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The Eagles took a chance on Andy Reid long before he was Andy Reid

The Eagles took a chance on an obscure Packers assistant in 1999. Andy Reid then built the franchise into a perennial power. Sunday, on the Chiefs' sideline, he will face his former team. (The Washington Post Illustration/Scott Halleran Allsport Photo)
10 min

PHOENIX — During the first few years of Jeffrey Lurie’s ownership tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, he would sit with Andy Reid at the NFL scouting combine at the behest of Mike Holmgren, then the coach of the Green Bay Packers and Reid’s boss. Lurie also heard good things about Reid from other coaches with Packers ties, such as Ray Rhodes and Jon Gruden.

“They all kept raving about Andy,” Lurie said this week.

Reid made a strong first impression on Lurie, and the two men got to know each other. So when Lurie fired Rhodes as his coach following a 3-13 season in 1998, his next move made perfect sense to him — although perhaps not to others. He would turn to Reid, then an obscure quarterbacks coach for the Packers who was a former offensive lineman at Brigham Young University and once aspired to be a sportswriter. In January 1999, Lurie hired Reid to coach the Eagles.

The Eagles struggled to a 5-11 season in Reid’s first year as coach, then became consistent winners who could not quite break through in the biggest games. Reid left Philadelphia in 2012 amid family turmoil, only to land immediately in Kansas City and become the beloved coach of a Chiefs team about to make its third Super Bowl appearance in the past four seasons. Lurie’s Eagles will be the opponent Sunday. He calls Reid a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach who will win more Super Bowls.

It all began with the chance that Lurie provided. The way it came together, the way it came undone and the personal bonds that endure provide the context for Super Bowl LVII.

“Listen, it was my first opportunity to be a head coach,” Reid said this week. “And so it was a great learning experience. I loved every minute of it. I loved every day of it. It was tremendous, a great experience.”

‘A no-brainer’ hire

Lurie, a film producer and businessman whose grandfather founded the General Cinema Corporation, was 42 when he bought the Eagles from Norman Braman in 1994 for a reported $185 million. Lurie and Joe Banner, his longtime friend who was the team’s president, were ahead of the NFL curve in relying on an analytical approach. When they launched the search for a new coach after firing Rhodes, they studied all the coaches who had led teams to two or more Super Bowls. They compiled statistics and called associates of those coaches.

Their findings were that there were no X’s-and-O’s precursors to coaching success, nothing related to a coach’s background being on offense or defense. But the common threads, they found, were the personality traits. Those great coaches were described by those who knew them as tremendous leaders who were obsessed with details and open to suggestions but with certain convictions that never would be abandoned. Lurie and Banner went into that coaching search looking for a candidate who fit that personality profile.

“It was surprising to me that other teams weren’t super interested in him because we tried to hire Andy as our offensive coordinator and [the Packers] wouldn’t allow him to come,” Lurie said. “So we knew he was their most treasured asset at the time. And then he was our first choice to be head coach, and nobody else was interviewing him. So it was kind of like, ‘Hmm. Why is that?’ I was a young owner. So you don’t always know why others have priorities in different directions.”

Reid arrived at his interview with the Eagles with binders of lists about how to build a Super Bowl team, everything from prospective assistant coaches to travel plans to marketing ideas. Lurie and Banner were convinced they had found the right guy, and they hired Reid over better-known candidates.

“All the research we had done was [he was] instrumental in their highly successful offense, an amazing leader,” Lurie said. “And he had all the key ingredients we were looking for. So it was kind of a no-brainer until we met with him to be sure. And we met with him, and it was one of the best interviews ever. [He was] highly prepared. And the rest is history.”

Tom Modrak, then the team’s general manager, wanted to hire Jim Haslett while Banner pushed for Reid, one person who was with the organization at the time recalled.

“I thought they did a very thorough job of interviewing a bunch of guys,” Reid said. “I felt very honored to have been the one that got the job. I don’t know if I was their first choice. But I was sure happy to get the job.”

Eagles fans were not particularly enamored with the selection. They were even less pleased when the team used the No. 2 choice in the 1999 draft on Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb instead of Texas running back Ricky Williams. Some Eagles fans on hand at the draft booed the announcement of McNabb’s name by Paul Tagliabue, then the NFL commissioner. The Eagles passed up trade proposals from the New Orleans Saints, who were intent on landing Williams.

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“We had lots of great offers, especially from New Orleans,” Lurie said. “They had to have Ricky Williams. And I’ll always remember Andy saying: ‘The only quarterback I want in this draft is Donovan McNabb. And there’s nothing anybody could offer us that would warrant not having Donovan.’ ”

Reid told the team’s scouts and front-office executives that he wanted only certain types of players to fit into his version of the West Coast offense. There was no interest, for instance, in smaller wide receivers. Reid’s defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, had the opposite approach: Just find him good players of any size and shape, and he would make it work.

“This is where I give Andy credit: He was rigid in what he wanted personnel-wise early in his career, and it’s kind of remarkable how much he’s changed and adapted,” said Mike McCartney, then a personnel executive for the Eagles and now a prominent agent representing NFL players. “I give him a ton of credit for that.”

The Eagles added quarterback Doug Pederson, who had been with Reid in Green Bay as Brett Favre’s backup, to mentor McNabb and serve as the temporary starter. Reid was adamant about bringing in Pederson because he could teach McNabb the offense and he understood what Reid wanted, from the scheme to the practice-field tempo.

“That was huge,” said Ron Rivera, the Washington Commanders coach who was the Eagles’ linebackers coach for Reid’s first five seasons in Philadelphia. “Doug knew it. Doug understood the role, and he played the role perfectly.”

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Pederson started the first nine games of that season, seven of them Eagles losses. McNabb was given playing time here and there. By the time the Eagles went to him as the starter, he was ready. That’s why Rivera calls “the entire growth and development and everything we did for Donovan McNabb” what he remembers most about that 1999 season.

“That’s something that stuck in my mind in talking to Andy and listening to Andy,” Rivera said. “It was: You could put a guy out there before he’s ready to [play], and you could ruin him. Or you could let a guy sit there and watch and see how things go, then give him his chance.”

There were rocky moments. Reid got off to an 0-4 start as coach. But things got better after the move to McNabb as the starter in Week 10. The Eagles won their final two games, including a season-ending victory over the St. Louis Rams, then “The Greatest Show on Turf.” McNabb’s teammates bought into him as a leader.

“When we came back in March for the start of the offseason program, there was an energy and a confidence in that building that I had never seen before,” McCartney said. “And it was all because of [McNabb]. We knew we were on our way.”

Moving up, then moving on

The Eagles went 11-5 and reached the playoffs in Reid’s second season. They appeared in five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl over 14 seasons with Reid as their coach. But they never got the ultimate victory. Reid also dealt with family issues that included the death of his elder son, Garrett, who was found dead in his dormitory room at the team’s training camp at Lehigh University in 2012. The autopsy report revealed that Garrett, who was 29 and had been working with the Eagles, died of an accidental heroin overdose.

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The Eagles went 4-12 in the 2012 season, and Lurie announced afterward that Andy Reid would not be retained.

“It was extremely difficult because I was personally extremely close with Andy,” Lurie said this week. “Obviously we were very, very successful together. He represented everything that I believe in. … I just think the best thing for Andy at the time — and I think his family probably thought the best thing for Andy at the time — was to have a different environment for his family at that moment in time. I always thought he’d be highly successful wherever he went. I credit the Chiefs for immediately realizing their opportunity. And they got a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach, in my opinion.”

The Eagles, with Pederson as their coach, broke through for the first Super Bowl triumph in franchise history to conclude the 2017 season. Two years later, Lurie was in attendance when Reid coached the Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Miami Gardens, Fla. The two saw each other before the game and hugged.

“We had this look like: ‘I know. We tried to do this together for so long. We were so close. We were in all those championship games. Now, Andy, go get it. Go get it,’ ” Lurie said. “That was part of it. And he roots for us. We want to beat them, certainly, on Sunday. But there’s an awful lot of camaraderie between the two organizations.”

The affection between Reid and the Eagles and their fans is mutual, although he wonders whether that will be put on hold for Sunday’s game.

“I’m not sure they’re feeling real good about me this week,” Reid said. “But, listen, I’ve still got so many friends there. I still love them even though they probably don’t love me for a day here.”