Division leaders overcame adversity

Instead of pushing the panic button early this season, the Eagles, Pats and Rams stuck to their plans and are now thriving.

Updated: December 12, 2003, 11:47 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

There is an "S-T" word that one Philadelphia Eagles veteran often employs -- OK, let's just skip the suspense here, it's stubborn -- to describe the mind and methodology and machinations of coach Andy Reid.

But query most Philadelphia players, club officials and coaches about how it is that Reid tossed a life preserver to an Eagles team submerged twice in its first two games this year, and seemingly poised to drown in an ocean of lofty expectations, and they would suggest a different "S-T" word.

They might not frame it the same way, or use all the same letters, and in some cases a bit of deciphering might actually be necessary. But the term steadfast, or one of its generic equivalents, most aptly applies to the singular quality Reid exercised in keeping the Eagles focused. At a time when another kind of bird, a buzzard, was circling over the shiny new Lincoln Financial Field, and Donovan McNabb was under fire and being assessed as overrated, Reid kept his own direction. And kept it well enough to steer the Eagles back on course.

The road to a third straight NFC championship game, he realized, was the same one the Eagles traveled each of the previous two seasons.

"The thing about all good coaches is that, if they have a formula that's been proven to be successful, they're smart enough to stick with it," said Eagles weak-side linebacker Nate Wayne after a recent Philadelphia victory. "When everyone else is ready to stomp on the panic button, they're the calmest guys in the (locker) room, you know. Now, as one of the new guys around here, I don't know exactly what (Reid) was like in the past. But I know that, even when things were bad early on, he never changed."

Kurt Warner
AP PhotoKurt Warner was sacked six times in the Rams' season-opener against the Giants.
There are, to be sure, plenty of chameleons in the coaching fraternity, guys who will sell out themselves and their principles to appear compliant with the grievances emanating from players, management and at times ownership. But success in the NFL, probably at any level of coaching, more characteristically comes from staying the course instead of jerry-rigging a new and hasty blueprint.

Certainly one of the hallmarks of this latest compelling NFL campaign is that at least three head coaches -- Reid, New England's Bill Belichick and Mike Martz of St. Louis -- were all tested early. And all, at this late juncture of the season, passed tests of duress that took place earlier in the year, by adhering to the big-picture game plan.

In the case of Reid, the Eagles were clearly the early-line favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but started the year 0-2 and with both defeats coming at home in their new playground. The second of those losses came to a New England team that itself, just a week earlier, had been destroyed in its season debut at Buffalo, a defeat resulting in part from Belichick's decision to release starting strong safety Lawyer Milloy a mere five days before the opener. The Rams and Martz began the season with a devastating loss to the New York Giants, one in which two-time most valuable player Kurt Warner fumbled six times and suffered a concussion that eventually cost him his starting job.

Fast forward three months and New England has now won nine straight contests, and maybe more significantly, currently holds the edge for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoff bracket. In the NFC, there is little disagreement that the Eagles and the Rams have distanced themselves from the conference's Super Bowl pretenders. The Rams have relied as much on their defense, perhaps even more so, than a high octane offense in recent weeks. Winners of eight consecutive games, dating back to the season-salvaging punt return by Brian Westbrook against the New York Giants on Oct. 19, the Eagles keep inventing new ways to win.

If there is a common denominator among the three teams, their coaches and players seem to agree, it is the nebulous quality of stick-to-it-tiveness demonstrated by the men at the top of the football pecking order.

"No matter what the people are saying on the outside, whatever the perceptions or the distractions, you've got to stay true to the things in which you believe," Martz recently acknowledged. "You can change personnel, tweak a thing or two, but the basics of your system have to remain solid."

From a purely football standpoint, looking at the X's and O's involved, there are many germane reasons for the recoveries of the three teams from their respective early-season plights. But in none of the three cases were there dramatic alterations schematically, big personnel switches not dictated by injuries, a singular move that served as the catalyst for reversing the once-adverse fortunes.

Martz replaced Warner with Marc Bulger in the most obvious personnel change for the Rams but, like colleagues Reid and Belichick, leaned even heavier on the tried and true to help steady the rudder. The Patriots, right from the outset, lost key defenders like Ted Washington and Rosevelt Colvin to injuries but found a way to get contributions from a lot of unlikely sources. In Philadelphia, the Eagles saw half of their starting secondary wiped out in the opener, but found reinforcements from within who were viable enough to hold the fort until veterans like safety Brian Dawkins could return.

"We asked a lot of young people to step in and fill roles, perhaps a little earlier than we felt we would have to use them, but we knew they were good football players," Belichick explained. "They got early exposure and we just asked them to not try to do too much, to play the system, let it work for them. The normal reaction, under (duress), is to try and do too much. Young players, even veterans, feel they have to step it up to compensate. But if the framework is established, and you believe in it, then that's what you fall back on."

I know it sounds trite, but it really is a 16-game season, and a lot can happen. So you've got to focus on playing it all out.
Rams coach Mike Martz

It is part of the pragmatism, it seems, with which most NFL coaches operate. There is a certain stoicism, an ability to rebuff the distractions and, in a sense, dawn blinders, that is inherent to the profession. Or, at least, to those who succeed in the profession. Coaches by nature are not a woe-is-me lot, at least not publicly, and none of the three featured here ever used injuries as an excuse for September failures.

That said, all three faced seminal moments right out of the gate, and their reactions to the problems each encountered served them well in the long run.

"If players buy into your systems, and they've experienced the positive reinforcement of having those things work in the past, it makes it easier to deal with when the bad things happen to you," Reid said. "There's kind of a (shared) faith in each other that you'll find a way to make it work again. The worst thing you can do is try to be something, either as a person, or from a systems standpoint, that you're not capable of being."

On many teams, the players might not universally embrace the head coach, but it is he to whom a team looks unfailingly when things go bad. The reaction of the coach during the bad times typically serves as a barometer. In the cases of Reid, Martz and Belichick, no matter how much they might have been dying on the inside, all presented a public veneer that could best be described as unflappable.

There is, of course, another "S-T" word that comes into play here, and it's "standard." Each of the three coaches cited here have established a certain standard to which they aspire and to which they expect their teams to aim for as well. Even at the worst of times earlier in the season, Martz, Reid and Belichick didn't ratchet back on their expectations. They drove home the tenets imbued in their teams in past seasons, stayed the course, and reflected more on what could be than what should have been.

In a league where pulses race and recede on what seems to be a two-week cycle, the three coaches understood there was plenty of season left to play after September, and did excellent jobs of enunciating that reality to their slumping squads.

"I know it sounds trite, but it really is a 16-game season, and a lot can happen," Martz said. "So you've got to focus on playing it all out."

Indeed, there are a lot of potholes, even a few possible detours on any marathon course. But the teams that most maintain equilibrium and follow the prescribed course, are the teams which usually see the "Finish" line at the end. "Let's face it," Wayne said, "you want to run the race as straightforward as you can."

Do that, in the NFL, and sometimes all the "S-T" words lead to an "S-U" one. As in Super Bowl.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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