On Sunday, Doug Pederson returns to the scene of some of his most controversial decisions from last season, decisions that drew the scorn of many a fan, friend, and foe.
But he will step onto the field at AT&T Stadium a different coach, maybe not as much in how he manages the Eagles but certainly in the eyes of those who saw his performance in a crushing 29-23 overtime loss to the Cowboys as justification for their initial skepticism.
Even his greatest detractors – save for maybe lone holdout, Mike Lombardi – are coming around to the fact that not only is Pederson far from the bumbling amateur he has occasionally been portrayed as, but an astute mind capable of matching some of the best coaches in the NFL.
A little over a year ago, though, after the Eagles squandered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in Arlington, Texas, Pederson would have been hard-pressed to find anyone — even within the NovaCare Complex — who didn’t at least question one of several choices he made late in regulation.
“We had opportunities in that game to make some plays and change the outcome of that game,” Pederson said Wednesday on the eve of the 8-1 Eagles’ return trip to face the injury-plagued 5-4 Cowboys. “And I learned from the decisions I made in that game. And I’ve corrected those.”
The most second-guessed came with just over 7 minutes remaining and the Eagles clinging to a 23-16 lead. Faced with third and 8 on the Cowboys 30, Pederson had Carson Wentz toss a swing pass to Darren Sproles. Before Sproles managed to turn up field, Sean Lee dropped the running back for a 6-yard loss.
Lee diagnosed the play almost immediately, but former Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff was supposed to block, or at least interfere with the linebacker, and did not. If given the opportunity again, Pederson said then and now that he would have called the same play.
“I’ve got to do a better job of teaching the play and it starts with me,” Pederson said Wednesday. “And we didn’t execute the play very well. And it knocked us out of potential field goal range and it would have extended our lead at that time.”
Pederson still could have had Caleb Sturgis try a 54-yard field goal – the kicker had been successful from 55 yards earlier in the game — but he opted to punt. The Cowboys, though, went 90 yards the other way to knot the score, 23-23.
The Eagles had two more opportunities to regain the lead. But Eagles receiver Dorial Green-Beckham missed an assignment on a screen pass and was flagged for pass interference on successive drives that resulted in two more losses and two more punts.
Pederson could have tried to get the ball back for one last gasp, but rather than use any of his remaining three timeouts with the Cowboys backed up and 25 seconds left, he played for overtime. And Jim Schwartz’s defense again couldn’t hold as Dallas marched the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown.
Not kicking the field goal and not using the timeouts were fair game for criticism, even though Pederson defended both decisions after the game. After an early-season string of aggressiveness that mostly paid off, he had seemingly turtled up.
But his defense of the Sproles call was reasonable – “It’s assignment football,” Pederson said. – and the fallout significant. The Eagles would go on to lose to the New York Giants a week later, in another game with questionable coaching decisions, and seven of eight overall. So there were myriad reasons for some of the changes Pederson implemented this offseason.
The Eagles haven’t been perfect this year, but when they’ve failed it hasn’t been because of missed assignments. Getting rid of low-football-IQ players like Huff and Green-Beckham has helped. And the firing of receivers coach Greg Lewis may have just been collateral damage.
But when Pederson said that he needed to do a better job teaching that play to his players and coaches, it wasn’t difficult to make the connection to his implementation of after-practice periods with younger players and coaches on Wednesdays and Fridays this year.
“Let those young coaches coach and teach and further their knowledge with the instruction,” Pederson said, “and then let our young players get reps that they normally wouldn’t get in the normal practice period.”
The Eagles have had just as many costly injuries as the Cowboys, but why have they done a better job of compensating? Could it be that young players like Rasul Douglas, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Corey Clement, Mack Hollins, and Joe Walker are better prepared to step in without making mental errors?
It’s possible. Smart players will make any coach look smart, and that is where Howie Roseman and the personnel department deserve credit. The Eagles are as deep as they’ve been in years. And it’s made Pederson’s job that much simpler.
He hasn’t changed much since he was hired, though. Pederson added a competitive element to offseason workouts and training camp that may have some correlation to the Eagles’ success in tight games as opposed to last season. And the naming of team captains for the first time in recent history may have given the players more autonomy over the squad.
But Pederson’s biggest change may have just been one of maturation. He had never been an NFL head coach and had never called plays for an entire game until last year. Pederson has been excellent all season, but his play-calling in the Eagles’ 51-23 win over the Broncos two weeks ago was a peak.
“Having done some play-calling, there’s no doubt that you get better at it,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “But Doug is on an accelerated path with the way things are going this year.”
There is still a lot of football to play. The Cowboys, even without Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, and Lee, will be a formidable challenge on the road. Pederson could find himself in another barn-burner and with another chance to call a swing pass on third and 8 from the Dallas 30.
The Eagles haven’t run that play all season, even though it’s still in the playbook. Even though Pederson said he would go back to the play, it’s safe to assume he won’t this Sunday night.
It’s a play designed to take advantage of Sproles in open space. And he’s out.