Shortly before kickoff of the Philadelphia Eagles' 38-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, smoke could be seen billowing from a car on fire in Parking Lot E at Lincoln Financial Field.
According to some speculative tweeters, the vehicle belonged to a Cowboys fan who had drummed up trouble with the wrong Philadelphians. Others wrote that it was simply sparked by hot charcoal in the wrong spot.
However, after watching the Eagles' fifth straight loss unfold inside the stadium, one couldn't help but wonder whether the pre-game flames were a larger metaphor for a team, a season and a head coach in Andy Reid that seem to be going down in a blaze of glory.
For exactly 7 minutes and 40 seconds on Sunday, the Eagles (3-6) appeared as though they knew what they were doing, as Philadelphia took the game-opening drive 80 yards down the field and jumped out to a 7-0 lead on an acrobatic touchdown catch by Riley Cooper.
But by the end of the first half, quarterback Michael Vick had been knocked out of the game with a concussion and the lug nuts on the Eagles' ride were starting to rattle. Backup Nick Foles failed to even convert a first down in his three first-half possessions, and his most memorable play was his first career pass, which fell incomplete after plunking wide receiver Jason Avant in the head.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the wheels had completely fallen off, with the Cowboys turning a 17-17 tie into a 31-17 lead in a matter of 1:15 without ever touching the ball on offense, scoring on a 78-yard punt return by Dwayne Harris and a 47-yard interception return by Brandon Carr.
And by the time Dallas had recovered a Foles fumble in the end zone with 53 seconds left to play to take a 38-23 lead, most of the Eagles faithful who gave Foles a standing ovation when he entered the game in the second quarter, had left. The only large pocket of fans remaining stood in the stands behind the Dallas bench holding a large banner that read, "Andy, Quit. Your Team Has!"
So this is what it has come to for Philadelphia, a team that seems to already be shifting its focus toward next year.
They've got an unpopular, concussed starting quarterback who can't take care of the ball, a green backup who can't move the ball, a running back in LeSean McCoy who isn't getting enough touches -- he only had 16 for 82 yards on Sunday -- and a coach who isn't happy about much of anything, but can't do much to change it and likely won't be back in 2013 to see what happens next.
After the game, Reid insisted that his team could and would be better starting next week against the Washington Redskins. But as he grunted one-sentence answers at the assembled media, hiding a furrowed brow under the bill of his black baseball cap and angry scowl behind his overgrown mustache, Reid came off like a coach who didn't even believe the hope he was barely projecting.
"Right now we are what we are, so we've got to change that around, and I believe we have the players to do that," he said, unconvincingly. "I take full responsibility for our play. So I'm going to do a better job, they're going to do a better job, and we'll get it right."
That's nice and all, but not much about the Eagles' performance on Sunday suggests that they will do what their coach promised, and, while the problems stretch all across the field, and to the defense, which gave up 369 yards, it all starts under center.
Philly fans, who have seen a Phillies win more recently than an Eagles win, have been calling for Reid to be replaced for weeks, only pausing to cry that the error-prone Vick be replaced as starting QB. But after seeing what they had in the 23-year-old Foles, they may wish they could take that latter demand back.
Foles finished the game 22-of-32 for 220 yards, one touchdown -- a 44-yard strike to Jeremy Maclin, who was so wide open I could have hit him from the press box -- one interception, and the costly fourth-quarter fumble, but it could have, and perhaps should have been much worse.
On a second-and-13 play with 2:42 left in the first half, Foles hit Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick right in the chest with a pass that should have been returned for a pick-6 but was, mercifully, dropped.
On the Eagles' first offensive play of the fourth quarter, Foles threw an ugly interception that would have given Dallas the ball at the Eagles 17-yard line. Fortunately, a penalty against Cowboys cornerback Mo Claiborne, who seemed to get pelted with yellow flags every time he stepped on the field, negated that near-disaster.
"(I was) not good enough to win," Foles said after the game, perhaps understating his debut. "I made some mistakes; I can't turn the ball over, and that's the most important thing to win games. ... But that's a learning experience. I'm going to learn from it and get better."
After the game, Reid indicated that Vick would still be his team's starter when he's back at 100 percent, but given the fickle and serious nature of concussions, it's tough to know when that will be. And given the Eagles' steady slide out of the NFC playoff picture, it's plausible that Foles could just ride out the season and gain some valuable experience that will benefit him in years to come.
But regardless of how Foles develops, it seems unlikely that anything short of an epic turnaround will save Reid, who is likely living out the final weeks of his tenure with the Eagles, a car fire of a team that's only getting worse.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .