Eagles need outside voice involved in decision making

PHILADELPHIA -- With the Eagles' calamitous 2005 season finally laid to rest, this town is buried in suggestions about what to do to revive a team that went to four straight NFC championship games.

Only one suggestion seems to be taboo. It's the proverbial elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about. So, let's talk about it.

Should Andy Reid consider stepping down -- not as coach but as executive vice president of football operations? In other words, should Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie pull a Paul Allen? After the 2002 season, the owner of the Seahawks reduced the title and authority of Mike Holmgren -- Reid's mentor in Green Bay -- with obvious great results.

Reid does not need to be reined in. After all, he's only one year removed from taking the Eagles to Super Bowl XXXIX, and just three points shy of winning it.

But the team needs an independent advocate, somebody separated from the management structure that has run the Eagles franchise with very mixed results. With Lurie, team president Joe Banner and Reid as coach and executive vice president, the organization has diffused power and shared responsibility. Translation: no accountability.

More important, no one is fighting for the players on the field. There is a fine line between building a consensus and creating a cabal -- an echo chamber where the tough questions don't get asked because the answers are all the same. (See: Bush White House.)

Remember: The collapse of the 2005 Eagles has been historic -- and most of what has happened to them has been self-inflicted, the result of a string of perplexing management misjudgments and missteps.

After sweeping the NFC East in 2004, the Eagles were 0-6 in their division in 2005. That's hard to do. In fact, the Eagles are the first team since the merger to go undefeated in their division one year and get swept the next season. For that to happen, a whole lot has to go wrong. And believe it or not, the list of what went wrong does not begin with the letters T.O. (we'll get back to him later).

In recent statements, Reid has been in denial, blaming this unprecedented collapse on the injuries that claimed center Hank Fraley, wide receiver Todd Pinkston, running back Brian Westbrook and, of course, quarterback Donovan McNabb. But the New England Patriots' regular starters lost 45 games to injuries this season -- including three Pro Bowlers on defense and three offensive linemen -- and managed to win another AFC East title.

As Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter told the Philly press after Sunday's embarrassing collapse against the Redskins in the final game of the regular season: "A lot of things happened to us this year. But we didn't play up to our capabilities even before we had all those injuries."

In the Eagles' locker room late Sunday night, Banner admitted to a Philadelphia Daily News columnist that -- after a brief vacation -- the management team would get together and try to come up with a frank assessment of the future. "Let's be really objective about where we are," he said.

But it's hard to be objective when there is no separation of powers. The argument has been made that the franchise moved in the right direction recently by naming longtime player personnel man Tom Heckert the team's general manager. But Heckert has no independent voice. He works for the head coach. Reid, who is signed through the 2011 season, brought Heckert to Philadelphia. Heckert is not a GM in the Ron Wolf or Rich McKay sense of the term. He's an aide-de-camp. On the Eagles' management team, Heckert is another echo in the room.

And let's face facts: What happened to this team was the result of poor management. Let's break it down:
Poor Management Decision I: Letting defensive end Derrick Burgess sign with the Oakland Raiders.

In 2004, the Eagles gave up 12.8 points a game -- second in the league. In 2005, they surrendered 24.3 points per game (27th). Most of those points came from opponents throwing the football. In 2004, the Eagles gave up 16 touchdown passes -- which was third in the NFL. In 2005, they gave up 24 touchdown passes (26th).

The secondary, three-fourths of which has gone to a Pro Bowl (Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown), didn't all of a sudden forget how to cover. No, it was victimized by an inconsistent pass-rush. In 2004, the Eagles had 47 sacks -- ranked second in the league. In 2005, the sacks dropped to 29 (26th).

Everybody's blaming it on Jevon Kearse. But he had 7½ sacks this season, same as last season. Look at the other defensive end position: N.D. Kalu, Burgess' replacement. Kalu had two sacks, including just one in his final 11 games.
How about Burgess? Well, out in Oakland, Burgess led the NFL with 16 sacks.
And the poor defense put pressure on the offense, specifically McNabb, to score more points. That forced Reid to throw the football an unseemly percentage of the time, putting his quarterbacks at unusually high risk. The result: McNabb broke down and went under the knife to repair a sports hernia. Done for the season.

Poor Management Decision II: Bringing in Mike McMahon to back up McNabb.

Twice -- once in the horrendous Monday night loss to Seattle and again in the final game of the season -- Reid acknowledged this was a bad decision because he was forced to bench McMahon.

Reid brought McMahon to Philadelphia on the advice of assistant head coach and longtime friend Marty Mornhinweg, who was the head coach in Detroit when McMahon was drafted by the Lions.

In relief of McNabb, McMahon completed just 45 percent of his passes and was a turnover machine, throwing eight interceptions and fumbling five times, losing one. And despite being a so-called "mobile quarterback," McMahon was sacked 19 times in just 207 pass attempts. By comparison, McNabb -- hobbled by a groin injury most of the season -- was sacked 19 times in 357 pass attempts.

Also by comparison, the Patriots -- when they needed a backup for quarterback Tom Brady -- signed veteran Doug Flutie, a proven winner in the NFL.

Poor Management Decision III: Releasing defensive tackle Corey Simon.

Let's concede for a moment that Simon had overpriced himself. The Eagles still put the franchise tag on him, acknowledging he had value to the team. It's clear Simon was the Eagles' best defensive tackle in 2004. Still, after getting into a nasty contract dispute with Simon's agent, Roosevelt Barnes, the Eagles' management team decided to release him late in training camp, getting no compensation for him. Signed by the Colts soon thereafter, Simon had to have had some trade value in the spring.

If the Eagles knew all along that one possible course of action was to get rid of Simon if they couldn't work out a deal, then why didn't they pull the trigger on any number of trade opportunities earlier in the year? Their argument: Nobody could afford Simon's asking price. Still, letting him go for no compensation is bad management of your assets.

Instead, they decided not to pay Burgess or Simon, and their defense disintegrated as a result. And, oh by the way, the Eagles finished the 2005 season $12.6 million under the NFL salary cap -- the biggest gap in the league. So the management team left a lot of money on the table.

Poor Management Decision IV: Allowing Terrell Owens to poison the season.

For months before the 2005 season got started, the Eagles had to make one of two choices about T.O.: make him happy or make him go away. They did neither. And it helped ruin their season.

I concede, of course, the point that Owens made himself persona non grata by his behavior, especially his decision to verbally abuse McNabb. And I also concede that Drew Rosenhaus did a shamelessly poor job of representing his client. But Owens and Rosenhaus aren't running an NFL franchise. The Eagles' management team had an obligation to ensure the disharmony caused by Owens and Rosenhaus did not undermine the harmony of the team as a whole. That it did is not the fault of the player and the agent.

Between training camp and the arbitration hearing in November, Reid had to write disciplinary warning letters to Owens -- three times. There is no way this situation should have been allowed to preoccupy the head coach of your franchise to that extent. As team president, Banner should have had that responsibility.

But Reid's title -- executive vice president of football operations -- gave him that responsibility. He should have been coaching the team. Instead, he was forced to perform the duties of the coach, truant officer and school principal at the same time.

As the coach, Reid should have recognized the damage to his locker room caused by Owens and forced the people upstairs to get rid of him. Problem is: Reid is one of the people upstairs.

This is the fifth straight year the loser of the previous Super Bowl has failed to make the playoffs. The Eagles can use that as a convenient excuse, or they can recognize why their collapse was unique.

After the 2002 season, the Seahawks announced that Holmgren had decided to relinquish his duties as executive vice president and focus solely on coaching the team. Of course, Holmgren was under pressure to do so.

Reid, as far as anyone knows, is not facing any such internal pressure. And if any changes happen, they should not be viewed as a demotion. Reid doesn't deserve that. Nevertheless, on his own, Reid should recognize the fault lines in the Eagles' management structure and draw a clear line between his responsibilities as a member of management and his responsibility to his team -- before it's too late.

Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993 to 1994, covers the NFL for ESPN.