Andy Reid left the season's stage yesterday just the way he entered it, way back in training camp. He reminded us that every win is a good win in the National Football League, and that winning is a team effort, requiring good jobs from the coaching staff, the front office and the players.

Many things have changed since the start of the season, but the head coach is not one of them. He puts the green ball cap straight on his head, looks at what is directly in front of him and goes from there.

The 2007 season ended yesterday with a 17-9 win over the Buffalo Bills, a tedious bit of housekeeping that gave the Eagles their third straight meaningless win and an 8-8 record for the year.

The 2008 season begins for the Eagles today and Reid will look back only as that applies to looking ahead. He isn't given to idle reflection, which has always been annoying to those of us who have to make a living out of it.

"Obviously, we have plenty of work to do to make sure that we do a better job next year than we did this year," Reid allowed.

Obviously.

What isn't as obvious, at least not if you are looking for hints from Reid, is exactly what has to be better. Even the players in the locker room are divided in their opinions on that matter.

The Eagles did some things very well this season, which makes their record all the more perplexing. They might, in fact, be the only team in the history of the flabby, expanded NFL to finish among the top 10 in the league for both offense and defense . . . and still fail to make the playoffs.

How did they manage that? Well, it wasn't easy.

It is the football equivalent of having a powerful car but swerving all over the track. The Eagles banged the guard rail plenty this season, starting with the opener when they fumbled away a game to the Packers.

"We weren't getting any breaks. I mean, come on," cornerback Sheldon Brown said yesterday, "what a way to lose that one."

That game was also the first indication that the guy behind the wheel had to really be given a significant share of the blame. Reid didn't have a very good season himself, beginning with the decision to dump punt returner Jeremy Bloom late in the going and figure that Greg Lewis would be fine back there. That assumption lasted just two minutes into the first game of the season.

It is too easy to say Reid was partially distracted by his family issues. Maybe he was, but maybe he just made some mistakes. Maybe he trusted the wrong players. Maybe his coaches didn't make the proper evaluations. Maybe a lot of things.

The punt-return debacle wasn't the worst miscalculation, however, or the one that crippled the Eagles. With the benefit of hindsight - which head coaches aren't supposed to need like the rest of us - it is obvious now that 75 percent of Donovan McNabb wasn't enough to get the team safely through the first half of the season.

When McNabb reached the one-year anniversary of his knee surgery in November, he was a far different, far more mobile and more effective quarterback than the one who began the season. But it was too late to erase the start by then. They had to live, particularly, with the three losses in their first four games; losses to Green Bay, Washington and the Giants in which the Eagles' offense scored a total of 28 points.

But McNabb had to play from the start. He had to play because the coaching staff had convinced itself he was farther along than he was, a necessary thing since their only reasonable alternative had left to become the starting quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It wasn't all about McNabb this season, though.

"It's hard to put all the load on one man like that," Reggie Brown agreed. "As a team, we were too inconsistent. Maybe it was the pressure. Who's to say?"

Neither were the problems entirely the result of Reid's mistakes. There is plenty of blame to go around when a team loses five games by four points or less. Somebody seemed to cough up a fur ball every week, and it was usually a different somebody.

"It's hard to relax when every week you feel like you can't make one mistake," Sheldon Brown said. "Veterans know that, but young guys don't understand. Some guys make a bad play and think about it the whole game. It's hard to play like that."

The Eagles did work in some younger players this season, some new combinations, and the growing pains from that were apparent. Whether that pain was also ultimately worthwhile won't be known for another year, if that.

"This was more or less a test for all of us," McNabb said.

Overall, you would have to say they failed it. That starts with the coach, as he is fond of saying himself. Yesterday, it also ended with him.

"Every year is different in the National Football League," Reid said.

Not usually this different, though.

Contact columnist Bob Ford

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