There's a point in The Princess Bride where Vizzini says the word "inconceivable" too many times for Inigo's taste, and Inigo looks at him sideways and says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
I bring this up because Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie used the word "unacceptable" several times in today's news conference, and that's one of those words that sports people use without thinking about what it really means. If something is "unacceptable" (as Lurie insists the Eagles' 8-8 season was) yet elicits no consequences, then that makes it, by definition, "acceptable." Lurie spent the first 15 minutes of his address to the Philadelphia media talking about his anger and frustration, called the first half of the season "dismal" and "terrible" and said he took little solace in the Eagles' 4-0 finish because it came against teams that weren't "that competitive."
But in the end, he announced that he would bring head coach Andy Reid back for a 14th season. And he announced that any coaching staff changes -- including any decisions on embattled first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo -- would be up to Reid. And while the idea that something "unacceptable" has happened but that no one is to be held accountable for it likely isn't sitting well with disenchanted Eagles fans today, as usual I think there's some gray area here.
"Accountable" isn't automatically the same thing as "fired." As a result of the flop that was a 2011 season in which, Lurie said, "the difference between the expectation and the result was dramatic," Andy Reid enters 2012 under greater pressure than he has felt at any time during his tenure as Eagles coach. I believe Reid will coach in 2012 under more pressure than any other coach in the entire league. Lurie made it clear with several of things the said that, unless the Eagles rebound, big-time, next season, the news conference he has next January isn't going to be as friendly.
"If I didn't think that next year would be substantially better," Lurie said. "Then I would be up here announcing a coaching change."
That says to me that, if next year is not substantially better, Lurie will in fact be up there announcing a coaching change. If I were Reid, that's the way I'd be hearing it. And throughout Reid's long and impressive tenure as Eagles coach, I doubt he's ever faced this degree of ultimatum.
Lurie spoke of other teams in recent history that rebounded from disappointing seasons to win the Super Bowl, naming the New York Giants and the New Orleans Saints specifically. He spoke of Reid's record of bouncing back from seasons in which the Eagles missed the playoffs, pointing out that it's very good. He didn't say he expected 2012 to continue that trend, but he didn't have to. That much was clear. Lurie is an owner who's much more upset about this season than he let on at any point while it was unfolding, but he's also an owner who believes in a measured approach, who believes in continuity in positions of leadership, and who believes Reid is a good coach who knows what he's doing and is capable of making next season a success where this one was not.
But Lurie also left little doubt that this can't happen again. So from this point forward, every decision Reid makes is going to be scrutinized in ways it never has been before by the guy who matters most. Whatever mistakes Reid made in 2011, Lurie was able to view them through the prism of all the good work Reid did for him in the previous 12 years, with the knowledge that players have historically played hard for Reid and have wanted to play for the Eagles because of the coaching structure they have in place. But any mistakes Reid makes between now and this time next year will be viewed through the prism of Lurie's present disappointment, and are likely to be judged much more harshly as a result.
Reid must now decide about Castillo and the rest of the coaching staff, then he must get to work on free agency and the draft. Then there will be minicamps and OTAs, the incubators the 2011 team lacked but which the 2012 Eagles must use to make sure they don't sleepwalk their way through the first half of next season the way they did this one.
"It's possible there was a miscalculation in terms of implementing big scheme changes in a lockout situation," Lurie said.
That could mean the Eagles stay the course, scheme-wise, in the belief that they are moving in the right direction but just took too long to start moving. It could mean that they make big scheme changes again this offseason in the belief that they will have the time this year to implement them. That sounds as though it's up to Reid. But whichever way he goes, it's got to work, or he's going to be gone. He may not have to win next year's Super Bowl to keep his job in 2013, but it's very clear after listening to Lurie today that he's got to make a pretty serious run at it to make up for the damage this year caused. Those are the consequences of 8-8: That Reid finds himself, at long last, facing a make-or-break season.