NEW ORLEANS - Andy Reid has never been this close to the edge, not in all of his time coaching the Eagles. He has been 3-4 before, and had quarterback issues before, and been without some obvious answers on defense before - but this is different. We all know it is different.
Which leads to a question:
Can there be a must-win game in the first week of November in the National Football League?
Most years, this is an amateur's question. We all have watched enough professional football to know that, as long as you don't completely shoot your way out of the thing before Thanksgiving, you still have a chance. It is all about getting hot - and, more important, getting hot late. Recent history is replete with examples, including a New York Giants team that was 7-7 last year and ended up winning the Super Bowl.
So your head tells you there is time. The emotions, though, and the intangibles, cannot be completely ignored. The vibe around this Eagles team is terrible. Quarterback Michael Vick is playing the I-gotta-be-me card and having heart-to-heart meetings with the coach. The hackneyed players-only meeting has taken place, too. Defensive end Jason Babin is ripping the fans. The coaching staff is desperately trying to find the proper rhetorical line while answering hard questions. The brushfires are taking an awful lot of energy to extinguish.
With that, welcome to the Superdome. Because of everything, all of the above, this game for the Eagles, Monday night against the New Orleans Saints, is as close to a must-win as there can be.
There are two things happening here, football things and atmospheric things. For every NFL team, the best situation is when those two things run on parallel tracks during a season. It is a truism in the league that winning games (the football track) camouflages dissent (the atmospheric track). The reasons are obvious enough.
But here is another NFL truism: You do not want your coach working into the final year of his contract because the distractions can become amplified. You do not want your coach working into that final year because every hiccup during the season - and hiccups are inevitable - causes the football track and the atmospheric track to become hopelessly tangled. It is just human nature. Throw in a shaky quarterback and, well, it becomes human nature on steroids.
And here is the understated truth of the Eagles in 2012: Even though Reid has a contract through the 2013 season, the words and actions of owner Jeffrey Lurie have effectively turned 2012 into the last year of Reid's contract. Lurie's publicly stated demand that there be significant improvement over the 8-8 record in 2011 put everyone on notice in a very official way. This is as big an or-else year as any coach working to the end of his deal - and every hiccup this season has, indeed, sounded like a roar.
Twice during his ownership, Lurie allowed a coach to work into the last year of his contract: Rich Kotite in 1994 and Ray Rhodes in 1998. Both seasons were unmitigated disasters. Kotite was 7-2, never got an extension, started puffing out his chest in interviews, and lost seven in a row to finish the season. Rhodes was the proverbial dead man walking, everyone knew it from the very start of the season, and the team won three games.
This is different, yes. He did not need to say it out loud, but the reality is that Lurie's or-else statement simply underlined a widely accepted truth. Whatever, the result is you now have a coach who is firing his defensive coordinator in the middle of the season, and a struggling quarterback who is obviously on the clock and admittedly distracted by the ticking of that clock, and the real feeling that the sense of urgency has become heightened beyond anything we have ever seen under Reid.
The football part and the atmospherics part are combined now as a result - much more than on a garden-variety 3-4 team. The sense is that there is no way to pull them apart anymore short of an extended winning streak. To preach patience at this point would be to shout into the wind. The phrase, "It's only one game," has been stricken from the lexicon. From here on, every stumble will be viewed as a face-plant - and rightly so. It is almost impossible to argue it any other way.
So if Vick loses this game and looks reckless in the process, he probably will get himself benched. The pass rush will finally start getting to quarterbacks - and good luck tonight with Drew Brees, fellas - or the stuff Babin starts hearing from the fans will just get worse. The defense will starting forcing turnovers or everything and everybody will be called into question.
Another loss and the aesthetics at Lincoln Financial Field will turn from despondent to vengeful. The whole thing has developed its own momentum now.
Maybe it is a must-win game.