Sports Nut

How the Philadelphia Eagles Saved Their Season

They did absolutely nothing.

Elsewhere in Slate today, Emily Bazelon  describes how her father, an Eagles fan, and her son, who roots for the Patriots, reached a family truce.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Click image to expand.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb

Last month, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal celebrated the annual round of firings of NFL coaches by citing the philosophy of Bill Parcells. “You are,” the peripatetic football savant once said, “what your record says you are.” This was, the Journal said, the “ruthless meritocracy” of football in action. So why are the Philadelphia Eagles (a tepid 9-6-1 in the regular season) playing for the National Football Conference championship? And why are they playing the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals?

True, the Eagles always had Parcells’ number. But this year’s Philadelphia team and its motley fellow playoff contenders are a rebuke to the whole notion of record-based football merit, or even of cause and effect. If you need a maxim to explain what’s gone on in the NFL this year, it’s better to borrow one from Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

For this year’s 0-16 Detroit Lions or last year’s 18-1 New England Patriots, the story of the team does begin and end with those numbers—especially the number in the loss column. *  But between those extremes, pro football is a crapshoot. In the most thoroughly and obsessively managed of all sports, no one can really say what separates a winning football team from a losing one.

Dumping the coach—as seven teams have done since the season began—is the easy, ostensibly rational move to make. Sometimes, a team wins more games after a change in management. Parcells himself took over football operations for a 1-15 Dolphins team after last season, fired coach Cam Cameron, and saw the team go 11-5 and win the AFC East under new coach Tony Sparano. The Baltimore Ravens, likewise, probably would not be playing for the AFC title if they hadn’t gotten rid of ultra-cautious coach Brian Billick, whose constipated theories of offense had ruined more quarterbacks than Lawrence Taylor. Suddenly the Ravens have an offense to go with their defense, with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco secure in his job under coach John Harbaugh (and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron).

But the coach who gets fired was once the same coach who’d gotten hired. Eric Mangini took over a 4-12 Jets team from Herman Edwards in 2006 and went 10-6. Then he went 4-12 himself, followed by an up-and-down 9-7 this year, and the Jets decided it was time for a new coach.

If Eagles fans had a vote, they would have fired the coach, too, in the middle of the season. I would have voted that way myself. For Philadelphia, the pivotal event of 2008—which directly or indirectly involved two of the three other NFL finalists—was pointless and absurd. On Nov. 4, with the Eagles trailing the Ravens 10-7 at halftime, coach Andy Reid benched quarterback Donovan McNabb and put in the untested prospect Kevin Kolb. Promoting the backup quarterback is what teams do instead of firing the coach. Kurt Warner replaced Matt Leinart for the Cardinals last year and again this preseason after Leinart had previously replaced Warner; in Minnesota, Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte replaced each other. For Philadelphia, Kolb was atrocious, the team collapsed, and the game ended up a 36-7 rout.

The Eagles were their record: a last-place team at 5-5-1. They were a former contender grown so sloppy and lackadaisical they had failed even to record a decision against the awful Cincinnati Bengals. In that one, they idled their way to a 13-13 tie, after which McNabb had confessed that he’d thought the teams would keep playing after one overtime. “I never even knew it was in the rule book,” he said.

McNabb was terrible against Cincinnati, throwing three interceptions and missing on 31 of 58 passing attempts. But that only raised the question of how thickheaded the coaches had to be to have called 58 pass plays on a day when the throwing game was failing so badly. Then came the benching, and then McNabb returned four days later to throw four touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals (and the coaches, in a temporary lapse into balance, called a season-high 40 rushing plays). It didn’t mean much, since everyone knew that the Cardinals were terrible. One theory was that McNabb was motivated by the whole episode, which makes sense as long as you believe that he was throwing the ball off-target because he was in the wrong mood.

From that game forward, the Eagles have gone 6-1. But that lone loss was a comatose performance against the Washington Redskins in a game that should have eliminated the Eagles from the playoffs. But they made the playoffs anyway, with the same quarterback and with the same passing-overloaded offense as before. And now, after all those buts, they are playing in their fifth conference championship game in eight years, a model of consistency and success.

If only consistency could come quickly! In the scramble to replace head coaches, the name of former Steelers coach Bill Cowher kept floating up as the logic of the quick fix devoured itself. Cowher’s Pittsburgh career was a tribute to persistence: He reached and lost one Super Bowl early, survived a long stretch of ups and downs, and then finally won a title. If you’re hiring Bill Cowher to get a championship, based on past performance you should expect to hoist a trophy in 2020.

The Steelers are getting along pretty well without him. They have one of the best defenses in recent history, according to the analysts at Football Outsiders. By the Football Outsiders numbers, this year’s results look almost rational: The Steelers, Ravens, and Eagles were the top three defensive teams in the league and three of the top four overall teams. So the key to success in this year’s NFL is defense—unless you’re the Cardinals, who ranked 21st in the Outsiders’ defensive numbers.

It’s hard to quite believe there’s anything rational behind the Eagles’ success, given that they wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all if the woeful Oakland Raiders—who fired their own coach midseason—hadn’t won their final game on the road. But a moral is hard to come by. The debacle against Baltimore two months ago didn’t offer any tactical or motivational lessons, at least not for the Eagles. (It did give Ravens safety Ed Reed his second and third interceptions of the season, starting a spree of 10 interceptions in his final seven games.) The payoff for the Eagles was strictly existential. They were stuck being who they were, stubborn coach, erratic quarterback, and all. Kevin Kolb was not anyone’s redeemer. They weren’t going to get any better. They just needed to start winning some games.

Correction, Jan. 15, 2009: This piece originally misstated the New England Patriots’ record last year. They were 18-1, not 19-1. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)