Vermeil, Ryan and Reid: Coaches that flirted with greatness


My allegiance to Philadelphia Eagles‘ green and white goes back to the early days of the Andy Reid era, so you can imagine how many times I’ve had the life sucked out of me. In Reid’s dozen years of matrimony with quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Birds made it to five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

Despite many failed attempts at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and at keeping a free-agent for more than three years, the Eagles remained a fairly consistent squad under the NFL’s John Candy until they weren’t, beginning with Reid’s promotion of his offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to defensive coordinator. Castillo was predictably inadequate for the job, but he was only part of the problem on a team that plummeted into unanimous ineptitude within a couple of years.

But the Reid administration, which ended with his release in 2012, is just another entry in the vicious cycle that defines a team that could look like both a potential dynasty and an imminent disaster within the span of a season.

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Let’s take a virtual DeLorean back to the mid-seventies. Dick Vermeil wore his first pair of NFL pants in 1976 as head coach of…you guessed it, the Eagles. Vermeil was the first of several Philly coaches whose tenure was as fruitful as it was frustrating. For one thing, thanks to previous trades by then-GM Jim Murray, the Birds were left without a first-round draft pick until 1979, Vermeil’s fourth season as head coach.

After beginning his NFL career with two losing seasons, Dick’s Eagles went 9-7 in 1978, making their first playoff appearance in 18 years. The Birds repeated the feat until 1981 and made their first trip to the Super Bowl in 1980 against Da Raidas. As lifelong Philly fans already know, Vermeil’s run was bittersweet, as blue-collar guys watched their vicarious selves eat a fat one at the hands of the second coming of Jim Plunkett and co. Moreover, 1978’s Miracle at the Meadowlands, a game forever etched in Eagles lore, went down under Vermeil’s watch, with Herman Edwards returning a Giants fumble for the win (he was a much better player than he ever was a head coach or “analyst”).

After going 3-6 in 1982, Dick called it a career for the first time. Even after reversing the Eagles’ trend of dysfunction, Vermeil was still burdened with leading a team in a blue-collar city that could never get used to being let down. Although Vermeil wouldn’t coach another NFL team for 15 years, he did in St. Louis what he couldn’t in Philadelphia, leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory in the 1999 season. Like another great Eagles coach, he had a capable core of talent at his disposal (Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Harold Carmichael and Edwards), but couldn’t translate it into a championship.

Buddy Ryan’s head coaching days echo Vermeil’s, except he got his ring before coming to Philadelphia in 1986. The architect of the “46” defense that defined Mike Ditka‘s Bears, Ryan took his savvy eastward and like Vermeil, toiled in mediocrity for two seasons before going 10-6 in 1988. He faced his former team and boss in the playoffs that year in a game that was aptly dubbed “The Fog Bowl”.

As in many of their games with heavy implications, the Birds came up short, losing 20-12. Despite his eye for defensive talent, which netted him draft picks Eric Allen, Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons, among others, and a superstar quarterback in Randall Cunningham, Ryan couldn’t lead his squad to a playoff win. His Eagles made three consecutive trips to the post-season from 1988 to 1990, finishing 0-3 in that span. He was fired after that third failed try. Like Vermeil, Ryan orchestrated a franchise turnaround within three seasons in addition to building a fearsome defense, but like Vermeil, he fell a few wins short of forever owning the hearts of Philadelphians.

As his aforementioned pedigree indicates, Andy Reid’s achievements are far greater than Ryan’s and Vermeil’s. The Eagles were a contender for the better part of a decade under his watch, with Reid taking them to their first Super Bowl since Vermeil wore the pants. Like his predecessors, Reid also never got his ring, but he did get closer than either or them ever did and took less time in engineering his own turnaround.

But what really cements his merit is that he did it with a quarterback with shaky throwing mechanics and a receiving corps better suited for the Island of Misfit Toys. In other words, the average Philly game for the time ended in a win more often than not, even though many television sets got the brunt of countless vitriolic tirades in the process. As for Reid, his time with the Eagles is reminiscent of former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: always a contender, always just a win or two short of greatness.

Vermeil, Ryan and Reid may be responsible for the greatest teams in Eagles history, but they could never bring their respective overhauls full circle. Hopefully, Chip Kelly won’t lengthen the pattern.

Next: Eagles vs. Redskins Preview: Five Bold Predictions

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