PHILADELPHIA — It began with the acquisition of Terrell Owens.
It continued with the drafting and re-signing of receiver DeSean Jackson, the signing of cornerback Asante Samuel, the disloyalty to safety Brian Dawkins, the hiring of Jim Washburn.
After spending his first five years building a foundation of players and coaches of concrete character and solid talent, Eagles coach and football operations Czar Andy Reid allowed himself to hire a handful of low-character, high-output prima donnas.
Argue the involvement of former vice president Joe Banner, owner Jeffrey Lurie and current general manager Howie Roseman all you like: Nothing happens unless Reid signs off on it. Reid sought out a handful of narcissists of the worst possible sort: Smart enough to stay out of jail and out of the papers; but narcissists who ultimately could not resist the pull of their selfishness.
No one was more selfish than T.O.
The trade for Owens was, at the time, a shocking move, but the shock was dampened by the franchise's admission, finally, that it needed a No. 1 receiver for the offense to work, and the fan base's exultation at that admission. Owens arrived with the baggage of excessive celebrations, a history of discontent with his bosses and questioning the sexual orientation of a teammate.
Owens played ferociously until it became clear to Owens and agent Drew Rosenhaus that the Eagles would not extend his contract; then, Owens began acting out, allowing Reid his first chance to mishandle a situation involving a high-maintenance, dysfunctional personality.
It devolved into Reid suspending perhaps the most talented offensive player the franchise had ever seen, then releasing him after the season.
It would not be the Reid's last mistake.
Last season Reid wound up suspending disgruntled receiver DeSean Jackson after Jackson — also represented by Rosenhaus, also seeking an extension — repeatedly failed his teammates, on and off the field. The Eagles missed the playoffs by one win. Jackson, an incomparable playmaker and an invaluable decoy, possibly cost them two wins.
In reaction to his petulance and unprofessionalism, the Eagles signed Jackson to a five-year, $51 million deal in the offseason.
As much as a wide receiver can affect the temperature of a team, a high-profile assistant can affect it even more.
Defensive line coach Jim Washburn's self-importance might have been absorbed by a more established pair of bosses, but callow coordinators Juan Castillo and Todd Bowles posed no match for “Wash” and his doomed “wide-nine” alignment.
Doomed, because it works only when a gargantuan defensive tackle such as Albert Haynesworth disrupts the middle of the line so as to make it undesirable for running backs and quarterbacks alike.
Perhaps the late Jim Johnson could have handled Washburn's act; perhaps not. Certainly, Washburn's alleged insubordination would not have materialized. Johnson would have bitten off Washburn's head and spat it back into his motorcycle helmet. Surely, things never would have come to that. Johnson never would have fully adopted the scheme, so Washburn likely never would have landed in Philadelphia.
Reid reacted poorly to Washburn's misdeeds. Reid fired loyal, embattled Castillo, an innovative offensive line coach whose dream of coaching defense Reid fulfilled … and sabotaged, by forcing Washburn upon him.
Castillo dealt with Washburn for 22 games and fielded a respectable, if flawed, defense for a team that went 11-11.
Bowles succeeded Castillo and dealt with Washburn for six games, all losses, in a historic stretch of defensive futility. Washburn was fired two games ago.
The presence of Washburn and his scheme left in question whether Castillo has any credibility as a defensive coach. So, too, remain questions about Bowles' qualifications as a coordinator.
These questions, unfair and unwarranted, lay at the feet of Reid.
So does the dearth of leadership in the locker room, after Dawkins asked for too many years and too much money after the 2008 season.
The limited gifts and limitless gall of scornful pass rusher Jason Babin (a success in the wide-nine and a failure otherwise) might have been effectively policed by a defense that had among it one unquestioned leader. A player such as Dawkins, a locker-room sheriff of unquestioned ability and backbone, would have squelched Babin's insubordination.
Unfortunately, this locker room had no leader. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins emerged as an unlikely voice of maturity and accountability last season, his first as an Eagle; he was, perhaps, their greatest value in their post-lockout spending splurge. It was a role that Jenkins was equipped to assume, even if he was surprised he was needed for that job.
However, Jenkins' authority suffered two injuries, both at the hands of Reid.
Jenkins was forced to take a $1.68 million pay cut in January. Then, in the second preseason game, Reid — who never singles players out in public — embarrassed Jenkins on the sideline. Flabbergasted, Jenkins roared back at Reid. The two had to be separated.
Jenkins quickly made the appropriate public apologies and reparations. His wallet diminished and his manhood accosted, his profile withered.
The defense lacked an alternative. By all accounts, linebacker DeMeco Ryans is a capable and accountable professional, but he is no sheriff. And, so, Babin was allowed to exist. Reid cut Babin after 11 games. The defensive line immediately improved.
How can this happen? Character misevaluation.
The personalities of decorated talents such as Trent Cole, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are not suited for fiery leadership.
Neither was that of Samuel, whose entire football ethic revolves around his stated strategy: baiting quarterbacks into throwing passes that he can intercept. That sort of subspecialty can be endured if the rest of the defense does the real work.
This defense, last season and this, lacked the cohesion and the personnel to endure a loudmouthed weak link. Samuel was traded in the offseason, but the damage was done. If he could do his own thing, why couldn't everyone else?
Reid never replaced Dawkins' presence. Neither did he replace Donovan McNabb's.
Regardless of his shortcomings, McNabb was the unquestioned face of the franchise from 2004 until the Eagles traded him before the 2010 season.
His anointed successor, Kevin Kolb, couldn't even keep the job. Michael Vick stole it. And Vick never has been the sort of player to inspire anything but awe.
Which brings the franchise to a sorry crossroads.
Reid and Vick are almost certain to be let go. Rookie quarterback Nick Foles seems to have plenty of intangibles, if his tangibles remain, at best, unrefined.
Second-year center Jason Kelce, one of seven offensive starters limited by injury, will act as the spokesman for his unit, and, perhaps, for the entire team.
The defense still lacks leadership. None seems likely to emerge, unless Ryans plays better and takes control.
With two meaningless games left in their 2012 disaster, it appears as if dozens of meaningless games loom in the very near future … thanks mainly to Reid, a high-character man who once counted character as the most important criterion.
Until he sold his soul for T.O.
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