One of Doug Pederson's favorite lines is that when his team is able to execute properly he doesn't care if the opponent has the entire Eagles playbook.
"Here, I'll give it to you," he has said on several occasions.
It is a time-worn sentiment in the NFL, one that often references the legendary Green Bay power sweep, which Vince Lombardi leaned on heavily and never altered. Everyone knew exactly what was coming. No one stopped it.
Pederson's offense is not quite at that level yet, either in execution or the personnel carrying out the assignments, two things that are closely related. He's a coach, though, so he believes the problems can be solved, even after the flaming wreck that took place in Landover on Sunday.
A lot of warranted attention has been given to the failings of the defense, and the Eagles scores that came on the kickoff and interception returns masked the severity of the beating, but the other side of the ball was equally awful. The offense managed two field goals, and that's about what it deserved.
At this critical juncture, with the team having gone from world beaters to narrow losers to punching bags in the space of three games, the coach's contention that it doesn't matter if the other team has his playbook will be tested this week against the undefeated Minnesota Vikings.
Because they do.
Although Pederson said quarterback Sam Bradford had to concentrate on his own preparation, here's figuring Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards found an hour or two in the last two weeks for a debriefing session. There aren't a lot of secrets in the NFL, but there are also only five game films from Pederson's head coaching career. Teams study tendencies carefully and, at this level, the coaches can break down a scheme very quickly. Still, there's nothing like some help from a player with firsthand experience, particularly a veteran quarterback.
Along with injuries, a devastating suspension, and his team's proclivity for foot-shooting penalties, the schedule hasn't done Pederson any favors, either. At the very time he needs to steady the ship and keep it from sinking, the NFL gives him the Vikings, perhaps the best team in the conference, followed by a road game against the Cowboys, who are threatening to run away with the division.
It's easy to say that this wasn't supposed to be much of a season, anyway, but it is still a trial run for the head coach. How he handles success and how he handles failure, how he keeps the locker room together and how he instructs his staff to adjust, all of those things are being measured by the players, the front office, and the fans. Maybe this isn't a season in which the Eagles are expected to look like championship contenders, but it is a season in which Pederson is expected to look like a head coach.
His first major in-season challenge was replacing Lane Johnson, and that wasn't a roaring success on Sunday. There is a school of thought that Pederson was instructed to go with Halapoulivaati Vaitai because the front office wants to get a firm sense of whether the fifth-round draft pick can develop into the starting right tackle of some gauzy future in which Johnson moves to the left side, assuming he doesn't eat horse tranquilizers back in Oklahoma in the interim.
Perhaps, but taking Pederson at his word, the decision was made because Vaitai was considered the best option; better than moving Alan Barbre to right tackle and inserting Stefen Wisneiwski at left guard, better than simply subbing Matt Tobin at right tackle and leaving Barbre where he is.
It's fine they gave that a try, but seeing Vaitai's struggles, and the extent to which Pederson had to steal from his offense to help the rookie, staying with the plan is perilous. Devising a strategy that doesn't work happens. Repeating it isn't advised. Giving Vaitai one more week is acceptable, but if there is no improvement the locker room will expect Pederson to take charge.
The coach has other fires to put out. He has to figure out why one of his few offensive weapons, Zach Ertz, was on the field for 46 snaps against Washington and targeted only four times. (Because he had to block for Vaitai.) He has to figure out why the rookie quarterback who is so sharp and has been so thoroughly schooled took two terrible sacks at the end of the game. He has to figure out why the punt unit wasn't ready and hustled onto the field to save what could have been a vital timeout in the waning minutes.
And now he has to get his team to execute against the Vikings, who do, in fact, have his playbook.
"A few years ago, Donovan was in Washington and we played him and had a pretty good day. So, listen, I'm not going to change anything. Will we tweak some stuff? Yes. We still have to get ready," Pederson said. "I think where it becomes valuable for a coach when a player knows [the other team] is just knowing personnel. I think that becomes more valuable than the X's and O's."
We'll leave aside the relative value of having Donovan McNabb break down a scheme as opposed to Sam Bradford, and also leave aside that the Eagles split with Washington in that 2010 season, losing the first meeting, 17-12. What Pederson said that is dead accurate is that Bradford's intimate knowledge of the Eagles roster is what might help the Vikes most. He knows which players the coaches trust on big downs and which players can be ignored in this situation and that. Knowing the whole playbook is good, but knowing in which corners of it the Eagles hang their hat is better.
In the end, the old saying is still right, however. Execution trumps the playbook. Doug Pederson might not be Vince Lombardi, but what held for the legend is the same for the rookie. Where the new coach will be judged this season isn't on how his team looks - and that appears to be a fortunate thing - but on how he looks leading it. After last Sunday and the right tackle mess, he could already use a little bit of a comeback.