Andy Reid was just 40 when he became a head coach for the first time. Babies born that day are now in college. Reid was the second-youngest coach in the NFL, and had never been a head coach or even a coordinator at any level.
Fans in Philadelphia were less than impressed with his hire, perhaps best summed by a column in the local paper that called him a “large, lumbering, slightly rumpled man with a walrus mustache.”
Reid has been a constant in the NFL in the 19 years since, his hair graying, his offense innovative, his clock management cursed, his playoff losses ridiculed.
The top of the country’s most popular sport allows nowhere to hide. The job has made Reid wealthy and famous, one of the game’s most respected offensive minds, a reputation strong enough that exactly one quarter of NFL teams are coached by him or a former assistant. He has a house on the Pacific Ocean to dream up plays, and for nearly two decades a lectern from which to dodge questions and a passionate fan base to scream at him.
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He will turn 60 next month. No current head coach has been around longer. Even if you start the clock with the Chiefs hiring him in 2013, he’s been in place longer than 22 of the league’s 31 other coaches.
His career so far is something like an interesting but repetitive plateau — 13 postseasons but just one Super Bowl, losing records just twice this century but just one playoff win since 2008.
His reputation is fairly well set. Almost always good, and nearly two decades in, never once truly great.
Just weeks after (another) historic playoff collapse, Reid and the Chiefs made the NFL’s biggest news of Super Bowl week by trading quarterback Alex Smith to Washington. The upshot of the deal, of course, is that the team will end 40 consecutive seasons of using another team’s backup by giving the job to Patrick Mahomes.
This figures to be Reid’s last chance to develop a star quarterback.
His last and perhaps even best ride to eventually win a Super Bowl, like the one his former assistant and former backup quarterback are playing in this weekend.
This is the part where his own career and reputation either rise to the sport’s peak, or simply add more years of the same.
This is the part where he will be seen as one of the sport’s all-time grinders, winning a Super Bowl further into his career than anyone else in league history, or the man who spent a generation losing playoff games with four highly drafted and hand-picked quarterbacks.
With that same walrus mustache.
It’s interesting that Reid has coached so long his career is old enough to vote and in real terms has had his own, specifically chosen quarterback for all 328 games, including the playoffs.
Go back to the very beginning. Doug Pederson started the first nine games Reid coached in Philadelphia. The pair came over from Green Bay, together, and both knew how this would go.
Pederson, the veteran quarterback, would serve as a sort of player-coach, a placeholder until Donovan McNabb — taken by Reid with the second overall pick in his first draft in charge — was ready.
That’s an interesting story on its own. You might remember the video of draft night, of Eagles fans booing the pick. A Philly radio host had bussed in 30 fans to cause that ruckus, but he might not have needed to go to the trouble. The mayor was among the voices begging Reid to take Ricky Williams, who had just won the Heisman at Texas.
Picture that: Freshly in charge of a long-suffering franchise with one of the most vocal fan bases in the country, Reid not only ignored the voices but then sat his golden quarterback for nine games behind a career backup.
This man does what he believes, is the point.
Reid eventually made McNabb his starting quarterback for 10 years (highlighted by playing in Super Bowl XXXIX), then coached three more in Philly with Michael Vick (who had the best season of his career with Reid) before coming to Kansas City.
Reid and general manager John Dorsey brought Alex Smith to the Chiefs, a long mutual admiration finally made personal. It took five years, but Reid got Smith’s best, too, the right amount of downfield passing to go with the protect-the-ball-protect-the-ball nature Smith’s always had.
Any decent coach is able to adjust his asks for the talent he has, but you can see a pattern in the quarterbacks Reid chooses. He prioritizes athleticism, most obviously, but also competitiveness, commitment and quarterbacks able to strike the right balance between distribution based on reading the defense with smart risks based on guts.
He had at least some of those qualities in each of his three previous quarterbacks.
He’s never had one quite like Patrick Mahomes.
One of the emerging stories of the last Chiefs season, particularly for more passionate fans, was Reid’s play-calling. For the second time in three seasons, the offense jarred loose from a slump as Reid publicly acknowledged ceding some control over play-calls to an offensive coordinator.
The truth is more nuanced. Reid never gave up influence over those calls, and Matt Nagy said he called every play in the second half of the playoff disaster against the Titans, calling it “a failure in my book.”
But the point here is not to re-litigate. The point here is context for the fact that Reid had full control of both the game plan and play-calls in a Week 17 game at Denver that was fundamentally meaningless except for Mahomes making his first start.
If ever there was a time for the head coach to give up control, to let his assistants go through the process and spend his own time on potential playoff matchups, that was it.
Instead, Reid did everything.
Because The Kid was starting.
This was a critical step in the beginning stages of a working relationship that will shape the Chiefs and Kansas City sports for years to come.
Mahomes is, in some ways, the evolutionary vision of a Reid quarterback. He is not quite as big as McNabb, not as fast as Vick and not as savvy as Smith. But he is something like a Weird Science creation combining aspects of all three.
He is athletic enough to be a problem against a pass rush, diligent enough to know when and where to expect blitzes, coachable enough to understand the importance of the right plays and freakishly gifted enough to do what so few are capable of. There may not be a stronger arm in the league.
This will take time. At some point — in the beginning, and probably often — Mahomes will throw a bad interception over the middle. His shoulders will slump a little and Reid will take off his headset and try to help.
There will be other moments, too. Spectacular moments. That backpedaling throw against the sideline between three defenders on a game-winning drive in Denver really happened, and there’s more to come. That’s why the Chiefs used two first-round picks to draft him, why they’re comfortable trading Smith away and why Reid insisted on having full control for an otherwise meaningless game.
The man has done everything in this game. He has coached Hall of Famers, raised assistants into head coaches and eventual Super Bowl champions. He has fixed two broken fan bases, rehabbed reputations and been one of the NFL’s most consistent winners for so long that Tom Brady is the only non-specialist who was in the league when Reid coached his first playoff game.
He’s done everything ... except win a Super Bowl.
That’s a long path to get here. A lot of pain and success and failure to begin the first season of the rest of his career, with a terrifically talented young quarterback who can either help Reid achieve what he hasn’t or indirectly validate those who believe Reid is just good enough to let you down in the playoffs.
Because no matter how this partnership goes, Mahomes will get another chance.
But if Reid makes it no further with Mahomes, it will be impossible to believe he ever will.