THE COACH has been fired in a couple of newspapers - the first time that has happened to Andy Reid in his decade as the Eagles' coach. He has been fired as coach. He has been fired as the guy who picks the players. The town, based upon e-mails and radio calls and such, has embraced the notion in a way that it never has.

But what if he gets them to 10-5-1?

The quarterback has been crated and labeled. Everybody assumes that this will be Donovan McNabb's last year with the Eagles - everybody except McNabb, even acknowledging that it's hard to know what he really feels. The contract is significant, he was benched just three games ago in Baltimore after a month of decline, his successor is being groomed. We all have begun getting comfortable with the idea.

But what if McNabb makes the playoffs?

It is hard to read people around here right now when it comes to this football team. The Eagles have won two straight games after hitting bottom against the Ravens. They have gone to the Meadowlands and beaten the NFL team that has been declared best-by-acclamation. The fans, though, are quiet.

The Eagles' chances of making the playoffs have shot up. They were more than a 10-to-1 long shot a couple of weeks ago and now, if you believe the simulations run by the people at footballoutsiders.com, they have better than a 1-out-of-3 chance of pulling this off. They have come together as their rivals have crumbled.

Yet the town waits. In Philadelphia, uneasy lies the head that wears the frown.

The dynamic is a little bit unfamiliar around here. On the one hand, it is easy enough to understand that people would be slow to embrace this team that really has been frustrating all season, just so consistently inconsistent. Seen from another angle, it's also fairly easy to understand that following the Phillies' run to the World Series, following the parade, it might take a little more than 7-5-1 to get the municipal blood pumping.

If that's all this is, fine. But there is another undercurrent - not necessarily a majority, but it's there. And it goes like this: If the Eagles make the playoffs again then the front office won't begin the vital restructuring this franchise needs.

That is, they won't get rid of the coach and the quarterback.

It is fascinating, this line of thinking. Because while there are tons of people who root for a bad team to get worse (to improve the draft choice), who roots for a decent team to get bad?

Again, this isn't a majority. It probably isn't even a large minority. But it's there. People write to you and say this stuff. They tell it to you on the street. People made up their minds weeks ago - some, years ago - and they don't want anybody to try to change them. They don't want new evidence. They don't want to wait and see. They laugh at you when you tell them that you want to wait and see. They mock you.

Minds were made up - about the coach more than the quarterback. McNabb has plenty of backers, still. Reid, not so many (at least not so many who don't share the same last name). The club could end up going either way on McNabb, presumably. With every game he wins, it will be harder to say goodbye. It is a calculation based partly on his contract, partly on his trade value, partly on the organizational opinion of backup Kevin Kolb. The town is divided and if McNabb keeps winning, this is going to be a lot tougher than it was at halftime of the Baltimore game, just a couple of weeks ago.

But the coach is different. To repeat: Minds were made up. Visions of Steve Spagnuolo were dancing in their heads. Now, this.

You can hear them: "My God, they're making another late run . . . They'll never get rid of him now . . . " Again, it's a fascinating mind-set. Reid has no chance of winning a public opinion battle here, not that he seems to care.

If they lose games, he's lost the locker room and the players are tired of his message and they aren't listening anymore - how many times did you hear that in the month of November?

If they win games, if they go to the Meadowlands and club the Giants, just maul them, nobody mentions how hard they're playing - it's all because Reid is finally calling the right mix of plays after a ruinous decade of doing it wrong. So what took him so long?

This isn't to say that he should still pick the players, because that is a fair question given the holes in this roster. Neither is this to say that he gets to coach forever because nobody does. But so many people have already staked out an early position when everybody knows that the NFL is all about what happens at the end.

So here we sit. If the Eagles end up missing the playoffs,

Reid will be tortured. If they make the playoffs but don't make the Super Bowl, the accomplishment will be dismissed.

He cannot win, except that he's winning again. *

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