His name was dragged through the mud.
Unqualified, they said; not enough experience; not enough seasoning, whatever that is.
Institutional nepotism, they cried; he got the head-coaching job in Philly only because of his roots as an Eagles coach and player, and because Andy Reid sent him from Kansas City to Jeffrey Lurie.
When they went low, he went high. Doug Pederson never fired back. He just took care of his team, collected 12 wins this season, and rode to the top of the NFL.
The 50-member media panel will cast its votes for coach of the year in two weeks, which makes this the time to vet the candidates: Mike Zimmer, Minnesota; Sean McVay, L.A. Rams; Doug Marrone, Jacksonville; Pederson; and, as always, Bill Belichick.
Pederson should win.
It shouldn’t be close.
Pederson took a revamped, imperfect roster and created incredible synergy. He developed Carson Wentz into an MVP candidate. He saved former first-round receiver Nelson Agholor. He spread the ball. Most important, Pederson prepared his backup players so well that when the stars got hurt, the team still won.
“Injuries are going to happen. In our case, it happened to some starters; to some Pro Bowl-type players; and to our quarterback. That’s a tough thing to manage,” Pederson said. “The injuries are definitely the biggest thing.”
They would have been bigger if they hadn’t been overcome. But they were overcome.
The Eagles will have a first-round bye, and they will secure home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs if the Packers beat the visiting Vikings on Saturday night or the Birds defeat Oakland on Christmas night. The league once looked at Pederson as insignificant: as a backup quarterback; as an overshadowed assistant; and, last year, as an overwhelmed rookie coach. The league looks up at him today.
He isn’t perfect. His devotion to analytics and his addiction to the passing game can get him into trouble. He lost twice this season, but the losses came in the two toughest places to play in the NFL: at Kansas City, against Reid, his mentor, whose Chiefs sit inside the playoff bubble; and at Seattle, as Russell Wilson played his best game of the season for a team that moved to 8-4 that day.
The wins resonate more than the losses. Pederson beat the Rams, Chargers, Cowboys and Panthers on the road. He beat the Giants and Washington, NFC East rivals, twice each. Wentz got hurt against the Rams last week, but no problem: Pederson won at MetLife Stadium on Sunday with Nick Foles, who threw four touchdown passes, the second-best scoring day of Foles’ career. Foles replaced Wentz during the Rams game and won that one, too, because Foles was ready.
So were Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Joe Walker, Corey Clement and Rasul Douglas. Pederson made them ready.
Meanwhile, Pederson kept his big names happy. Running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount combined for 2,433 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith have been go-to targets in their pasts. Tight end Zach Ertz is on the cusp of his first Pro Bowl.
At times, each has been marginalized this season. At no time did any of them complain. If dealing with injuries burdened Pederson the most, inclusion has run a close second. He found honesty to be the best policy.
“Getting all the [running backs] in the game, getting them the proper touches — that’s a challenge each and every week. Same thing in the passing game: How many times are Alshon or Ertz going to touch the football?” Pederson said. “You just communicate with the players. ‘This is how we see this game unfolding. This is the game plan.’ As long as you communicate, there’s never any issues.”
Each of the coach of the year candidates has his own issues, and each has overcome them, to some degree.
Zimmer won 11 games, mostly with backup quarterback Case Keenum, and he lost rookie running back Dalvin Cook early in the season. But the bones of the Vikings have been the same since 2015, when Zimmer won 11 games in 2015. They’re supposed to be good.
McVay, you say? Compelling, considering the Rams’ turnaround, but this trumps all: Two Sundays ago, Pederson beat McVay, in L.A. Marrone? Strong, but he lost to the Jets and Cardinals. Belichick? He should probably win every year, but it’s good to spread the awards around.
As Belichick did, Pederson emphasized the development of reserve players, which helped the team endure an avalanche of injuries. Besides Wentz, Pederson lost the best offensive lineman in team history, left tackle Jason Peters; his defensive play-caller, linebacker Jordan Hicks; his most accomplished skill player, running back Darren Sproles; his best special-teams player, Chris Maragos; his No. 1 cornerback, Ronald Darby, for half the season; and his kicker, Caleb Sturgis. Their replacements played well. Pederson also integrated a No. 1 running back into his system after a midseason trade. Ajayi is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
The Eagles are tied for the league lead with 31.3 points per game, but they probably won’t have a 1,000-yard receiver or rusher — remarkable, since they’re the No. 2 running team. They might have three receivers with 10 or more TDs, mainly because they’re the best at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. They also entered Monday night No. 2 in third-down conversions, behind Atlanta.
Third-down conversions require potency from every facet of the attack. Red-zone scoring demands discipline, timing, imagination and unpredictability. In other words, the sort of excellent coaching you’ve seen all year from Doug Pederson.
Your 2017 coach of the year.