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Friday, April 15, 2005

Are The Wheels On the Bus Falling Off?

Many remember the late Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", leader of the Merry Pranksters and one of the key subjects of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which was about the Merry Pranksters' cross country trip in the 1960's on a psychedelic-colored bus. Kesey had a saying during those times, which was "You're either on the bus or off the bus."

But before you start saying, "Oh, gee, that's really profound," you should remember or realize that Kesey was talking metaphorically, as in "either you're with the concept or not with the concept," and if you weren't with the concept, you probably should have dragged your posterior off the bus. Physically, and, yes, metaphysically. In modern football terms, you are either with the program or not with the program.

One of the best examples of getting people on the same page (i.e., the bus) and coordinated in the same program has been the Philadelphia Eagles, where, with the leadership of Andy Reid and the cap management of Joe Banner, the Eagles have been able to produce outstanding teams over the past five years -- four straight conference championship appearances and a Super Bowl appearance this past winter. Through the leadership of Reid and key players, including QB Donovan McNabb, the Eagles have been able to come together, bury discontent, and forge an outstanding record. It's been one fun bus ride.

They also had to be encouraged by last year's Super Bowl appearance, for they had fared much better against the heralded New England Patriots than either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Indianapolis Colts had in the AFC playoffs. The Eagles played a good game, just not good enough to win. Star WR Terrell Owens gave an inspired effort, coming back earlier than expected from ankle surgery. With their cap well-managed, a solid roster of veterans, and a league-high 13 draft choices, Eagles' fans have had reason to be optimistic that their team would be the NFC's odds-on favorite to appear in the Super Bowl in early 2006. The team continues to re-load, not rebuild.

In other words, everyone in Philadelphia was on the bus, with some promising newcomers in the queue given the number of draft picks, and with some good players (second-year G Shawn Andrews and DE N.D. Kalu returning from injuries).

Until now.

The good news for the Eagles prior to last season was that through the trade for Terrell Owens, the Eagles solved one of their most glaring weaknesses, which was adding a top-notch WR who could help the Eagles improve their offense. Owens performed most ably, and he helped lead the team to the Super Bowl. Not only was his play in the Super Bowl outstanding, his sportsmanship during the NFC playoffs, most notably when he stood on the bench waving a towel in support of his teammates in the NFC championship game against Atlanta, was classy and infectious. T.O. transcended his reputation -- he was just great.

The bad news for the Eagles is that when you ink a T.O., you get the unpredicability that has accompanied him throughout his career. While it's true that FredEx, Freddie Mitchell, has been much more outspoken (he probably leads the league in words uttered publicly by a role player), it's T.O. who people care about much more. If Freddie squawks, well, he could end up out of town (the way G John Wellbourn was sent packing the year before). But if T.O. acts up -- as he has through his demand for a new deal -- his potential unhappiness is tantamount to running an earthquake through the team. If he shows up and is unhappy, the "on the bus" theory gets shattered. If he doesn't report to camp, then the Eagles' passing game reverts to what it was before T.O. And the "on the bus" theory gets shattered.

Neither is a pretty scenario.

Either presents the possibility of the wheels falling off the bus.

The Eagles' front office won't be bullied, and they won't let one player's salary demands hold the harmony of the bus hostage. History has demonstrated that. T.O., on the other hand, claims that all he wants is a fair deal and that he got taken advantage of last year when the trade of T.O. to the Eagles was brokered. Whether or not he truly wants to create this fissure is an open question -- a fissure, though, is a likely consequence of his actions, and he had to know that when he took his stand.

The Eagles' front office has managed difficult relationships in different ways. Typically it has let aging players go, because some team will pay them more than the sagacious Eagles think the player is worth, and the Eagles usually have been proven right on that front. When John Wellbourn spoke out, ostensibly wanting a better contract, he found himself playing in Kansas City. The difference, though, is that Wellbourn was a serviceable lineman who was replaceable, while Owens is an all-pro player who really isn't replaceable.

That difference, then, presents Andy Reid and Joe Banner with their most formidable player personnel challenge to date.

It might have required an arbitrator and a quasi-court proceeding to bring Owens to Philadelphia, but who would have thought that keeping him happy present a more challenging effort?

The Eagles need T.O., and T.O. really needs the Eagles. He thrived in Philadelphia last year, overall. Right now, though, neither side seems to be willing to give in, and if that pattern holds true over the course of the next several months, there will be anxious times in Philadelphia.

Because a wobbly bus ride is not something they're used to in Philadelphia, and it's certainly not a fun one.

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