After each of the Eagles' first three picks in this year's NFL draft, a strange little scene played out in the auditorium of the NovaCare Center, the franchise's headquarters. The Eagles, having allowed media members to watch coverage of the draft on a giant projection screen, turned off ESPN or the NFL Network and had staff members drag over and position a black curtain, dotted with the team's insignia, behind a podium. That way, when vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and director of player personnel Joe Douglas arrived to discuss and answer questions about the just-selected player, the TV and iPhone cameras would frame them in front of the curtain.
And standing several feet away from the curtain, as if he'd been placed there to brighten the room, like a potted ficus, was another piece of decoration: head coach Doug Pederson.
Doug stayed to the side. Doug did not speak unless spoken to first. Doug did not assert. Doug confirmed. Doug nodded in agreement. Doug deferred. Doug did not betray or reveal any contributions to the research and scouting and thought process that went into each draft pick, because Doug is not Andy Reid or Chip Kelly or Bill Belichick or any number of head coaches who act or have acted as the nerve centers for their respective teams. This was Roseman and Douglas' show, their exchanged glances and the awkward anecdotes about their collaboration reaffirming how closely they had worked together and how relatively small Pederson's role had been.
How small? The question became worthy of consideration Friday night during the draft's second round, when the Eagles selected cornerback Sidney Jones, who ruptured his left Achilles tendon on his pro day and won't see the field again until October at the earliest. Sure, Pederson has ceded control and oversight of the Eagles' defense to coordinator Jim Schwartz, but Pederson presumably still runs the team. And the Eagles went just 7-9 last season and were in dire need of talent and depth at cornerback, not merely a year or two from now but this season, and now they had drafted a corner who might not play a snap in 2017. How did he take that?
"I take it as we just got us a first-round talented corner," Pederson said. "He's somebody that, as Howie alluded to, we're not going to rush into anything with him, and we're going to make sure he's 100 percent before we put him out on that football field. This kid is dynamic. He's an extremely special kid on the field, and that's what we evaluated when making the selection."
But the kid probably won't be on the field, not in any meaningful way, until 2018, which means that in a draft that was rife with cornerbacks who purportedly could start right away, the Eagles picked one who definitely could not. It seemed an odd decision, given that they made a series of free-agent acquisitions earlier this offseason designed to help Carson Wentz immediately - acquisitions that did not reflect the same emphasis on the distant future. Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Chance Warmack: Each of these players signed a contract that was, in actuality or effect, just one year. Note, too, the short half-lives on several of the Eagles' other important offensive players. Left tackle Jason Peters is 35. Running back Darren Sproles turns 34 in June. Tight end Brent Celek is 32. Center Jason Kelce turns 30 in November, and the Eagles reportedly considered moving on from him last season. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews is just 24 but about to enter the final season of his rookie contract.
Based on that collection of players and contracts, one naturally thinks, That looks like a team that's going for it right now. One doesn't think, That's a team with an eye on the long term, which has been the tone and content of Roseman's rhetoric all offseason. On Friday night, for instance, as the Eagles were using their three highest draft picks to help their defense, he said that he didn't want "Band-Aids" at cornerback. He wanted players with staying power. And remember: Already the Eagles have pinpointed their core defensive players and either have signed them or are likely to commit to them: Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Hicks.
At first glance, this disconnect between the offense and the defense doesn't make much sense. There's one way it does: If the 2017 season is serving as the ultimate proving ground for Pederson as head coach and if, assuming the season is either underwhelming or an abject failure, the Eagles are willing to move on from him quickly.
Consider the perspective from which owner Jeffrey Lurie, Roseman, and Douglas might be viewing Pederson: He calls the plays. He has a prospective franchise quarterback in Wentz. The front office spent top-of-the-market money for skill-position weapons. If Wentz doesn't improve significantly, if he stagnates or regresses, if the offense is a reason the Eagles stumble to another 7-9 season or worse, if a more accomplished head-coaching candidate becomes available, why would the Eagles remain committed to Pederson? They'll have Wentz and, maybe, some promising young players around him. They'll still have most of their defense in place. They'll just upgrade at the most obvious place. They'll find a head coach who they'll actually let in front of the curtain, instead of keeping him away from it altogether.