What makes a team great?
Look at the Eagles. This team wouldn't have reached the NFC Championship Game last season without the core of its players—five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, speedy elusive running back Brian Westbrook, future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins, and one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the NFL.
There is no denying that these star players performing at a top level made the Eagles one of the league's best teams last year.
However, what sets these Eagles apart from the other teams around the league is a tremendous coaching staff.
You don't get to five NFC title games and a Super Bowl without a top-notch head coach and group of assistants.
As the team's head coach, Andy Reid is perhaps the most scrutinized and criticized man in Philadelphia... but he's a darn good coach.
Reid joined the Eagles in '99 having never been an offensive or defensive coordinator at the NFL level. Ten years later, he is the second longest tenured head coach in the NFL and has ten playoff wins to his resume, one more than two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson.
Reid is one of the elite coaches of this generation, although it's a shame he will most likely be remembered more for his inability to win a Super Bowl than for his seven trips to the playoffs and five conference championship game appearances in ten seasons.
Reid's ability to keep the Eagles competitive each and every year is a testament to his coaching skills, particularly the five following steps.
1) Assistant Coaches
Reid is an offensive mastermind at heart, but the defense has been the strong suit of the Eagles during his coaching tenure. He has always made sure to surround the team with quality coaches for both the offense and defense.
Brad Childress was a tremendous offensive coordinator for the team, helping the Eagles score a franchise record 415 points in the '02 season. He has since departed for the Vikings, a team whom he led to an NFC North title this past year.
Perhaps Andy Reid's finest decision ever was picking up Jim Johnson to be the team's defensive coordinator. Johnson is a blitz-happy defensive specialist and arguably the greatest assistant coach in NFL history never to have a head coaching position.
His motto on the defensive side of the ball is blitz, blitz, blitz, and when that fails, blitz some more. Since 2000, the Eagles' defense under Johnson rank second in the NFL in sacks, third down efficiency, red zone touchdown percentage, and forced fumbles, and fourth in the league in both fewest points allowed and opponent quarterback rating.
Johnson is currently on a leave of absence due to a bout with cancer, which turns the defensive coordinator duties over to assistant coach Sean McDermott. While there is no doubt the team will miss Johnson for however long he is out, the Eagles should be fine with McDermott.
McDermott has had years of tutelage under one of the game's finest coaches. The talent is there to win football games. All McDermott has to do is use his players to his advantage.
Perhaps the finest proof of Reid's talent at picking his assistants is their success with other teams.
Brad Childress took the Vikings to the playoffs, winning the NFC North division, in just his second season as head coach.
In his first year as coach of the Ravens, John Harbaugh reached the AFC Championship Game, doing so with a rookie quarterback.
And Steve Spagnuolo was defensive coordinator of the 2007 Super Bowl champion New York Giants that kept the greatest offense in NFL history to just 14 points. He was just recently acquired to be head coach of the St. Louis Rams.
2) NFL Draft
Some coaches just have a knack for drafting good players. Chuck Noll sure seemed to have this skill for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s, as he once picked four Hall of Famers in one draft.
I wouldn't say Andy Reid is a natural drafter, but he's done a pretty good job over the last decade. Sure, he has had his mistakes.
Just think Jerome McDougle, Freddie Mitchell, Reggie Brown, or L.J. Smith. None of those players turned out as expected, and all were selected in the first or second round.
But think about all the good, even great, players Reid has selected.
His first-ever pick was quarterback Donovan McNabb, who has become the face of the franchise. Brian Westbrook was a steal in the third round of the '02 draft. Trent Cole was a huge splash in the fifth round. And David Akers was just a waiver wire pickup back in '99.
There are those underrated picks – Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley in the first rounds of 2005 and 2006 – that often go unnoticed, but not unrewarded. Those two players have been the anchor of a defensive line that ranked third in the NFL in total sacks last season.
3) Staying Simple and Not Always Making the Sexy Choice
Too many times head coaches and owners get swept up in making the sexy choice.
Whether it's taking a chance on a player like Pacman Jones as Jerry Jones did last season with the Cowboys or offering Albert Haynesworth over $100 million over eight years, coaches often focus more on the name itself than the talent of the player.
Reid doesn't go for sexy, but his decisions work.
Look at Leonard Weaver, Sean Jones, and Stacy Andrews. Three players who were under the radar but will drastically improve the team in 2009.
Rather than make a huge splash for a wide receiver like T.J. Houshmandzedah or Chad Johnson—who probably wouldn't have been right for this team—Reid kept it simple and selected Jeremy Maclin out of Missouri in the first round of this past year's draft.
4) Knowing When to Pay the Stars
It's never fun to watch the stars walk away.
Use Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor as an example.
Vincent was coming off his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl season in 2003, after which he had helped carry the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game for the third year in a row. However, he was also 32 and had lost a step or two.
Taylor was 30 and coming off a solid season as starter. He seemed to have several years still ahead of him.
Reid allowed Vincent and Taylor to walk, two moves that seemed perplexing at the time.
It paid off though.
Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown – two players that had been drafted by Reid in the '03 draft – stepped in as full-time starters for the 2004 season. And what a pleasant surprise for the Eagles.
Sheppard earned a Pro Bowl selection and Brown filled in as one of the top starting cornerbacks in the league. The two of them helped to lead the Eagles to an NFC-best 13 wins and a Super Bowl appearance.
Other examples of stars Reid allowed to walk include Jeremiah Trotter (following the '06 season), Tra Thomas, Brian Dawkins, and Michael Lewis.
It's difficult to coach in Philadelphia.
The fans—myself included—expect nothing less than a Super Bowl championship every single season. Anything less is a disappointment.
It takes a strong-willed man to coach in this city.
Andy Reid is that man.
He is perfect for the job. He's boring, low-key, uninteresting, and uneventful. And that's precisely why he's perfect.
He's dealt with a lot.
One day, we all love him. The next day, we hate him. We second guess him for every single decision he ever does, and we're always calling into WIP to petition that he get fired.
He won't make national headlines by screaming at his assistants on the sidelines. He won't call a player out during a post-game press conference. And he won't publicly denounce the owner on live TV.
Reid's monotonous press conferences have become a classic here in Philadelphia. Virtually every Eagles fan has poked fun at Reid's statements. And they've driven us insane.
“I need to put my guys in a better position to make plays.”
THEN DO IT! Put your guys in better position!
But Reid's minimal dialogue is perfect. He is expressionless and emotionless, and if anyone can take the pounding of coaching in a tough city like Philly, it's Reid.
It's these five characteristics that make Reid one of the best coaches the league has seen.