NEW ORLEANS - The Eagles will enter the Superdome Monday night in a panic, trying to rescue a season and an era with one 60-minute burst of diminishing competence. That could be why Jeffrey Lurie paid his criticism forward this time, because he expected such mediocrity.
Or was it the other way around? Did he miscalculate the risk of sounding like a talk-show caller? And did Lurie's preseason behavior activate what so far has been an unacceptable season?
For every surface reason, business and football, the Eagles' owner had the preseason right to stress that a second consecutive 8-8 season would all but cost Andy Reid a job. And from the highest office of an operation that for too long had smothered its customers with useless cliches if not outright falsehoods, the chilly breeze of clarity was refreshing.
So Lurie made it plain: Be better than .500, or experience major changes. His reasons? Who knows? Exasperation? Anger? An attempt to be a man of the people? Each is a useful working theory. Not in debate, though, was that the owner's outburst was unusual, and risky. Few owners would so publicly submit such a clear work order while on live TV. Would any?
The logical view of Lurie's work order was that he'd expected it to jolt the Eagles into improvement. He'd been paying them all plenty, particularly those expected to handle the ball. The experts, enough of them anyway, were forecasting championship contention. The Birds were 8-8 the previous year with Lurie being quiet. What could some fresh static hurt?
Again, it sounded good at the time.
It looks like a disaster now. Not that Reid shouldn't have his car warm and pointed for the heavily guarded NovaCare Complex exit gate. He's had enough chances to win a championship yet has a program in retreat. But it's clear that his boss shouting that out loud didn't smooth what could be his last season as the head coach.
There is a reason front offices comfort coaches with votes of confidence, no matter how threadbare. They are worthwhile bluffs. At the minimum, they blunt outside attacks. At best, they alert the players that the organization is stable. But Lurie's 'be great, not 8-8' address shouted this: If another .500 record develops, it will be the coach, not the players, who is made to do the perp walk.
Lurie couldn't have established a more party atmosphere had he paraded through the locker room blowing a New Year's Eve horn. Win, lose, whatever. It will all be Reid's fault. And for a coach like Reid, whose only professional trick has been to have his players convinced that he is all-knowing, there might be no hangover cure.
So what has happened in the seven regular-season games since Lurie's finger-wag? The fans, tilting toward a revolt as it was, have begun a hunting season on Reid, criticizing him after every failed series. The players, sensing weakness, have started to be more open about their concerns than at any time since Reid's 1999 arrival. Nnamdi Asomugha questioned some defensive alignments. Others - most clearly, LeSean McCoy - questioned the team's heart. From there, the misery has spread to the stands, with Jason Babin, for one, complaining about the customers.
Reid's authority compromised, he began to show odd professional behavior. Six games into the season, he fired his defensive coordinator. More than once, he blinked when questioned about his commitment to Michael Vick. Perhaps sensing his coach's doubts, Vick performed as if under pressure, often turning the ball over, playing tentatively. As a result, the offense has struggled.
By Saturday, the press was caught in the swirl, Vick saying, 'You guys cause a lot of turmoil for us, sometimes.' No one is safe. Who's next? The guy who hoists the field goal net?
The most likely reason for the 3-4 record: The Eagles were never as good as so many had presumed. Occam's razor. Even so, there was the chance that they could achieve. So far, they haven't. Instead, no matter what happens Monday, they will be no better than on pace for the record Lurie warned them all to avoid.
Maybe he was ahead of the curve. More likely, the owner just made it that much sharper.