NEW ORLEANS - If this Eagles season continues to go south, straight past the point of no return - which could happen tonight - I say it's Jeffrey Lurie's fault.
The team chairman has been trying to have it both ways with head coach Andy Reid, and in the process he has all but ensured this will be Reid's last season.
We all wondered last January what the effect would be of Lurie publicly putting Reid on the clock. We wondered again in August, when Lurie underlined it in red: "substantial improvement," or new coach.
We don't have to wonder about that effect anymore. We're seeing it on the field. Lurie has diminished Reid as a leader and forced the coach to fly by the seat of his pants, instead of being able to address the long-term best interests of the franchise. A coach who felt he had job security might have pulled the Nick Foles lever by now. A coach who felt he had job security might have bitten the bullet and jettisoned Juan Castillo at the end of the 2011 season, instead of trying to jerry rig a Castillo-Todd Bowles marriage, then annulling it the moment he caught a whiff of last season's problems, leading to defensive chaos against Atlanta last week.
A coach who felt he had job security might be respected and feared the way Reid used to be, when everybody on the roster really wanted to be an Eagle, because the Eagles were the most consistent NFC contenders, and you didn't want Big Red getting sour on you. Those guys always came out of their bye week with fire and pride, not with doubt and indifference.
But Lurie tried to do with Reid what Reid tried to do with Castillo this year - that is, he made a halfhearted attempt to salvage something that probably wasn't salvageable - and it's working just about as well as the Castillo fix worked. It's hard to make a stand with one foot out the door.
Lurie wanted so badly to show the fans he was one of them, spending 10 minutes last January talking up all the reasons he needed to change coaches, throwing around words like "unacceptable," and "ludicrous," then saying he would give the coach one more chance to get it right.
The August performance was even more transparent. "See, I'm just like you, I'm sick and tired of this guy, and I'm telling him something's gotta change, or he's out of here! And I mean it! Win or hit the road. I can lay down the law! Watch me lay down the law!" (I'm paraphrasing just slightly here.)
Lurie hasn't surfaced since, except to speak briefly to the Daily News' Paul Domowitch at the owners' meetings, the day Reid fired Castillo. Lurie's message: He had his doubts from the beginning about making the offensive line coach defensive coordinator, just as you did.
I'm sure Reid found that helpful.
Before the "Fire Andy" crowd has a collective stroke, I'm not suggesting, a la agent Bob LaMonte, that Reid should be coach for life. I'm not really evaluating Reid here at all. In fact, part of my point would be, if you really thought 8-8 was "unacceptable" or "ludicrous" last season, you should have just fired the guy. Make the call, move on. No need to play Hamlet.
In January, Lurie said "the team clearly gelled and came together in the last month, but that's too late. There are no legitimate excuses in my mind for this team to take that long to gel and to come together."
Again, if there really were no legitimate excuses, why waste another year of LeSean McCoy, of DeSean Jackson, of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie?
Maybe there is an example somewhere out there of a long-tenured coach given a 1-year ultimatum who somehow made that work, turned it around. I am not aware of such a scenario.
Back in training camp, I wasn't sure Lurie was going to continue to play it this way. I figured he might give Reid a 1- or 2-year extension, which would really mean nothing other than that Lurie would owe the coach more money if he decided to pull the plug after the season. But it would have muddied the situation a little, softened the focus on the coach's future.
If the Eagles lose on Monday night, unless Michael Vick throws five touchdown passes in a 38-35 loss or something, despite what Reid said last week, Reid might as well go to Foles, try to create some momentum, some hope with the new QB going forward. Assuming the Eagles would still miss the playoffs, I'd be amazed if that saved Reid's job. In fact, I'd be amazed if anything saved Reid's job at this point, and I think that has to be part of the bad vibe around the Eagles.
In June, when Joe Banner announced he was leaving to try to find the role he eventually found with the Browns, where he could truly run his own shop, I was really surprised. One reason was that the Eagles clearly saw themselves as top contenders this season. Banner had spent nearly two decades here chasing a Super Bowl ring, insisting the franchise was on the right course, waiting for the day he could wave at his critics from the back of a flatbed truck rolling slowly down Broad Street while confetti flew.
Why would Banner give up now? One answer that occurred to me was that despite the kind words all around, the timing wasn't really his choice. That still could be true. But I also considered another possibility: Maybe Banner just didn't see it happening here. Maybe he looked at Reid under the gun, at Vick having reverted to his high-risk Atlanta form in 2011, at Castillo still in place, at high-priced mercenaries about to hit the downside (Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin) and figured he wasn't leaving anything all that special.
Of course, one reason Lurie is trying to have it both ways with Reid is that Lurie understands the fans pay the bill, and while he might be reluctant to part with the winningest coach in franchise history, they very clearly are not. A few years ago, it was a vocal minority who wanted Reid gone. Now, Reid loyalists are the minority, a nearly extinct minority. The level of vitriol and rancor is amazing, like nothing I've ever seen. In fact, if Reid somehow puts his 14th season back together and makes a playoff run, I think the fan base will still be strongly opposed to keeping him.
All of which reinforces my feeling that Lurie was just needlessly postponing the inevitable last January, setting up a wasted year. As someone once said, "For who, for what?"