Donnellon: Eagles' rookie coach experiencing growing pains

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Eagles head coach Doug Pederson.

WITH EACH passing week, it becomes more apparent that we have this backwards. It's not Carson Wentz who holds our hearts in his hands.

How this team is perceived at the end of the season will have a lot to do with how Doug Pederson is perceived at the end of the season.

Will he be viewed as an Andy Reid clone prone to prodding, delayed decisions like the one he finally made to salt away the victory Sunday? Or a coach able to adjust and correct as he goes along, as suggested by the overall running strategy employed to incapacitate the league's most high-octane offense?

Listening to Pederson after each victory and loss, and particularly in the one-on-one format that Angelo Cataldi's morning-after WIP interview provides, it is hard not to walk away with the impression that the coach is more work-in-progress than his rookie quarterback is. And only slightly less so than the rookie tackle with the torturously challenging first name who has grown exponentially since his disastrous first start against Washington just four games ago.

Monday morning, his polite hat firmly affixed on top of his head, Cataldi sought clarity to the series of late fourth-quarter events that ultimately led to Caleb Sturgis' 48-yard field goal and a 24-15 lead.

Pederson said that even though he had "full faith in Caleb," he thought he could "end the game right there" by getting the first down instead of trying a field goal. After Atlanta called a timeout, and he did the same, he changed his mind, saying "the distance was critical" and at least implying that had it been a yard rather than 2, he might still have gone for it.

There were two minutes left in the game. As Pederson said toward the end of the conversation with Cataldi, a field goal would make it a two-score game and "the game is over anyway." So if he did in fact have full faith in Sturgis, why not just kick it in the first place?

The conclusion we are led to is that he did not have full faith in a kicker who missed two long ones earlier in the game, and who had one blocked against the Giants last week. He had more faith in his own play-calling despite some of the disastrous results it produced in the loss against the Giants and again on Sunday when, needing just a yard for a touchdown and living between the tackles for most of the day, he had Ryan Mathews run wide, resulting in lost yardage and a field-goal try. It was the second time in as many weeks that a goal-line play designed to outwit rather than outmuscle an opponent had backfired.

This is to be expected, especially given Pederson's limited experience as even an NFL assistant, and his equally limited experience as an on-field quarterback. What's refreshing, at least in most cases, is his self-critique. What's encouraging for those of us who lived the Groundhog Day-like disappointments of Reid's 14 seasons here, is that he already seems less stubborn than his mentor.

Pederson's game plan Sunday is the best hint yet that he finally concedes the obvious: That this team will go only as far as Jim Schwartz's defense can take it.

The Eagles ran the ball on 38 of their 76 plays, accumulating 208 yards. All but two of Wentz's 25 completed passes went for fewer than 20 yards. It was a game plan that the late Ron Erhardt, who masterminded the Giants' upset of the high-octane Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV with a quarterback named Jeff Hostetler and a ball-control offense that used up 40 minutes and 33 seconds of clock, would have loved.

"Take the air out of the ball," he loved to say.

Is this a formula the Eagles can employ each week? What once looked like a daunting schedule is now one in which only Sunday's game in Seattle seems beyond their reach. Green Bay and Cincinnati, playoff teams a year ago, are having down seasons. The Ravens, Giants and Redskins have not proved to be qualitatively better than Pittsburgh, Minnesota or Atlanta, if they even are.

And we all know what almost happened down in Dallas.

"I think it's definitely a blueprint to winning games in the NFL," Pederson said during his Monday press conference. "Any time you can rush the ball like that, it does - speaking from experience - it alleviates the pressure to always have to make that throw or that catch. And you stay manageable."

We talk all the time about Wentz's learning curve in his first season. What's equally important, maybe more important, is how quickly his coach processes his own lessons, improves his model from week to week.

It would be premature to call Sunday a breakthrough. But if this season is going to continue with its surprise, it sure was promising.


donnels@phillynews.com

@samdonnellon

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