THE EAGLES ONCE HAD a football coach who so publicly sided with the players during a work stoppage that it likely began the chain of events that got him fired 3 years after the strike was over.

The owners brought in replacement players, and the coach sneered, refusing to do anything at practice but stand around and twirl a whistle around his finger. Players from other teams crossed the picket lines in ones and twos, but the coach told his players either to come in all together or to stay out all together, he didn't really care which.

Under penalty of a fine for criticizing his roster of scab players, on the eve of a game against Mike Ditka and his fake Chicago Bears, the coach said, "I'll trade mine for Ditka's right now, sight unseen." Weeks later, at a news conference, the coach embarrassed the team executives who assembled the winless replacement team by awarding them "scab rings" for their ineptitude.

The coach was Buddy Ryan, who had no filter and no survival skills but who, because of his stance during the 1987 strike, had the undying loyalty of his players.

Andy Reid, by comparison, does have survival skills. But will he have the loyalty of his players if this lockout business turns ugly?

After what Reid did yesterday, this suddenly becomes a fair question.

Through a club spokesman, Reid joined a group of coaches - a total of eight around the league so far - who have disassociated themselves from the NFL Coaches Association and the legal brief it filed last week in support of the players in their attempt to get the NFL owners' lockout lifted.

The coaches don't have a union. The assistants work, typically, on 2-year contracts. Turnover is extensive. Most of them have been forced to sign contracts that include a clause allowing for huge pay cuts in the event of a lockout; the Eagles, to their credit, are one of the few NFL teams that have yet to withhold anyone's pay.

It is not a shock that their association supports the players; coaches, players, they're all just employees, after all.

But Reid, for whatever reason, felt the need to join a group of his NFL colleagues in walking away from that support.

Through a team spokesman, Reid said, "The Philadelphia Eagles' coaching staff was not aware that a brief was being filed by the NFL Coaches Association in the 8th Circuit Court against the NFL Owners last week. We were surprised by the filing and do not support it in any way."

His players can read, and his players probably know that three-fourths of the coaches in the league have not yet felt the need or desire to make this kind of statement. But Reid did. Yes, he has a management title to go along with "head coach," and everybody gets that. But he didn't have to be so public about it.

The company man has spoken.

This is not a big deal, not yet. The players haven't yet lost a paycheck and there is still a small window of time to get this thing resolved before the scheduled start of training camp. No one is holding their breath for that, but there is still time to salvage the opening of the season on the Thursday after Labor Day.

There is no real tension yet. Players are holding their faux workouts and getting in a sweat when they can and, truth be told, are thoroughly enjoying the fact that they don't have to attend minicamps or organized team activities (OTAs).

But if we get into September, and if this gets ugly, Reid has just managed to put himself in a place that he didn't need to be.

Buddy Ryan did a lot of dumb things when he was here, but supporting the players was not one of them. He laid it on too thick, and he didn't know when to stop, but Ryan understood the dynamics of a team and made sure that his players knew that he supported them.

The result was plain. They came back from the strike, together, ready to play and ready to win. After years of losing, they were 7-5 with their real players in 1987 (and 0-3 without them), and then won the NFC East the next year. Everybody involved will tell you what a galvanizing effect the coach had during the whole strike dynamic. He won over the players and never lost them. His ultimate failures were for other reasons, but the players never left him.

A generation later, though, the Eagles' coach has publicly positioned himself with the owners. He has not done himself any favors with his players; that's just common sense. As is this:

The man does have survival skills. *

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