On his way to his morning news conference Wednesday, four days before the Eagles’ wild-card-round game against the Bears, Doug Pederson plopped a black binder atop the stage in the NovaCare Center auditorium, maybe 15 feet from the lectern where he would speak. The room was full of media members, and Pederson had left a copy of the Eagles playbook, and all the secrets therein, within reach of a few dozen relative strangers. So someone told him: You know, Doug, you’re playing with fire by leaving that there.
“Why?” Pederson said, grinning. “You can’t decipher it anyway.”
At the lectern, he wished everyone a Happy New Year. Then he had a question: “Can I start?” He had read the transcripts of the media’s Q&As Tuesday with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Mike Groh. “I really appreciate the questions on the Bears,” Pederson said. “That’s awesome. I think there were more questions about our opponent this week than about injuries. So I really appreciate that.”
If you read those comments cold on the page or the computer screen, they might seem acerbic or sarcastic. They weren’t. They were light and glib, and they struck a direct contrast to the public pose that Pederson had taken ahead of last year’s postseason. Back then, he had been edgier, less affable, his answers clipped and defensive. This time, Pederson projected an image of relaxed confidence. It was difficult not to come away thinking that he believed his team’s chances to beat the Bears were pretty darned good.
“I know how our team has really fought the last month of the season, the last month and a half of the season,” he said. “It does give you a little comfort knowing that we’ve gone through this grind and we’re here now. We have to continue to grind, continue to work. I don’t think it’s any easier. It’s a different team, different set of circumstances. We have to travel. If we’re fortunate to win, we have to travel again. It feels different, but the excitement is the same.”
What’s different, really, are the circumstances around the Eagles and their place in the NFC postseason. For all the underdog imagery that they seized on last season to inspire them, for all the reasons to question whether they could reach the Super Bowl — let alone win it — once they lost Carson Wentz to that knee injury, they were still the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They were still 13-3, with a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference tournament.
Even without Wentz, that context conferred plenty of pressure on them, particularly on Pederson. He had no postseason track record as a head coach, and over the two weeks before that divisional-round game against the Atlanta Falcons, he and his staff took on a formidable challenge.
Based on Nick Foles’ poor play in the Eagles’ final two regular-season games, against the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, Pederson and his assistants revamped the offense to accentuate Foles’ strengths and conceal his weaknesses.
From halftime of that Falcons game to the blissful end of Super Bowl LII, Foles was so brilliant that it’s easy to forget how tenuous that time was for the Eagles and how stressful it must have been for Pederson, how great a gamble he had made, how much he had at stake.
Everything is different this year. Pederson signed a healthy contract extension in the offseason, and if his status as the newest member of the Super Bowl Coaches Club didn’t earn him the benefit of the doubt, his performance over these last six weeks should.
At 4-6, coming off that awful loss in New Orleans to the Saints, the Eagles seemed in need of a priest. What they got instead was Pederson, holding them together, clearing their heads, keeping them focused. Save for that one moment of hesitation against the Cowboys, when he played for a tie instead of bidding to take a late lead, he has done just about everything right lately.
Now, the Eagles are 9-7 and rolling. Foles isn’t a mystery. He’s a Super Bowl MVP. Pederson and his staff didn’t have to scramble. They already had the post-Wentz template in place. This is as pressure-free an environment as a defending champion can enjoy. There’s less reason for anxiousness, and there’s no reason for Pederson to feel the need to start fresh with a new strategy or scheme or approach.
“I’m a big believer that if it’s not broke, you don’t have to fix it,” he said. “We’ve done that the last month. … At this stage of the game, this late in the season, I don’t feel like you have to change a whole lot just to change.”