Over the 29 games that Doug Pederson has been their head coach, the Eagles have had, excluding punts, 1,970 snaps on offense. Carson Wentz has been their quarterback, and Pederson’s, for 1,936 of them.
That’s a robust and revealing number. For 98 percent of the offensive plays that Pederson has called, he has known Wentz will be pulling the trigger, and it has been a credit to both of them that they, and in turn the Eagles, rose as quickly and smoothly as they did. Wentz never gave Pederson cause to consider benching him, and it’s impossible to predict how Wentz might have developed, or if he would have developed at all, if the Eagles had hired Ben McAdoo or another candidate to replace Chip Kelly. There is no assurance that Wentz would have become, by the midpoint of his second season, an MVP-caliber player under someone else. Perhaps Wentz would have still been marvelous for, say, Jeff Fisher or Rex Ryan, but no young quarterback should want to swim that lake of fire if he doesn’t have to.
This mission was always going to be the first great test of Pederson as a neophyte NFL head coach. The Eagles themselves established the dynamic last year, once they made the two trades that positioned them to select Wentz with the 2016 draft’s No. 2 pick and, in particular, once they traded Sam Bradford to the Vikings eight days before their opening game. In a way, coaxing improvement and excellence from Wentz was more important throughout Pederson’s first season than winning games was. The Eagles’ mediocre 7-9 record was less relevant than the knowledge that Wentz was good and was likely to get better, and as long as he did, Pederson’s job was secure.
Now that Wentz will miss the rest of this season after tearing his left ACL on Sunday in Los Angeles, though, Pederson faces another test, and it’s just as challenging, if not more so. He showed he could develop Wentz and win with him. Now, he has to pull off a different trick: winning without him. And these next few weeks — the Eagles’ final three regular-season games, plus their as-yet-unknown place in the NFC postseason — will say as much about him as the team’s 11 victories over the previous 14 weeks did.
“From my standpoint, you don’t waver, man,” Pederson said Monday. “You don’t let people see you sweat. You just put your head down, and you just go to work. You get everybody ready to play.”
In those intangible aspects of coaching – motivating his players, keeping them a cohesive unit – Pederson has been at his best. The notion that Wentz’s absence would immediately deflate the Eagles, that they wouldn’t rally around Nick Foles for at least a short time, is far-fetched. But there is a difference between the inspiring Braveheart battle cry and the actual tactics, strategy, and personnel necessary to vanquish an opponent, and that truth cuts to the core of the mystery surrounding the Eagles now and the reason to doubt whether they can still be the best team in the NFC: No one knows what a Doug Pederson-coached team looks like when it doesn’t have Carson Wentz.
When Pederson took over as head coach, the most common and rational worry about him was that, like his mentor Andy Reid, he would be too pass-dependent as a play-caller. He generally has not been, striking a balance on offense and instead forging a reputation as a gambler, willing to take chances in third- and fourth-down situations. In the aggregate, his decision-making and chance-taking have been trademarks of and successes for the Eagles: They have gotten a first down on 45.3 percent of their third-down attempts, the third-best mark in the NFL, and they have gone for it on fourth down a league-high 21 times and converted a league-high 15 times. Big B***s Doug, indeed.
But it’s easier to be daring when your quarterback is 6-foot-5 and powerful, fast for his size, with instincts and a dancer’s footwork, with an equally daring nature, with a rocket arm and a preternatural grasp of the concepts that underpin an NFL offense. On every play that the Eagles have run this season with Wentz, the opposing defense has had to be on its heels to a certain degree. He might hand the ball off. He might freeze the 11 defenders with a run-pass option look, and they have to honor the fake because he might tuck the ball away and take off. He might – as he did on his third touchdown pass Sunday, an 11-yard laser to Trey Burton on third and 9 – simply plant his back foot and say to himself, I’m gunning this sucker in there. Teams have to defend the whole field at all times against Wentz, and the Eagles offense benefits immeasurably from that fact. No, Pederson might not be pass-dependent, but he might be Wentz-dependent.
He wouldn’t be the first head coach to rely heavily on the talent of his quarterback – look at Jason Garrett’s record without Tony Romo, or Mike McCarthy’s without Aaron Rodgers – and he insists he won’t play it safe without Wentz. He cited his decision to have Foles throw on third and 8 late in Sunday’s victory over the Rams as evidence. The call worked: Foles found Nelson Agholor for a first down that iced the game.
“That’s what I’m going to continue to do,” he said. “I’m going to continue to stay aggressive. I’m going to lead this football team. It falls more on my shoulders than it does these players.”
Yes. Yes, it does. That’s the latest test for Doug Pederson. It will tell us plenty. It will mean even more.
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.