What is it about Andy Reid? It has been a marvelous season for him and his coaching disciples in the NFL, and the Eagles' 4-1 record under Doug Pederson is merely the tip of the big, red iceberg.
In Kansas City, of course, Reid and his assistant head coach, Brad Childress, have the Chiefs off to a 5-0 start and have transformed Alex Smith from a "game manager" (the most dreaded and demeaning label a quarterback can have) into an MVP candidate. Like Pederson and the Eagles, Ron Rivera and the Panthers are 4-1, and the teams' matchup Thursday night in Charlotte could have a profound impact on the NFC postseason alignment.
In Buffalo, the Bills are 3-2 — with impressive victories over the Broncos and Falcons — under head coach Sean McDermott and his defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier. In Baltimore, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are 3-2 and tied for first place in the AFC North despite subpar play from Joe Flacco. In the surprise of the season so far, Todd Bowles and the Jets have told New York and northern New Jersey that there will be no tanking or process-trusting around these parts, no sir. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the AFC East standings in an attempt to get a high pick and, presumably, a franchise quarterback in next year's draft, the Jets are 3-2, just like the Bills … and the Patriots. Heck, let's include Pat Shurmur, who coordinates the Minnesota Vikings' offense, which ranks among the top 10 NFL units in rushing, passing, and total offense, even though Sam Bradford has been Sam Bradford again (that is to say, he's injured) and Case Keenum is still Case Keenum.
All of the eight coaches mentioned above apprenticed under Reid, and they either are or have been NFL head coaches themselves, and what stands out most about them is the diversity of their expertise. His struggles with game-clock-management notwithstanding, Reid is known as an offensive guru; his renovation of the Chiefs' playbook, to include more run-pass option concepts, laid the groundwork for Smith's marvelous performance so far. Pederson, Childress, and Shurmur are offensively trained and inclined, as well. But Harbaugh made his bones with the Eagles as their special-teams coach, and Rivera, McDermott, Frazier, and Bowles are all defense-first coaches. (So is another member of Reid's coaching tree, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who, needless to say, has had better seasons.)
The point is, Reid isn't simply handing these guys glass-encased copies of his diner-menu-sized play sheet and wishing them well. There's something else at work here, and the relative success of his mentees is evidence of that. In 11 years with the Ravens, Harbaugh has won a Super Bowl, reached the postseason five times, and compiled a winning percentage of nearly .600. Rivera reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Childress coached the Vikings into the playoffs with Tavaris Jackson as his quarterback, and Frazier coached the Vikings to the playoffs with Christian Ponder as his quarterback, and those might be greater achievements than either Harbaugh's or Rivera's. Bowles won 10 games with the Jets in his first season with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback, no small feat itself. Now Pederson and McDermott, as head coaching neophytes, are holding their own and then some. What is the connective thread?
"The one thing that he's done — and personally, in my case — is that he allows his assistants to grow within the system, within the offense or defense," Pederson said Wednesday. "He just allows you to work and to grow and further your career that way. And then, listen, when you get an opportunity — in my case, going from quality control to a quarterbacks coach and eventually his offensive coordinator — much like a player, you make the most of it, and you do what you can to be successful."
There's a lot of cynicism around here when it comes to Reid and his 14 years with the Eagles. His news conferences, with his clipped answers and mind-numbing verbal crutches, kept at a distance a fan base that wants, more than anything, for its coaches and athletes to open their arms to it, to sweep it up and carry it along on the ride. He never won a Super Bowl, a sin made more egregious for his consistent success; if the Eagles hadn't gotten so close so many times during his tenure, it wouldn't have hurt as much. This is all well-trod ground.
But consider where things stand now. Reid's team is the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and win it. The victor of Eagles-Panthers on Thursday night will be 5-1, atop the NFC, aspirations rising, and the Bills, the Jets, and the Vikings are winning games and surprising people — all of that, thanks to his protégés. He's been doing something right and doing it for a long time. This is Andy Reid's league at the moment. Everyone else is just waiting for the time to be theirs.