It was a day to take the head coach’s temperature, and what the mercury revealed was a man who seemed to think that a little bit of pressure might be good for everybody involved. Early in his press conference, Doug Pederson got a good chuckle out of the notion that he might consider starting someone other than Nick Foles at quarterback two Saturdays from now. Yet by the time somebody asked him about the possibility of somebody other than Foles finishing the game, the coach was no longer laughing.
“Listen, it’s a one-game season,” Pederson said. “It’s hard to be in desperation mode, but if you are in that mode, who knows? I do know this: It’s not about one guy; it’s about 11 on offense, defense, and special teams. A lot of contributing factors go into winning a game.”
To label the next couple of weeks as a defining moment for the head coach is to fail to appreciate the gravity of the situation he faces at the quarterback position. Pure and simple, this is chicken salad-making time for Pederson, and you have to grade him on the ingredients at his disposal. Andy Reid has lost all three of the divisional playoff games he has coached without Donovan McNabb. Same goes for Bill Belichick and the one divisional-round game he’s coached without Tom Brady. If the Eagles’ offense takes the field in a couple of weeks looking like a shell of what it was with Carson Wentz under center, it has everything to do with the variable that is missing instead of the one that remains. So, no, defining moment is probably not an appropriate phrase. The only thing a loss will tell us is that reality reigns, and for yet another Eagles season, it bit this city hard.
That said . . .
For someone whose continued employment depends at least in part on the mercy of the crowd, perception is an unavoidable component of reality. Nobody could have realistically expected Jack Del Rio to win a postseason game with a rookie fourth-round pick making his first career start, but Del Rio is also out of a job right now. That the Raiders were 6-10 this year and that Del Rio has career winning percentage of .497 in 12 seasons as an NFL head coach probably had at least a little bit to do with his dismissal. But what would have happened had Derek Carr led Oakland to an upset win over the Patriots after defeating the Houston Osweilers in the wild-card round? How long would Tom Coughlin have lasted as Giants head coach had he entered the 2011 postseason with Eli Manning on IR?
The thing the NFL teaches you is that the operating margins are fishing-line thin. In 2015 and 2016, 14 teams entered the playoffs with at least 11 wins. More than a third have already parted ways with their head coaches. A couple of them did so behind a veil of mutuality, with Gary Kubiak and Bruce Arians announcing their retirements. It was only a year ago that Ben McAdoo was 11-5 and a coach-of-the-year candidate, and he’s already looking for another job that will allow him to wear an ill-fitting suit. Del Rio is gone. Marvin Lewis could be.
While it is difficult to isolate a variable common to each of these situations, it is interesting to note the role that quarterback drama played in many of their falls. We’ve already detailed Del Rio’s misfortune last postseason. The year before, Lewis’ Bengals were 10-3 when Andy Dalton went down and A.J. McCarron took over as starter. The year before that, Arians and the Cardinals were 6-0 with Carson Palmer at quarterback but entered the postseason with Ryan Lindley under center.
If next season sees Pederson and Wentz pick up where they were before that ill-fated Hollywood scramble, there’s little reason to think his situation will turn dire. But things happen. More than anything, these next couple of weeks are an opportunity for Pederson to buy himself a tremendous amount of margin for error by actually accomplishing what everybody in this city has spent the last three weeks desperately attempting to brainwash themselves into believing is not impossible.
To that end, Pederson said he has spent a lot of time in recent weeks watching film of Foles during his various NFL stops. He’s watched the playoff loss to the Saints in 2013 when Foles left the field with a lead. Maybe we’ll see some evidence in whatever game plan he unveils a couple of weeks from now. Pederson cribbing from Chip Kelly to win a home divisional playoff game would be something. With Foles under center, or with Nate Sudfeld, or, really, with anybody else.
A dominant effort running the ball and pressuring the opposing passer is the obvious recipe.
“But somewhere in there you’re going to have to make a play in the passing game, too,” Pederson said.
Maybe there was a challenge in those words. There were a lot of little moments like this during Tuesday’s press conference. Maybe they offer a window into Pederson’s psyche. Maybe they don’t. But the message underlying them was consistent: The Eagles are a vastly different team without Wentz under center, and the only way to make up the difference is to spread the responsibility around to each of the 22 men who will get the start.
“We’re only given these next two weeks,” Pederson said. “This is all we know. They need to commit for two weeks and eliminate every distraction possible and focus on their job . . . they have to understand that every positive play is magnified and every negative play is magnified.”
Who knows if the approach would be more business-as-usual if Wentz were under center? What matter is, he isn’t, and won’t be, and the only choice anybody has is to look past his absence and toward the opportunity it entails.