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Monday, October 11, 2004

No One Told These Guys, Though

The off-season was a nervous time for fans of the New York Giants and even the Philadelphia Eagles. As for the former, the dismissal of Jim Fassel, the absence of a productive offensive line, a quarterback controversy between a frequently disabled veteran and an upstart from a football family, replacing 6 of the starting front 7 on defense, the return of a tailback suffering from acute fumble-itis and the anointment of a feisty veteran coach had Giants' fans wondering whether they would have a painful rebuilding year. As for the latter, the loss of two acclaimed starting corners, a very professional tailback, a hard-hitting linebacker and the bad karma of three straight losses in the NFC championship game left the Eagles' fans wondering whether their beloved Birds were nothing more than a poor man's Buffalo Bills -- actually the version after Marv Levy's teams lost their fourth Super Bowl in a row. Anxiety was the word of the day in both cities.

To make matters worse, both teams faced the prospect of four games against Hall of Fame coaches. Bill Parcells, the one-time Giants' coach, was going into his second year as the head man of the Cowboys, and last year he led them to a 10-6 record and a playoff spot. No doubt, many prognosticators argued, the Tuna would turn this team around the way he did the Giants, the Patriots and then the Jets. Sure, Parcells' and his Cowboys would present a formidable opponent, but then Moneybags Snyder, the spendthrift coach of the Washington Redskins, decided to add to the drama by signing Joe Gibbs to coach his team after seeing Steve Spurrier dial up his folks and tell them that the big club was sending him home because the opponents started throwing curves. The conventional wisdom said that the combination of Gibbs, newly signed defensive coordinator Greg Williams, late of the Buffalo Bills, newly acquired RB Clinton Portis and QB Mark Brunell would make the Redskins a playoff team. This year.

Surely, the threat looked good on paper. There were weapons of mass destruction in the NFC East, in the hands of previously unstable third-rate powers, and after years of preeminence, it looked like the recent doormats would change the football order as Giants' and Eagles' fans had come to know it. As for the Giants, many pundits predicted a 5-11 season, with Eli Manning taking over for a lame Kurt Warner at some point, perhaps at the halfway point. As for the Eagles, well, their fans waxed optimistic because of the additions of Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, but the pundits wondered whether the Eagles could rebound from three years of disappointment, whether Donovan McNabb could take his game to the proverbial next level, and whether the heretofore heralded Eagles' defense would prove as fearsome as it had in prior years. Many predicted the playoffs, but several didn't predict a return to the championship game.

Among the reasons for these prognostications were the dynamic duo of Parcells and Gibbs. Parcells is the reincarnation of Lombardi, and like the members of Pro Football's Mount Rushmore for coaches he's viewed as being able to mold any group into a winner. The Parcells acolytes foresaw continued improvement, while some brave NFL pragmatists, having perhaps just read their young children "The Emperor's New Clothes" at bedtime, saw the Cowboys taking a step backward because of questions at QB and RB.

Gibbs, in contrast, was trying to do what Jake and Elwood did and put the band back together again. Out of coaching for a Van Winkle-like sleep, football style, he was banking on the precedent that Dick Vermeil set and figuring that it wouldn't take him long to get his groove and make the foundering Skins a contender. He won 3 Super Bowls, and the conventional wisdom was the if all he were to do was flash his rings in front of his eager troops, they would respond to his wisdom and make a run for the playoffs.

After all, this is the NFL, where one man's junk is another man's jewel, and where a team that was worthy of cleaning public toilets after a victory parade for the home team in Kirkuk can be transformed into memorable titans with a few good drafts, some good free agents signings and a coaching change. Not much to it, is there? And, with professional Darwinism being what it is, add a Gibbs, Greg Williams, Joe Bugel, Portis and Brunell into the equation, and the Skins would return to prominence the way Nixon did in '68 after an eight-year absence from the national scene.

Tom Coughlin hardly drew a mention. Andy Reid probably got a little more attention, but not much. Coughlin was viewed as a martinet whose fire and brimstone approach can get a team's attention in the short term but ultimately fizzles in the long-term. The jury was out whether he would be the antidote to stop the Giants' troubles or the gasoline that was cause the pyre that was left after last season to immolate and light up the Manhattan skyline without any help from ConEd. Reid got some respect, but because of his even keel demeanor and his tendency to smile at the media while saying absolutely nothing, people once again whether he ever could elevate himself to status in the Gibbs-Parcells-Walsh class of coaches. All that talk was about Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells.

And then things actually got worse for Tom Coughlin. He set some pretty high standards for his team in terms of person responsibility, and some players balked. They got their players' association to complain to the league about deadlines for attending meetings, but Coughlin stuck to his guns. And then things got better. Coughlins' team's 4-1 record needs no public relations effort behind it. The Giants look like a playoff team. Warner looks like the MVP he once was, and Tiki Barber is one of the most dangerous backs in the league.

As for Andy Reid, well, he ignored all of the distractions, and his Eagles, at 4-0, are only one of three undefeated teams remaining in the NFL this season. The Birds have won every game by double digits, Donovan McNabb looks like he's totally figured out the West Coast Offense and has stopped sending an occasional wounded balloon into the turf the way he did on occasion in prior years, and the Eagles' offense looks about as dangerous as that of the Rams. The defense has held its own, and but for the fact that no team has ever gone 16-0, many examine the Eagles' schedule and wonder aloud whether they'll lose a game the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, back in the nation's capital, there is a power shortage of the football kind. The Skins are 1-4 and seem dazed, lost and confused. And while Joe Gibbs deserves all the respect in the world for his past accomplishments, he simply cannot cash in his artifacts, his three Super Bowl trophies, for a few more wins this season. Gibbs' team went 0-5 in his first year with the Skins in 1981, and he remarked that this year is just as miserable. He may have put the band back together again, but the old music just doesn't play like it used to.

The Cowboys are 2-2, and their coach is public doubting their ability to convert in key situations. The Cowboys have no running game, and despite his career records, Vinnie Testaverde is past the point of being considered a championship quarterback (notwithstanding the fact that the Ravens won a title with Trent Dilfer at the helm). He will have his moments, but then he'll have a game or two or three where he'll remind people of what his epitaph will be, that for all of his promise after he won the Heisman, he just never improved enough or had a high enough football IQ to crash the conversation as to who the elite quarterbacks were in his era.

So who would you rather have this year? Coughlin and Reid? Or Parcells and Gibbs? Or perhaps you should ask yourself whether the question is fair. Perhaps you should ask, what would you rather have, the rosters of the Giants and Eagles, or the rosters of the Redskins and Cowboys?

Of course, right now you'd rather have the Eagles and Giants, as their records do not lie. And it's not that you disrespect Parcells and Gibbs or think that they are through. It's just that you're giving Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid a little more credit than you did before. After all, when the news came out that Gibbs and Parcells were ready to dominate the NFC East again, those two coaches didn't pay attention. And neither did their players.

Perhaps, in retrospect, the story should have been that the venerated coaches had to watch out from high upon their pedestals, as there were two younger men aching to show that they belong on the same perch, aching to knock out the owners of the heavyweight belts and take over the podium for themselves.

Because that's definitely the story today.


Blogger NWJR said...

Sports suck.

9:36 PM  
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