EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Nothing changes. That was the plan. Except it wasn’t a plan at all. To call it a plan would be to suggest that a plan was in order. That the Eagles had reached a juncture that required a response that was out of the ordinary. There may have been a new quarterback under center when Doug Pederson gathered his team for its first practice of the week, but you wouldn’t have known it by listening to him or his assistant coaches speak.
“Business as usual,” running back Jay Ajayi said of the message from the coaching staff during the run-up to Sunday’s 34-29 win over the Giants. “Time to move on.”
There will be plenty of time for Coach of the Year discussions once the season is complete, but it is getting increasingly difficult to ignore the masterpiece that Pederson is painting this season. Throughout Sunday’s proceedings, you saw his imprint and its direct contribution to the final score.
Rather than dialing back the aggressiveness that has defined him as a play-caller in order to rely on his talented stable of running backs, Pederson came out throwing. In his first start in an Eagles uniform since 2014, Nick Foles dropped back to pass five times on the team’s first possession, including a perfectly executed bubble screen to Alshon Jeffery on the Eagles’ first play of the game and a 32-yard incompletion to Torrey Smith that resulted in a spot-of-the-foul pass interference penalty that set up a touchdown. Though the difference at quarterback was glaring at times — most noticeably in arm strength — Pederson consistently opened up big chunks of field for Foles to exploit. The screen to Jeffery was one of several the Eagles used to gash the Giants for big gains, including a 32-yard catch and run by Ajayi that set up a touchdown, and a 19-yarder by Jeffery that set up a field goal (both in the third quarter).
While they had some success on the ground, Foles attempted 38 passes compared with 25 carries from a quartet of Eagles backs.
“We tailored a couple things for Nick, obviously, in the passing game, but really I wanted to maintain the aggressiveness offensively,” Pederson said.
Pederson’s feel for his playbook and his opponent were on display throughout the victory, from a standpoint of both design and selection. Time and again, Foles found himself looking at receivers in advantageous matchups, including a couple of crossing routes by Nelson Agholor that should have gone for big gains but ended up as incompletions (one of them the quarterback’s fault, the other the receiver’s). There is something intuitive about the way Pederson calls a game: Rarely do his quarterbacks find themselves in a position where they seem to be scrambling to make something out of nothing. Time and time again, the something is there from the beginning.
Perhaps there is some evidence of it in the stat sheet, which features a beautiful sort of symmetry this season.
By the end of Sunday’s game, just eight receptions, 62 yards, and one touchdown separated the Eagles’ three leading receivers:
Alshon Jeffery: 56 receptions, 781 yards, 9 TDs
Zach Ertz: 63 receptions, 719 yards, 8 TDs
Nelson Agholor: 55 receptions, 722 yards, 8 TDs.
Against the Giants, all three of them caught touchdowns, all on impressive individual efforts. Jeffery capped off the Eagles’ first possession by finding a soft spot near the back of the end zone and keeping his feet inside the end-line on a 3-yard pass from Foles. In the second quarter, with the Eagles trailing, 20-7, Ertz boxed out his defender for a 10-yard touchdown catch that ignited the comeback. And, midway through the third quarter, Agholor went up over smothering man coverage to make a physical catch of a 10-yard pass from Foles to give the Eagles a 31-23 lead.
After it was over, Jason Kelce stood in front of his locker and rattled off a list of injured players whom every Eagles fan knows by heart. Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Carson Wentz.
“Not only are they great players, but they’re leaders, and they’re guys that a lot of people and teams would view as irreplaceable players,” said the center, one of a few players who played under Pederson when he was an assistant coach on Andy Reid’s Eagles staff. “The coaches have done a great job all year of making sure everybody is ready to play. Whatever the situation may be, whoever gets in there has got to get the job done.”
As is his nature, Pederson spent most of his postgame news conference casting the credit to the players and coaches operating beneath him. One suspects such deference plays a role in the remarkable lack of friction present in this football team throughout his first two years at the helm. Yet his fingerprints are all over this 12-2 start. On Sunday, the Eagles lined up with a backup left tackle, a backup guard, and a backup quarterback, and the only thing that looked markedly different was the lack of zip on a handful of passes. Foles was sacked once. Four Eagles running backs combined for 108 yards at a clip of four yards per carry. They scored 34 points, gained 341 yards.
The result was the same as the message throughout the week.
Business as usual.