his home near Philadelphia. "I'll be surprised and disappointed if that's not the case. Because these fans know football, and they know he did a good job. They know it withered the last two years, but I think they'll show they really appreciate what he did do well while he was here. I really believe Andy will get a very positive reception from the fans.''
Celebrated coaching returns to Philadelphia? Vermeil, of course, has been there and done that. He and Reid are the only two men to lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and Vermeil brought his St. Louis Rams into Philly's Veterans Stadium for the first time in December 1998, losing 17-14 to the Ray Rhodes-coached Eagles. But Vermeil never had to worry about the reception he was going to receive from the city's passionate, vocal and wildly invested fan base. He was and still is a beloved figure in football-mad Philadelphia, and by the time he led the Rams into town, 16 years had passed since he cited the first well-known case of coaching burnout and resigned from the Eagles after the strike-shortened 1982 season. His tenure in Philly lasted just seven seasons, half of Reid's.
So we're not exactly talking apples to apples. Reid returns just three games into his first post-Philadelphia season, with not even nine months having passed since he was fired in the wake of last year's 4-12 unraveling by the Eagles. I'm not sure time and perspective have had much of a chance to do their work just yet in the City of Brotherly Love, but the NFL schedule waits for no man.
"It is a different experience for Andy in coming back,'' concedes Vermeil. "He left after being relieved of his responsibilities, and I left on my own. But I think what's the same is once you've coached in Philadelphia, you get emotionally connected with the city and the fans get emotionally connected with you. Once they identify with you, I think they hang with you. They're very, very loyal, and that's why I think there will be a strong consensus, a high percentage of fans who will react with the very positive side of their passion when Andy takes the field. They will appreciate what he got done here.''
I'm not so sure about that, given how recent Reid's departure was, and how much Andy Fatigue was evident in Philadelphia the past two years. I'll be there Thursday night to hear the reaction he gets from the green-clad fans who watched his Eagles teams win 140 games over the course of those 14 seasons, with nine playoff berths, five trips to the NFC title game, one Super Bowl loss and just three losing seasons. In time, Reid's impressive body of work in Philly likely will be accorded all the respect it deserves, but that sentiment may not fully be on display Thursday night.
Especially since the Eagles have chosen to honor Donovan McNabb that night, retiring their longtime quarterback's No. 5 jersey and inducting him into the team's Hall of Fame. For many Eagles fans, seeing McNabb and Reid back together on the same field will no doubt be a jarring and painful reminder that their successful 11-year run together in Philadelphia nonetheless failed to deliver that long sought after Super Bowl trophy. There were plenty of good times for Reid's Eagles, and yet, it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league.
But what a collision of the Eagles' past, present and future it will be. Reid coaching against Chip Kelly, Philadelphia's newest crush, with Michael Vick, McNabb and no doubt many other former Eagles in attendance as well. Like a good trade that has worked out for both clubs, the rejuvenated Reid has his retooled Chiefs sitting 2-0 and in position to seize the Turnaround Team of the Year label in the NFL, while the Eagles with Kelly's fast-break offense have been the talk of the league so far in September, with an intriguing and totally new approach to the game compared to the one that grew stale under Reid's leadership.
And how's this for a little history in terms of Thursday night's matchup? I spent some time digging into the NFL record book Monday afternoon and discovered how ridiculously rare it is for a coach like Reid to be coming back and facing his former team in different colors after so many years spent on its sideline. Only twice before in NFL coaching history has someone spent as long as Reid's 14 years with the Eagles and later coached against their old club, a fact the NFL public relations department was nice enough to confirm for me after looking into it.
It last happened in 1976, when Hank Stram's New Orleans Saints went to Kansas City and beat the Chiefs team that Stram led for 15 years (from 1960-74, with the team being known as the AFL's Dallas Texans the first three years).
Before that, only the legendary Curly Lambeau accomplished it, when he and his Washington Redskins lost to the Packers in Milwaukee in 1952. Lambeau coached Green Bay from 1921-49, then had brief late-career stints leading the Chicago Cardinals in '50-51 (they did not play the Packers either year) and Washington in '52-53.
In a bizarre twist, we'll actually get two other examples of this particular kind of coaching reunion this season: In Week 8, Washington's Mike Shanahan will lead his team into Denver, where he coached the Broncos for 14 years, from 1995-2008; and a week later, Jeff Fisher and his St. Louis Rams will play host to the visiting Titans, the team he coached both in Houston (as the Oilers) and Tennessee from the final six games of 1994 through the end of 2010. Unlike Reid, Shanahan, Stram and Lambeau, however, Fisher will not be taking a new team on the road to his old familiar stomping grounds.
A return like Reid's is far from an every-year occurrence in the NFL. We never got to see notables like Don Shula coaching against the Dolphins, George Halas against the Bears, Tom Landry against the Cowboys, Chuck Noll against the Steelers, Bud Grant against the Vikings, Joe Gibbs against the Redskins, or Bill Cowher against the Steelers.
Vermeil's return to Philadelphia, which interestingly also took place in a Thursday night game, was not all that memorable. It was just a matchup of two losing teams in the season's final month, with the Rams headed for a 4-12 finish in Vermeil's second season in St. Louis, and Rhodes' Eagles on their way to a 3-13 record in his final year in Philadelphia. The Eagles would hire Reid, the Packers up-and-coming quarterbacks coach, about five weeks after that game, and in a twist of fate, Rhodes would jump to Green Bay as the Packers head coach for one 8-8 season in 1999.
"We weren't a very good football team in 1998, and I know we came in here and got beat,'' Vermeil said. "I remember getting a positive response from the fans when I was introduced, but that's really all. I don't think it was anything to brag about. I had been gone a long time, but I did stay here and live here [in Philadelphia], and that helped me stay involved and in touch with the community. I think these fans are very respectful, and they will show it again Thursday night for Andy.''
Vermeil and his Rams came back to Veterans Stadium in Week 17 of 1999, and again the Eagles won. But this time, St. Louis and its sensational new quarterback, Kurt Warner, already had the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed locked up, and the 13-3 Rams would go on to win the Super Bowl in the highlight of Vermeil's coaching career. Under Reid that first year, Philadelphia went 5-11, but drafted McNabb and laid the groundwork for dominating the NFC East in the decade to come. Starting in 2000, the Eagles made the playoffs in nine of the next 11 years.
For Reid, so far, so good in his new start in Kansas City. With wins over the Jaguars and Cowboys, the Chiefs already have matched last year's win total (2-14), and efficient new starting quarterback Alex Smith has given Kansas City exactly what Reid was looking for when he acquired him in a trade from San Francisco this spring. I put the Chiefs down for an AFC wild-card berth this season, and Vermeil said he saw the turnaround in progress this offseason.
"I was there last spring, at one of their mini-camps, and I left there with the feeling that this will be the surprise team in the National Football League this year,'' said Vermeil, who also coached the Chiefs (from 2001-05) and remains close with Reid. "Because a lot of guys who were hurt last year are back healthy, and I already knew Andy could coach. I just felt with the good defensive team they already had, Andy would quickly put together an offense that would be representative of his skills, and he's done that already.''
Immersed in the business of the Napa Valley winery he operates in his post-coaching career, Vermeil, 77, will not be able to attend Thursday's game at The Linc. He has a wine event to host in Atlantic City, N.J., that night, but said he'll still be able to keep an eye on the Chiefs-Eagles game from afar ("You bet I will.'') While Vermeil took a 14-year sabbatical from coaching to start a broadcasting career after leaving the Eagles in early 1983, he said he's not surprised Reid opted to stay in the game and accept the Chiefs job just days after leaving Philadelphia.
"If you know Andy Reid, it's really not surprising,'' Vermeil said. "I thought it would be best for him to [take a year off], and I talked to him about it. But nobody really knows what's best for you better than you know what's best for you. He said, 'Nah, I want to go back. I want to keep it going.' And he's done very well. I was in Kansas City at another time this offseason, and we just sat down and spent a couple hours together, and I could tell he was emotionally refreshed and physically refreshed. You could just see it in him.''
So Andy Reid is back to the business of winning football games. And returning to Philadelphia this week for what promises to be a memorable night and a historic trip back in time. For both the Eagles and Chiefs, change has seemingly done everyone involved some good.