BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- In the NFL’s often unforgiving circle of life, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid has been handed a rare second opportunity -- a chance to hit the refresh button on his team and his career.
And there he was on the first day of training camp at Lehigh University, in his usual command position on the practice field, about 50 yards behind the middle linebacker, all alone, looking at his own reincarnation.
Gone was Donovan McNabb -- Reid’s first training camp in his 12-year head coaching career without the quarterback he drafted in the first round in 1999.
Gone was Brian Westbrook -- the veteran running back who provided much of the late-game heroics and pyrotechnics that often bailed out the Eagles and their head coach.
And there were all the new faces, including Kevin Kolb, who will have the fewest career starts -- just two -- of any prospective starting quarterback in the NFC this year. In all, the Eagles jettisoned 14 players from their 2009 roster -- more than any team in the league.
When the veterans arrive on Thursday, there will be 32 new players in camp.
How green are these Eagles? The training camp roster boasts only one non-kicker over the age of 30, the fewest in the NFL.
"There’s a little bit of unknown, which I kind of like," said Reid of his new team, average age 24.1 years old. "I like that."
Now, there is a first. The NFL’s head coaches -- among the planet’s greatest control artists -- rarely embrace the unknown, or at least admit it in public.
Assessing his rebuilt roster, Reid called it "a great challenge." What might be more challenging is convincing his championship-starved fan base that this roster overhaul can work. In Philadelphia, with McNabb now playing for the division-rival Washington Redskins, and so much inexperience wearing midnight green this season, there is little love of the unknown created by Reid.
More like fear.
And that translates into one thing: a whole lot of pressure on Reid. Yes, the head coach was given a three-year contract extension in December. But now failure to bring a Super Bowl title to Philadelphia can no longer be blamed on McNabb’s shortcomings, Westbrook’s injuries or aging veterans such as Brian Dawkins who are long gone.
It’s on Reid now.
"There are some big-name players that have been proven players on this football team that aren’t here," said Reid. "It’s important that the young guys step up and they go."
If they don’t, it will be difficult to try to peddle to Eagles fans that the team was victimized by inexperience. Going young was the franchise decision.
With new general manager Howie Roseman presiding and team president Joe Banner still holding the purse strings, Reid has been given the opportunity to make another run at the Super Bowl with a completely rebuilt team. That doesn’t happen very often in the NFL.
For a similar example, you have to go back to the 15-year Bill Cowher era of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cowher went to the Super Bowl with quarterback Neil O’Donnell in 1995. That was Cowher’s fourth year on the job. But the Rooney family allowed him to change franchise quarterbacks twice -- Kordell Stewart and Ben Roethlisberger -- before Cowher finally got back to the Super Bowl and won it with "Big Ben" in 2005. That represents an unheard of 10-year gap.
The difference between what happened in the two Keystone State cities is this: The Rooneys had already won four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, so the fan base in the Steel City had faith that they could do it again. Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and Banner are now in the 15th year in control of the Eagles without a championship.
Reid has now coached the Eagles in 176 regular-season games -- that’s fifth all-time among NFL head coaches who have coached the most games with one team without winning a Super Bowl. Bud Grant is first with 259 games with the Minnesota Vikings. Jeff Fisher is second with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans with 235. Third is Dan Reeves with 184 with the Denver Broncos and Marv Levy is fourth with 182 with the Buffalo Bills.
This season, Reid will pass Reeves and Levy on that list -- making him third all-time with one team without hoisting the Lombardi trophy. That’s an ignominious achievement.
And remember, Philly is not Nashville or Minneapolis. In other words, it’s not known for its southern charm or Midwest stoicism. Here, the fans are outspoken about running out of patience.
The last NFL title in Philadelphia was a half-century ago. In fact, there will be constant reminders of that this season. The Eagles are celebrating the 1960 championship team with year-long festivities, beginning with a Week 1 game at Lincoln Financial Field between the Eagles and the team they beat to win the championship 50 years ago, the Green Bay Packers.
So, against the backdrop of Reid’s roster purge in 2010, fans will be reveling in the team’s glory years and wondering if they will ever return.
That’s Andy Reid’s total responsibility now. The decks have been cleared of all the other excuses or reasons for failure. Brand new team, same old coach. So, the greatest remaining unknown is this: Can Reid pull it off?
Sal Paolantonio, who covered the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1993-94, is an NFL reporter for ESPN. His latest book is How Football Explains America (Chicago: Triumph Books.)