Now that Andy Reid has given us a preview of his sales pitch, the only question left is whether Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie will buy it on Jan. 2.
That is the day after the Eagles' season ends, the day Reid usually unveils his rationalizations and, not incidentally, the day Lurie presumably will begin reviewing his employees' performances in 2011. Whether he is looking at a record of 6-10, 7-9, or 8-8 won't matter as much as whether he accepts Reid's attempt to spin that record.
He did last year. After the team lost its final three games, including a second consecutive first-round playoff exit, Reid had this to say:
"I think there are a lot of positives to look at here. Very few teams can kind of retool the way that we retooled and still compete, put yourself in a position to compete for a championship, and we were able to do that."
There was no talking of rebuilding or retooling when Vick was lighting up the scoreboard in Washington in November. But in January, after good defensive coaches figured out how to attack and contain Vick, it suddenly became a rebuilding year.
That was hogwash then, and it was hogwash last week when Reid suddenly started talking about how young his linebackers and safeties are. It is ludicrous that, after 13 years of devaluing the linebacker position, Reid would suddenly cite it as an area of season-defining importance. He was the guy who let Stewart Bradley and Quintin Mikell walk, who never adequately replaced Brian Dawkins, who decided a fourth-round rookie was ready to start at middle linebacker.
And now this season crashed and burned because the linebackers and safeties were young?
Worse still, Reid is trying to pull the same bait-and-switch as last year. Once again, a season of high expectations retroactively becomes a "work in progress." The only difference is that this team has failed so completely that the coach didn't have to wait until after the season to try to snow us.
If the Eagles retooled last year and went from an 11-win team to a 10-win team, and they are a work in progress that can be no better than an 8-win team, what will 2012 bring? Can the Eagles rebuild all the way to 0-16?
That first-round exit after 2009 got Donovan McNabb fired. The late-season collapse and first-round exit last year got defensive coordinator Sean McDermott fired. Somehow, Reid managed to find ways to get worse at both of those vital positions. This work in progress is regressing.
But it isn't really the fans or the media Reid has to convince. It is Lurie. And his ability to sell this same story will ultimately decide his fate.
Reid's fate will not, and should not, be decided on the criteria most frequently cited by his defenders.
It should not matter that Bill Cowher won a Super Bowl in his 14th season. That is like saying that you will eventually hit the Powerball because some guy in Pittsburgh hit the Power Ball. Cowher is one outlier, but the trend is for younger, hungrier coaches to come into the league and build championship teams within three or four years.
And Lurie can't be cowed by the prospect of making a mistake. The firings of Tony Sparano and Todd Haley Monday were reminders that yesterday's hot assistants can quickly become tomorrow's ESPN pregame panelists. But it is just as possible for Lurie to hire the next Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, or Mike Tomlin.
If anything, Lurie prides himself on being able to make those kinds of decisions without fear of failure. He plucked Reid out of relative obscurity in 1999 when it would have been easier to sell a higher-profile guy. So the prospect of hiring a replacement won't be the issue.
It really will come down to whether Lurie accepts another version of "It was a rebuilding year that will pay off next season." And that should be determined by Lurie's own honest evaluation of whether his personal expectations were met.
When he talked to the media in August, Lurie said he thought the NFC would be very tough with Green Bay and New Orleans and Atlanta, but that the Eagles would be "competitive."
"The only goal is to win the Super Bowl," Lurie said. "We've done it all [except that] and as it has been every year, our total focus is, 'What is it going to take?' "
Now another season will pass without a satisfactory answer to that question. Are the Eagles closer now than they were last year? Can Reid really close the gap next year? Was this really supposed to be a "work in progress?"
On Jan. 2, Lurie's answers to those questions will be all that matters.