PHILADELPHIA -- Of the 80-some prospects on the field at Lehigh University for the first day of Philadelphia Eagles training camp in 1999, only a half-dozen veterans have shared the entire tenure of Andy Reid.
Such wholesale attrition, which has become the norm in this era of free agency and the salary cap, is a graphic reminder of the overall dearth of continuity leaguewide.
But here's a statistic that helps illustrate why the Eagles, at a time when continuity has become a term arcane to the NFL lexicon, have remained a model of consistency and are once again a Super Bowl contender: Of the 14 assistant coaches on Reid's inaugural staff, 11 are still working for him.
How rare is it to retain the vast majority of a staff for such an extended period? Well, think about this: Only one other team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, returns its entire 2004 coaching staff intact for 2005. Reid's staff, except for a few tweaks of titles and responsibilities, has remained wholly unchanged now for two straight seasons. The three coordinators -- Brad Childress (offense), Jim Johnson (defense) and John Harbaugh (special teams) -- have all been with Reid since his rookie year. All have held coordinator status on Reid's staff since at least 2002.
Stability is, for sure, an elusive commodity in the NFL. But if you think Philadelphia team president Joe Banner has done a tremendous job keeping the window of opportunity propped open with his masterful management of the salary cap, and by retaining the team's long-term nucleus with timely and palatable contract extensions, an equally significant achievement might be in the unparalleled coaching continuum he has helped to string together.
"Continuity in this league is a premium," Banner said following a recent camp practice. "It really is a fleeting commodity. But when people consider it, they're usually thinking about players basically, and it is much more than that. Being able to keep our staff, having the kind of stability that provides us, it's invaluable."
The hallmark for Banner, arguably the NFL's premier salary cap manager, and the Eagles' support staff has been in identifying key young players early in their careers, then signing them to long-term extensions well in advance of the expiration of their first contracts. For example, cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, entering their second season as starters, are under contract through 2011 and 2012, respectively.
But while the Eagles went to great lengths last year to lock up their cornerbacks for the long term, the franchise has been just as diligent in retaining the cornerstones of Reid's staff with extensions. Reid and Johnson each has six years remaining on his contract. Harbaugh has two years left on his deal. Childress and assistant head coach Marty Mornhinweg are under contract for four more years. Essentially, the only way any of those assistants will depart in the near future is if they land head coaching jobs. That is a strong likelihood in particular for Childress, who should be on the short list of any team seeking to make a change next spring. But were he to depart, Reid could easily turn to Mornhinweg, a former Detroit Lions head coach, to preside over the offense.
The brand of coaching stability the Eagles enjoy, veteran players agreed in camp, can be neither overlooked nor underestimated.
Take just one example, that of quarterback Donovan McNabb, and what the stability on the coaching staff has meant for him. His first quarterbacks coach when he came into the league in 1999 was Childress, who is now his offensive coordinator. Current quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur was the tight ends assistant in 1999, so he had some contact even then with McNabb. Wide receivers coach David Culley joined the Eagles the same season McNabb came aboard. Running backs coach Ted Williams and offensive line mentor Juan Castillo were both holdovers from the Ray Rhodes staff, so they were in place when McNabb arrived.
You don't think the staff stability played some part in McNabb's progress over the years? It has, almost certainly, affected the Eagles' performance at virtually every position.
"There's no doubt having the same [coach] to work with, year in and year out, someone who really knows you, is a positive," said starting center Hank Fraley, who was claimed on waivers in 2000 and has worked with Castillo ever since. "You build a certain trust factor in each other. There's no breaking-in period from one camp to the next. You know what to expect from your coach and he knows what to expect from you."
How much the coaching carryover has contributed to the Eagles' success -- what role it has played in the fact that Philadelphia has won four consecutive division titles, been to four straight NFC championship games, and is a favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl for a second straight year -- cannot be quantified. But having a quality staff, and one that isn't constantly undergoing change, is meaningful to players and is a key to overall stability.
Said defensive end Hugh Douglas: "When I left here [after the 2002 season], then came back [in 2004], it meant a lot to see so many of the same faces in the locker room. And it meant a lot that the same defensive line coach [Tommy Brasher] was still here, too. That means you can settle right in to your comfort zone with a position coach you know."
Over the past several years, not many franchises have been able to duplicate the Eagles' salary cap model, and even fewer have simulated the team's coaching paradigm.
There are only five men -- Brian Billick (Baltimore), Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh), Jeff Fisher (Tennessee), Mike Holmgren (Seattle) and Mike Shanahan (Denver) -- besides Reid who were head coaches in 1999 and are currently with the same teams. In 1999, those five coaches had 68 assistants total on their staffs. Of that group, just 22 remain on the staffs of the five coaches. That's a retention rate of less than one-third. Reid, over the same period, has kept nearly 80 percent of his original staff from his inaugural NFL season.
Philadelphia doesn't churn over its roster nearly as much as some teams. But it never -- well, almost never -- tinkers with its coaching staff.
Eagles coaches simply do not leave. Only three assistant coaches (exclusive of quality control aides) have left Philadelphia during Reid's tenure. Two of them, Ron Rivera and Leslie Frazier, departed to accept promotions as defensive coordinators for other NFL clubs. The third, Rod Dowhower, retired after a long coaching career in the NFL and at the college level.
It is a testament to Reid and the front office, from owner Jeff Lurie down, that the Eagles have crafted such a superb working environment. And there's an obvious trickle-down effect that reaches from the boardroom to the playing field. The Eagles draft well, do an incredible job of identifying key players early in their careers, and then work hard to keep them around. This is a team that rarely loses a player it wants to retain, usually because the nucleus veterans always seem to be signed for four or five years.
"You can't do what we're doing with the cap," Banner said, "and not make at least a few mistakes along the way."
Maybe so. But few of the early extensions the Eagles have negotiated with young players have blown up in their faces. And because they have been so successful at keeping the core group, the kind of stability the Eagles have with their coaching staff extends as well to much of their roster. It is a franchise that, much like New England, is now a model for how to run a team.
Once regarded disdainfully in some league circles as just a bean-counter, a guy who wasn't a so-called "football man" and too often tried to apply and interject some business practices into the game, Banner has finally outgrown that label. The working paradigm that he has fashioned, with great synergy between the personnel and coaching staffs, is highly admired now. Not surprisingly, Banner credits Reid with bringing the foundation for stability to a franchise that had very little of that commodity before his arrival.
According to Banner, when the team was considering coaching candidates after firing Rhodes following the 1998 season, officials developed a profile based more on success off the field than on it. The Eagles' brass set about to identifying the outstanding traits most common to very successful head coaches, with "very successful" defined as having been to at least two Super Bowls. Those qualities -- attention to detail, leadership, conviction, ability to communicate, calculated risk taking -- were all commodities germane to success in any field and not just football.
And those are the qualities the Eagles saw in Reid, whom Philadelphia made the highest-paid rookie coach in NFL history at the time, and whom the organization might try to keep around forever.
"The thing about Andy was that he didn't care how many games we won that first year, because it was more important to lay a foundation, to get a system and players in place for the long haul," Banner said. "He totally changed the mind-set."
Six years later, the Eagles don't change very much at all. That stability, which seems to transcend every other imperative here, clearly is a prime component of their success.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.