Dick Vermeil used to say that you don't train Marines by taking them to the beach and giving them ice cream cones. He used to say a lot of things like that, some of which made sense and some of which were just the random sparks that flew off his static personality like heat lightning that searches the sky on a summer evening.
One of the things that Vermeil would not have said about Sunday night's exhibition loss to the Steelers was this: "There were some good things tonight, and some things we obviously need to work on."
That is what Andy Reid said after the 27-13 loss, an example of the blandspeak he employs when he would much rather say nothing. The rest of the team might be struggling to find itself, but at the podium, Reid is in midseason form. Vermeil, for his part, used his postgame statements as opportunities for emotional catharsis, some of which occasionally made sense as well.
This is not meant as a strict comparison between the two coaches. Vermeil and Reid advanced to exactly the same number of Super Bowl appearances with the Eagles and won exactly the same number of those. Reid still has time to improve his resume, while Vermeil remains untouchable on his billboard pedestal in this town, Father Health Care staring down at us despite a championship record that, if unimproved, will eventually get Reid roasted here.
There is more than one way to coach a football team, more than one way to address its problems in public, and, probably, more than one way to train Marines. Reid's record is good - 75-37 in the regular season since 2000 - so perhaps trusting him at the moment would be reasonable.
Still, it would be nice to believe that the Eagles are in full mallard mode right now, placid on the surface but paddling at a terrifying rate beneath it. Everyone, starting with Reid, says there is no cause for real concern, just a need to get a few details straightened out.
The message that all is well is what the players heard from him publicly and the lead they followed in their own statements. What they heard from him privately might be another matter, and that is where Reid's genius could actually reside. He might have told them they stink on ice, might have reminded them that the roster cuts had not yet been completed, and might have asked them to check the locker of Trotter, J., for further reference.
That would be nice, but it would go against all we know about the inner workings of the organization. In the past, Reid has tended away from criticism that might panic the herd. Usually, what he says to the fans - don't worry, we're going to fix these things - is what he tells the players.
Well, not to be too critical after the flat outing on Sunday night, but it might be time to turn up the dial on the Urgency-O-Meter. The Steelers game was troubling because many of the problems suffered by the defense last season were on display again, and a few new ones were added to the mix. But it was also unsettling because the offense wasn't forced to do much of anything except show up.
That isn't going to change in the final exhibition on Thursday against the Jets, either. Reid will stay with the accepted logic of playing few if any skill starters in that last tune-up. The idea is to prevent injury, but the strategy might lose luster if the Eagles show up healthy at Lambeau Field in 12 days and get their bikinis waxed.
Brian Westbrook was allowed to start his glide toward the regular season early. He carried the ball just once against the Steelers, for 2 yards. If Reid is that worried, why put him in at all? Isn't there a value to getting game-speed repetitions against a hostile opponent?
Donovan McNabb, in what is usually the exhibition game in which the starting quarterback plays at least a half, took his final snap with 10 minutes, 59 seconds left in the second quarter. In all, he ran 22 plays. Nine of those were runs - gee, we were hoping to get a good, long look at Correll Buckhalter - two were sacks, and 11 were passes. McNabb went to Kevin Curtis five times and completed one pass. He went to Reggie Brown three times and completed one. Some of the incompletions were good throws and the balls were dropped, but that indicates a little more work between the thrower and the catchers might not have been a bad thing.
The message, however, as McNabb went from helmet to baseball cap, was that there was no reason to sweat it. Nothing to worry about. A few details to straighten out, but no big deal. All is well.
Maybe so. Reid has said the same things before, and been right before. This time feels a little different somehow, as if the Eagles are wading happily into the ocean, unaware that an unseen shelf is about to drop them into deeper water. Could be bad. They might lose their ice cream cones in the process.