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Football Notes

Lurie has kept Eagles aloft

Owner aimed high and team took off

By Mike Reiss
January 4, 2009
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In a league that touts its parity and seems to take a measure of pride in a handful of new teams qualifying for the playoffs each season, the Philadelphia Eagles haven't cooperated.

They've soared above the crowd, appearing in the postseason seven of the last nine years while compiling the NFC's best record this decade. It's a stretch of consistency that the team's owner, Newton native Jeffrey Lurie, has reason to feel good about.

When Lurie purchased the Eagles in 1995, he envisioned modeling parts of it after the franchise he's long admired, the Boston Celtics.

"First it was the Russell-Cousy era, where as a child I couldn't believe the team I was rooting for seemingly won it every year, then continuing with Bird and McHale and Parish and DJ and that whole group, and there was the interim success of Dave Cowens and that group," said Lurie, whose team plays Minnesota in the wild-card round today.

"They always regarded themselves as reaching for the top and I think that certainly influenced how I would want to function owning a sports team. You want to try to be the best and do everything possible to put yourself in a position to get there. At the same time, you never feel satisfied until you're winning the championship each year."

The Eagles haven't won a championship for Lurie yet and are a longer shot this year after improbably securing the sixth and final playoff slot last weekend when they needed a win over the Cowboys and losses by the Bears and Buccaneers.

Yet given the weekly surprises the NFL offers up, perhaps this is the year they finally break through.

However it unfolds, one thing seems certain: Don't expect any major organizational changes in 2009. Lurie values the stability he has in place with coach Andy Reid, who is finishing his 10th season, the league's second-longest active streak with one team.

"With Andy's leadership, we were in four straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl," Lurie explained, when asked why he's resisted some external pressure to consider a change. "We haven't won a championship, but the quality of coaching and the quality of the performance of the team has been at a very high level.

"I think if you know you have really good coaching, you want to surround it the best possible way. That's more where we're at - try to keep improving the team, try to maximize all our resources, and think strategically. It's not about making the coach the target of frustration."

Lurie pointed out that the head coach and the quarterback are most often the target when things don't go as desired, but he feels it's important to remember that NFL seasons are marathons, filled with challenging ups and downs like Newton's hills.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose future in Philadelphia was the subject of speculation over the course of a season in which he was benched at one point, is a prime example.

Said Lurie, "Donovan has had a very good year, but it also has had its ups and downs. You have to know, in this sport, especially at the quarterback position, you're going to have your ups and downs. Hopefully the ups are predominant, and he's proven with him at quarterback, you have a very good chance of winning and winning big."

Lurie added that the Eagles have "every intention of having him back" and that "he's been great to work with." McNabb's contract runs through the 2010 season, and calls for him to earn $9.2 million in 2009 base salary and $10 million in 2010.

As for what has contributed to the Eagles' impressive run of consistency, Lurie believes one crucial aspect has been the decision-making process with personnel.

"What we've often had to do is make sort of an unemotional decision of when a player is starting to descend rapidly, and put our resources into more younger, ascending players. Those are unpopular and very difficult decisions, but we've had to do that with some of my favorite players, like Duce Staley and Jeremiah Trotter and Troy Vincent," said Lurie, adding that the Eagles tend to re-sign more of their own players than other clubs.

In words that echo what Patriots owner Robert Kraft has said in the past, Lurie said his football perspective has been altered as he's become a more experienced owner.

"I think you appreciate the difficulty of maintaining success," he said. "It's based on some factors that are out of your control, such as key injuries, things that happen in a game that decide it by a foot, a yard, a referee's decision.

"I know I take the losses even harder than ever after 14 years.

"Also, I think after 14 years, you realize that a lot of what you're thinking about is what is best for the NFL, what is best for the league and its players. You're not just homed in on your own franchise."

One area in which Lurie has invested his time is working to spread the NFL's popularity to a global audience, as he's a member of the league's International Committee.

But today, he'll take a more narrow view, as the Eagles hope to take the next step toward securing the first championship in Lurie's ownership tenure.

By now, he's familiar with the drill. The playoffs and the Eagles have become familiar dance partners this decade.

Trying to fill in the blanks

Analysis on the ever-evolving NFL coaching and general manager carousel:

Broncos - Every offseason produces one surprise opening, and this is it, owner Pat Bowlen firing coach Mike Shanahan after 14 years. This is considered the top opening because Bowlen is widely regarded as a supportive owner, and Jay Cutler is a Pro Bowl quarterback, which are two pieces any new coach desires. They've scheduled initial interviews with Buccaneers defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is a longer shot. With their main problems on defense, they'd presumably lean toward a defensive-minded coach.

Browns - Owner Randy Lerner has conducted interviews with both coaching and GM candidates over the last five days. Lerner believes the head coach is the primary indicator of success, so he's likely weighing whether to hire the coach first or hand the keys to a general manager like New England's Scott Pioli and let him choose the coach. Fired Jets coach Eric Mangini, Spagnuolo, Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Browns defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, and McDaniels are all possibilities if they choose the coach first.

Chiefs - Chairman Clark Hunt is scheduled to meet with Pioli in the coming days. The Chiefs plan to hire a GM, then let him decide the fate of coach Herm Edwards, who has one year remaining on his contract. Hunt wants a fresh set of eyes who is considered a shrewd evaluator of talent, and their search presumably is starting with Pioli.

Jets - Spagnuolo appears to be a top choice to replace Mangini as coach, while Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer are among those under consideration. Shanahan is a longer shot - he'll still collect $20 million from Denver, so he can be choosy - but the Jets plan to at least reach out to him to gauge his interest. The new coach must be a fit with general manager Mike Tannenbaum, which is a key consideration.

Lions - They promoted Martin Mayhew to full-time general manager and Tom Lewand to president, and are keeping a lower profile on their coaching search. They appear to be leaning toward defense - where they want to get bigger - with Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Dolphins defensive backs coach Todd Bowles, Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray, Spagnuolo, and Schwartz all on the radar. Bowles and Gray are former teammates of Mayhew's.

Raiders - Owner Al Davis is deciding whether to remove the interim tag and make Tom Cable the permanent head coach. They've kept their intentions and other possible candidates tightly under wraps, dismissing reports that indicate interest in Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, among others.

Rams - Jim Haslett remains under consideration as a permanent head coach, but general manager Billy Devaney plans to interview other lower-profile candidates. Ryan, Bowles, Frazier, Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, and Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman are on the list of initial candidates.

Etc.

Playing favorites?
Would the Jets have had a better chance of winning their season finale - and helping the Patriots qualify for the playoffs - had Brett Favre been benched in the second half? That's what running back Thomas Jones suggested in a radio interview on New York's Hot 97 FM last week, saying that Favre's three interceptions were daggers, and that if "somebody is not playing well, they need to come out of the game." While it's hard to imagine that backup Kellen Clemens would have provided much spark, at the very least, Jones's remarks seem to reflect that not all teammates were on board with Favre and the kid-gloves treatment he received from former coach Eric Mangini.

Trade deficit in Washington
The verdict is in on the Dolphins' trade of Jason Taylor to the Redskins for a 2009 second-round draft choice and a 2010 sixth-round pick. The winner: Miami. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 and qualified for the playoffs, while Taylor - who was slowed by calf surgery in September - totaled a career-low 3 1/2 sacks with 8-8 Washington. Taylor is due $8.5 million in 2009, and given that high figure, it's possible he won't even be back with the Redskins next season.

They didn't bye into it
Once thought to be vital in the quest for a Super Bowl title, the first-round bye isn't as important as one might think. Consider that each of the last three Super Bowl champions - the 2005 Steelers, the 2006 Colts, the 2007 Giants - all played in the wild-card round. Overall, six Super Bowl champions have played on wild-card weekend.

Comp time for Smith
Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith has been tapped to fill the vacancy on the eight-man NFL Competition Committee, which has a significant say in the league's yearly rule changes and points of emphasis. Smith, who at 38 is one of the NFL's youngest general managers, fills the void created when the Lions fired general manager Matt Millen during the season. His appointment was made by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Playoffs a tough sell
The Vikings haven't hosted a playoff game since 2000, and the Cardinals hosted their first yesterday since moving to Arizona in 1988, so one would assume both cities were buzzing last week. Not exactly. Both needed extensions to sell out the game and avoid a television blackout in the local market, which served as another reminder of how, in part, the struggling economy is affecting powerful sports leagues like the NFL.

Pat on the back
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie doesn't have a vote for Associated Press Coach of the Year - those go to 50 sportswriters/media members around the country - but if he did? "Bill Belichick and his staff would get my vote. They did one phenomenal job," he said. "It's not just losing Tom Brady. They lost Laurence Maroney and Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison, the list goes on and on, but they continued to get better in the course of the year with a [first-year starting] quarterback. I've always been a huge fan of Bill in terms of how he's run that team. This season, I think, was extraordinary."

Take the money and run
Chiefs running back Larry Johnson went public last week with his desire to be traded, so his situation figures to be a top priority for whomever Kansas City hires as GM. Prior to the 2007 season, Johnson signed a contract extension that included a $12 million signing bonus, although he hasn't been the same player since. The 29-year-old is due base salaries of $4.55 million, $5 million, $5.3 million, and $5.9 million in the next four years. Those teams looking for a proven veteran back figure to at least inquire.

Touch and go
The Panthers were one of a handful of teams devoting a roster spot to a kickoff specialist, and the move seemed to pay off as Rhys Lloyd finished the season with a league-leading 30 touchbacks. That total is the highest since the NFL introduced the "K-ball" - an unused ball so kickers couldn't break it in - in 1999. The Panthers, who had just four touchbacks in 2007, held opponents to an average field position start of the 24.7-yard line, which was the third-best mark in the NFL. Lloyd's success just might lead other clubs to consider a kickoff specialist.

Did you know?
Today's wild-card game between the Ravens and Dolphins marks just the third playoff game in history in which rookie NFL head coaches faced each other. The other times came in 2000, when Jim Haslett's Saints beat Mike Martz's Rams, and in 1950 when Paul Brown's Browns topped Joe Stydahar's Rams (it was the Browns' first year in the NFL, though Brown had coached them for four years in the All-America Football Conference).

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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