Eagles' Doug Pederson shows promise in Year 1, but progress is needed

Doug Pederson may not have been the Eagles' first choice, but that doesn't mean he won't become a successful head coach.

But is he the right coach for the Eagles? As Carson Wentz is fond of answering when asked a particularly vexing question, "Hard to say." But even though one season isn't likely enough to form a conclusion, it does provide significant information about Pederson's prospects.

He was virtually an unknown. He had never been an NFL head coach; had only been in the league as an assistant for seven years; and had never called plays for a full game, let alone an entire season. Pederson had Andy Reid's playbook, schedule, and stamp of approval, and those seemed to be the Eagles' main reasons for hiring him.

But as the 6-9 Eagles end the season on Sunday, it's safe to make the following claim about Pederson after his first year: He's not Jim Tomsula. That's a pretty low bar, and Pederson easily cleared it, but there was some realistic belief that he would follow the 49ers coach, who was fired after one bumbling season.

The jury is certainly still in deliberation. But Pederson's play-calling, game management, nurturing of Wentz, and handling of the locker room, while far from perfect and with reasons for concern, were sound enough that bringing him back for 2017 should be a no-brainer.

By all indications, owner Jeffrey Lurie will.

The Eagles owner, of course, doesn't want to further enhance the view that he is tempestuous after he fired Chip Kelly following three seasons and a 26-21 record. But Lurie made his bed with Pederson, even if he hired him in a roundabout way, and who knows? Maybe it could ultimately pan out.

The Ravens, for example, only hired John Harbaugh after Jason Garrett turned down their initial offer. It would be specious to suggest that Pederson could follow in Harbaugh's Super Bowl-winning footsteps based on that simple premise, but there are likely as many first choices that failed to win a championship as there were runners-up.

Kelly, after all, was the Eagles' top target four years ago, and he's one more loss from possibly being fired from his second NFL coaching gig in two years. Lurie got that one wrong. Of course, he did his best to impede Kelly's chances when he kept Howie Roseman in the building after a power struggle.

Roseman figured prominently in the next hire. Even though he was on the search committee that chose Kelly ahead of Gus Bradley, who was fired two weeks ago by the Jaguars, Lurie had the executive vice president of football operations, along with team president Don Smolenski, advise him on the replacement.

His inclusion made practical sense, if not his return to prominence. The new coach would have to work with the head of personnel. But it potentially limited the pool of candidates, fair or not, because of perceptions surrounding Roseman based on his background and his fractious relationship with Kelly.

The Eagles wanted a coach who could coexist with Roseman, and Pederson, because he was a known personality, mentored under Reid, and wouldn't demand some personnel control, was always a lead contender. But the interview process altered his standing.

The Eagles first met with running backs coach Duce Staley, the only minority candidate who would make them compliant with the Rooney Rule. Interim coach Pat Shurmur was next. Neither was considered a serious contender.

But Adam Gase, the Eagles' first outside candidate, was on the short list. He interviewed with the Eagles before any other team. They liked, but didn't love, him, and told Gase they wanted to complete the process of meeting with other coaches before scheduling a second interview.

But the Dolphins weren't willing to wait, and neither was Gase, and he signed with Miami. The Eagles then interviewed Ben McAdoo. Pederson followed a day after the Chiefs won in the first round of the playoffs. The interview didn't go well for the then-Kansas City offensive coordinator, according to sources who were briefed on the meeting.

The Eagles then met with Tom Coughlin, and both came away uninterested. Soon after, a second interview was scheduled with McAdoo. But he canceled when the New York Giants offered him their job and he accepted. A day later, the Eagles gave Pederson the nod.

Lurie, naturally, said that Pederson was his No. 1 choice all along, but sources familiar with the Eagles' search said that wasn't the case after his interview. It may not ultimately matter. The Dolphins and Giants are headed to the playoffs, but both teams had established quarterbacks and had more success building around them this offseason.

Pederson was working with a rookie quarterback and an offense deficient at several spots, most significantly receiver. Wentz couldn't maintain a torrid start, but he never regressed to the point of no return. He future appears to be bright - although there are obvious questions - and Pederson deserves credit.

Pederson said he would likely continue calling plays next season. There were several calls that were dubious - particularly in the Cowboys loss in October - but nothing was egregious. He wasted a few challenges but hit on others. He understood the analytics argument for being aggressive on fourth down.

"Crucial decisions - I feel like we've handled those well," Pederson said on Friday. "Are there calls that I would do differently looking back? Sure. . . . I think that's part of the learning process for me in my first year going through it and making myself better in the future."

Pederson successfully navigated Sam Bradford's spring holdout and survived a podium gaffe when he questioned his players' effort after the Bengals game. He called it a "defining moment" in his first year.

"There were a lot of guys who took that personally," safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

Several members of the Eagles leadership council questioned Pederson during an occasionally contentious meeting the next day. But Jenkins said that at least there was dialogue, and ultimately, no hard feelings.

"This team could have really flipped and gone the other direction," Pederson said.

Jenkins didn't necessarily agree with Pederson's assessment that his challenge and the subsequent meeting led to the Eagles' improved performance in the next three games, but he applauded his coach's openness. Kelly, too, had a leadership council, "but we never met," the safety said.

"It helps you as a coach to get a true pulse of what's going on in the locker room. . . . [Pederson's] got to lean on his leaders," Jenkins said. "If you lose the leaders you lose the locker room. And the way you stay with the leaders is you've got to give them that open voice."

Pederson's first season was a bumpy one, but he was able to adapt to many circumstances. That is often what Year 1 is about. And he gets some benefit of doubt. But there must be progress in Year 2.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane