The CBS cameras found Andy Reid for his long walk across the field at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night. His target was Mike Vrabel, the coach of the Tennessee Titans, for a handshake and a hug and a whisper into Vrabel’s ear. The Kansas City Chiefs had won the AFC championship game, 35-24. They were going to their first Super Bowl since 1970 — a half-century of nothingness ended. Reid was going to his first since 2005. It had taken him six years to get there with the Eagles. It had taken him seven years with the Chiefs. He didn’t smile during his walk. He left the smiling to everyone else.
It was hard not to imagine what he must have been thinking: that he had been here, on the brink of the Super Bowl, before — seven times, in fact. That there was as much relief, or perhaps a sense that his and his team’s task was not yet finished, as there was joy. That the joy would come only, could come only, with another victory in a bigger game, in the biggest game of all.
Around here, the question of whether you’re rooting for Reid and the Chiefs to win Super Bowl LIV keeps coming up. It’s a natural topic to be batted around at a weekend family get-together or among buddies in front of the flat-screen. But at this point — less than two years removed from the Eagles’ own Super Bowl victory — if you’re still hoping Reid and his team fall on their faces in two weeks, you’re so tribal and blinkered in your allegiance to the Eagles and so attuned to his coaching shortcomings and imperfections that you can’t see him for what he is: arguably the best coach in team history, certainly the architect of the longest stretch of success in team history, and a first-ballot, slam-dunk, don’t-think-twice-about-it inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s trite, of course, to point out how parochial Philadelphia is, especially where its sports franchises are concerned. But it’s trite because it’s true, and there’s an under-the-dome quality to the way many Eagles fans and followers view Reid, as if their perspective has been shaped more by a thousand idiosyncratic decisions and moments and words during his tenure here than it has by the totality of his career.
I understand the frustration that built up from 2001 through early 2009, when the Eagles reached five NFC championship games and lost 80% of them. I understand the feeling of watching the Eagles go full-tortoise in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX, down two scores but taking their good sweet time, eschewing a no-huddle offense, and driving everyone in the Philadelphia area mad in the process.
(That said, I’ve always argued that Reid’s bigger mistake that day was not the deliberate tempo with which he and his staff orchestrated that drive. It was that, once the Eagles scored to pull within three points, Reid had them onside-kick. There was still 1:48 left in the game, and they had two timeouts. Better to kick deep and take your chances on stopping the Patriots deep in their territory. Ah, the memories of pedantic debates from the old days …)
I understand all of that, and those marks against Reid’s record are real and worth noting. But the longer he coaches and the more games he wins, the lighter those marks become, the more their blackness fades. Let’s do this: Let’s set aside those first 10 years of Reid’s coaching career and consider what he’s done since early 2009, since his last conference-championship game with the Eagles.
He took the most despised man in football at the time, Michael Vick, and not only did he create an opportunity for him to return to the NFL, but he revitalized Vick’s career, coaching him to a quality of play that Vick had never reached before. (And if you have a problem with Reid’s willingness to give second chances to players who have done unsavory or terrible things, Google “Dick Vermeil” and “Lawrence Phillips,” and ask yourself if you’re judging Philadelphia’s most beloved football coach by the same standard.)
He elevated Alex Smith from a bust as the NFL draft’s first overall pick to a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback. He did so by seeing where the league was headed, and then directing it there, before few others did: spread offenses, jet sweeps, college and high school alignments and strategies bubbling up to football’s highest level. He saw the perfect quarterback to use in such a system, the perfect quarterback to allow such a system to flourish fully, and he traded up to get him, and Patrick Mahomes was the NFL’s MVP last season and could become its most famous player now. His coaching tree grew until it had 10 branches, 10 men who have become head coaches themselves, among them Doug Pederson.
Just six NFL coaches have won more regular-season games, and within the league, it is a challenge to find someone who, over the last two decades, has been as influential. In light of those achievements, continuing to carp about the news-conference rituals — his throat-clearing, his reliance on the phrase “Time’s yours,” his reticence — or his clock-management skills (or lack thereof) seems the petty complaint of someone who either has an agenda or refuses to have his or her mind changed.
Andy Reid is a great coach. The result Sunday was the latest validation. The result on Feb. 2 in Miami could be the last one he needs.