PHILADELPHIA -- Imagine spending 18 years as an assistant football coach. Imagine finally getting the chance to run the show.
Now imagine standing on the sideline at Green Bay's Lambeau Field -- the first quarter of your first game as head coach -- watching your franchise quarterback leave the field on the back of a cart, his season over almost before it had begun.
"Very difficult," Rich Kotite said. "It was stunning. But life goes on."
Life without Randall Cunningham wasn't entirely unpleasant for Kotite's Philadelphia Eagles, as long as veteran Jim McMahon was around to fill in during those early weeks. Then, when he, too, was lost, when Kotite had to turn to rookie Brad Goebel and retread Pat Ryan, "very difficult" took on a whole, new meaning.
Soon, the Eagles were 3-5. Local radio call-in shows did what they do best: mock the local coach and call for his head. Banners at Veterans Stadium begged for the return of Buddy Ryan. Newspapers made similar pleas. Ryan himself remained a visible television presence, picking the Eagles to win each week, citing the marvelous talent he had assembled in his five years.
For Kotite, longtime assistant with Cleveland and the New York Jets, the spotlight was unfamiliar. In his eyes, it shined like the lights of an oncoming truck.
"It was very new," he said. "All I knew was all the energy I had had to be directed toward the football team, keeping them together."
That's no easy task for a rookie head coach dealing with veterans accustomed to playoff checks. Ask the New York Giants' Ray Handley. His was in a similar situation, although most would say the Giants had a better blend of talent than the defense-dominated Eagles. Handley's team is 7-7 without postseason hopes.
Kotite's team, which will start a fifth quarterback today, is 9-5 and in position to reach the playoffs a fourth consecutive season. The Eagles, owners of the NFL's longest winning streak at six games, could solidify that position tomorrow when they play host to the Dallas Cowboys.
To say Kotite didn't believe at midseason the Eagles would reach this stage is to doubt his word. But to say he didn't expect in January to be in this position is to speak the truth.
The Eagles suffered an embarrassing, first-round playoff loss at home to Washington last season, the game in which Ryan benched Cunningham for a series and played McMahon. The next day was Ryan's last as Eagles coach. Kotite, who had spent only one season as a Ryan assistant, figured he was gone, too.
Kotite got the word of Ryan's demise from another Philadelphia assistant and immediately called home.
"I called my wife and said, 'Get ready, I think we're going to get fired,' " Kotite said.
About five hours later, owner Norman Braman and club president Harry Gamble called in Kotite and offered him Ryan's job. Braman and Gamble talked to former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh and also met with defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher, now with the Rams, before promoting Kotite.
"I don't know if I ever went through something quite like that before," Kotite said. "I really appreciated the opportunity.
"The year before, I had been with the Jets for seven years, and we were all fired the day after Christmas, so I was just fortunate to be here last year. It goes to show you that you never know."
Kotite immediately went about putting together a staff, one he claimed "may have more experience than any in the league." One of his first phone calls was to Bud Carson, fired as Cleveland's head coach during the 1990 season and Kotite's former boss with the New York Jets in 1985-88.
Kotite vowed that the Eagles' defense, so strong under Ryan, would be even more productive under Carson. So far, Kotite has been proven correct. The Eagles lead the NFL in virtually all major defensive categories (run defense, pass defense, total defense, sacks and take-aways).
"I was happy he [Carson] wanted to get back into coaching," Kotite said. "I've always felt there's not a better game-day coordinator in the league. I felt if he would come here, he'd have the right people for his kind of scheme. And that's indicative of how they've played."
Carson said he had no reservations about joining Kotite's staff.
"I knew if I stayed in coaching, he was one guy I'd want to work for," Carson said. "I think Richie has handled this squad as well as I've ever seen. It's a veteran squad, and he's done things different that I've seen before, but he's kept them ready and rested. He didn't panic."
While Kotite leaves the defensive X's and O's to Carson, it's not as if he hasn't added his personal stamp. The Eagles do not yet resemble boy scouts but mostly have put their trash-talking days behind them. Gone are the black shoes and black towels, their bad-boy trademarks of the past few seasons. Even safety Andre Waters, who has been fined this season for starting a post-game fight with New Orleans, has gone 14 games without drawing a personal foul.