Blame falls on Jones -- not the system

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
10:00
AM ET
Chip KellyTommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA -- The best news from the NFL combine, at least as far as the Philadelphia Eagles are concerned, might have come from the mouth of Jerry Jones.

The owner/general manager of the Dallas Cowboys told reporters that NFL realities make it impossible for his franchise to make a major change in direction.

“You can't do what I did in 1989 because of the contracts and cap," Jones said Monday, according to ESPN.com’s Todd Archer. "The system automatically creates about a third turnover, but it also creates contractually for clubs a situation where you cannot just strip it. You couldn't even field a team with the hits against your cap by canceling the contracts."

If the chief decision-maker of their chief division rival feels constrained by the NFL system, that is very good news for the Eagles. Good because it means the Cowboys are more likely to remain trapped in a cycle of 8-8 finishes. News because the Eagles themselves just demonstrated that it is not only possible to tear things up and start over, but it is easier in the NFL than in any other major American sports league.

The Eagles went 4-12 in 2012 with Andy Reid as their head coach. It was Reid's 14th season, making the Eagles one of the most stable franchises in sports. While it was admittedly difficult for owner Jeffrey Lurie to pull the plug on Reid's tenure after working so closely together for so long, Lurie did just that.

Lurie hired Chip Kelly out of the University of Oregon. The Eagles went 10-6 in 2013, defeating the Cowboys in Week 17 to win the NFC East title.

If that isn't a quick turnaround, what is?

Across the parking lot from Lincoln Financial Field sits the Wells Fargo Center, where the Philadelphia 76ers are trying to turn their franchise around. The NBA's system -- fully guaranteed contracts and intricate trade rules that make salary dumping impossible -- all but forces teams to tank in order to have a shot at a superstar-caliber player.

The 76ers traded away most of the recognizable names from their already threadbare roster at the deadline. They were rewarded with a 20-point loss Monday night to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the worst record in the NBA.

A long 3-point basket away from the arena is Citizens Bank Park, where the Philadelphia Phillies reside. The 2008 World Series champions have spent massive amounts of payroll money to try to win another title while their core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley remains intact. But age, injuries and (again) those fully guaranteed contracts have the Phillies trapped in a cycle of ever diminishing returns.

Baseball and basketball present enormous challenges for a team trying to turn itself around quickly. The NFL? Sorry, Jerry, that excuse just doesn't fly.

It may have been easier when Jones bought the franchise 25 years ago, hired Jimmy Johnson and started amassing the talent that won three Super Bowls in four seasons. Things did change with the introduction of free agency and a salary cap, but that was 22 years ago. There has been time to adjust.

Since the Cowboys' last title in 1996, the Green Bay Packers have built two separate Super Bowl-winning programs -- one with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, one with Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. So have the Baltimore Ravens, who won it all in 2000 with Brian Billick and Trent Dilfer and in 2012 with John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco.

The New York Giants won a Super Bowl in 2007. When they won another four years later, there were only 14 players left from the 2007 team. New England, the team the Giants beat both times, had only seven players on the roster for both games.

Seattle just won the Super Bowl with a team that had exactly four players who were on the roster before 2010.

You get the point. It is very possible in the NFL to change cultures, turn over rosters and flip a losing franchise into a winner in a short period of time. It takes two things: the ability to recognize change is needed and smart decisions when making it.

The New Orleans Saints established themselves as one of the league’s elite teams and won a Super Bowl. The key was hiring Sean Payton, a coach who had spent the three previous seasons working as an assistant for Jones.

The Eagles have had three major reboots with Lurie as their owner. They hired Ray Rhodes in 1995 and cut their losses after a 3-13 season in 1998. Lurie hired the virtually unknown Reid in 1999. While Reid did not produce a championship, he was coach and eventually chief personnel man for a six-year stretch in which the Eagles were the class of the NFC East.

Lurie stuck with Reid a year or three too long, out of some combination of loyalty and finger-crossed hope things would improve. When he finally did make a change, Lurie admitted it was the toughest decision of his tenure as owner. Clearly, there was no guarantee he was going to find as good a coach as the one he fired.

For Jones, such a wrenching decision is even harder because the man whose work he's judging is one Jerry Jones. A clear-eyed owner wouldn't accept a GM's rationale that the team is stuck in mediocrity because of bad cap management, ill-advised contracts and misplaced loyalty.

It was hard for Lurie to reach that point with his friend Reid. Evidently, it's even harder to get there when the guy making excuses is yourself.

Phil Sheridan

ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter

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