BALTIMORE - Andy Reid has affected any number of personae over the years: smart, smug, stubborn and silent, to name four. Never desperate, though. Never desperate.

Yet this had all the appearances of a desperate act, the benching of Donovan McNabb.

The coach has just touched the third rail of American sports and there is no way to untouch it - and the fact that Kevin Kolb was just as bad as McNabb in the Eagles' 36-7 rollover against the Baltimore Ravens just underlines that reality. Reid has identified himself as a man without answers. He is officially flailing.

Reid's talk after the game about not knowing yet who would start against Arizona on Thanksgiving night - and won't that be festive? - was as damning as anything. He can go back to McNabb or he can stick with Kolb, and the truth is the same.

Reid has begun the Kolb era. He has started the clock on 2009. There is no turning back from that, even with Reid talking about how "sometimes with a player, you can step back an inch and maybe you can go forward a mile."

Reid is casting about in the darkness, searching, grasping. It is so un-him. The thing is collapsing in his lap and he is frantically looking for something to prop it up. Reid has never looked like a guy who is making it up as he goes along, but now he does. And he is doing it badly besides.

By not telling McNabb directly at halftime - allowing quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur to do the honors - Reid has made himself appear unnecessarily disrespectful to someone who has shared the griddle with him for a decade. It's a bad rap - they did talk in the coach's office after the game for about 10 minutes - but appearances do matter.

Then there's this: By failing to staff the Eagles' running game adequately, all year but especially yesterday, Reid has given people so inclined an opportunity to pretend that McNabb is the victim here, rather than recognize that he has been declining for weeks now.

There is a way to do this. Halftime of a game you are losing by only 10-7 is not the way, even if McNabb had turned the ball over three more times and was only 8-for-18 for 59 yards besides. Even if Reid insisted, "It's something that needed to be done at that time."

Because, well, even if the decision is not irrevocable, it really kind of is. Reid's attempt to create "a little bit of a spark" turned out to be a very wet firecracker instead. (Kolb: 10-for-23 for 73 yards and two interceptions.) The move was a spectacular failure, at least on this day. All the coach accomplished was the highlighting of McNabb's expiration date, and his own personal dearth of answers.

Reid had a terrible day yesterday, for that reason and others. This has nothing to do with playcalling, by the way, the municipal yardarm from which Reid is hung every week. In Cincinnati last week, just watching him, it was unclear if he was calling the plays at all. Yesterday, it was quite clear: He was not calling them. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was. And after the game, Mornhinweg could walk out of the locker room and grab you by the arm and look you in the eye and say, "We'll rebound from this."

Words. It is what they are left with. Reid's biggest mistake was in dressing only two running backs, even though one of them - Brian Westbrook - has the look of a shot fighter right now, his ankle still gimpy, the explosion in his first step nonexistent. Westbrook's numbers: 14 carries, 39 yards.

That left Correll Buckhalter, who sprained an MCL in a knee after two carries in the first quarter. Which means, they had nothing. That they cannot even think about dressing Lorenzo Booker at this point, preferring six wide receivers instead, is beyond alarming.

But it wasn't only that. Reid completely botched the time management at the end of the first half, delaying a timeout call for nearly 20 seconds on the Ravens' final possession. The Ravens snapped the ball for an unsuccessful third-down running play with 47 seconds left and Reid didn't call timeout until there were 22 seconds remaining, at which point the Ravens tried a 53-yard field goal and missed.

Normally, this time-management rap against Reid is overblown - but this was bad, especially considering that the Eagles' subsequent drive died for lack of time on the Ravens' 44-yard line.

Just a terrible day. Reid was right when he said, "If your football team doesn't play better than what we played today, it's about me."

Reid is a secure man. He always has been secure in his position as the king of all football decisions regarding the Eagles. That there is more public heat on him this year, as his football team crumbles before our eyes, is a simple fact. But it never seemed meaningful, the outside noise, and it is unlikely to be meaningful unless this team appears to be quitting on its coach.

Yet Reid created an atmosphere fraught with just that kind of potential, and he did it willingly, when he benched McNabb at halftime in favor of Kolb and then wavered about Thursday. Because if he goes back to McNabb, all eyes will look toward the bench with every incompletion. And if he stays with Kolb, the frustration of this work-in-progress might just crack them completely.

Whichever way Reid goes, he will look like a man who is reaching. It is not an attractive pose. *

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