Anybody who is a glutton for fairness is probably better off in a profession other than coaching. In that sense, it is tough to feel an overwhelming amount of pity for Doug Pederson. Still, there are moments when it takes a considerable amount of restraint to avoid pulling the guy aside and giving him a big, ol’ hug.
Take, for instance, Monday afternoon, when Pederson’s press conference featured a series of questions about a podcast on The Ringer NFL Show in which former Eagles executive Michael Lombardi called Pederson the least-qualified head coach he’d ever seen in his 30-plus years around the NFL. Which, when you consider his stints with the Raiders and Browns, is saying something.
A coach who is a little more comfortable in front of the camera might have seized the moment and delivered one of the plethora of witty retorts available to somebody who had just been criticized by a guy who drafted Barkevious Mingo at No. 6 overall. Instead, Pederson took the high road, and did a more or less admirable job of pretending not to know what a lot of people outside of the building have been thinking ever since the Eagles hired him.
“I haven’t seen the article,” Pederson said. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about, so I don’t pay attention to that. I’m confident in what I do. He’s not in the building. I coach our coaches and coach our players. I think if you ask any one of your players or assistant coaches, I think they would maybe say something a little bit different. I haven’t read the article, so I can’t respond to it.”
To be clear, all of this barely rises to the level of news. There are a lot of former NFL employees out there and a lot of them have opinions, and the only response a coach like Pederson really needs to give is, “No, sorry, I did not hear what he said. I was busy working for a football team.” It wouldn’t hurt to mention the fact that Pederson won more games in 2016 than Lombardi did in his one season as general manager of the Browns or his last four as a personnel exec in Oakland (average wins per season, for what it’s worth: four). I guess being the bigger man counts for something.
That’s not to say Lombardi’s underlying premise is unfair. Pederson’s resume at the time of his hiring was as thin as any head coach in recent memory. He’d been an NFL assistant for just seven seasons and had never been a team’s primary play caller, the latter distinction separating him from hires like Mike Tomlin (six seasons as an assistant, one as coordinator), Jason Garrett (six seasons as an assistant, four as coordinator) and Sean McVay (seven seasons as an assistant, three as coordinator).
Then again, you can’t say much about Pederson that you wouldn’t have said about Andy Reid when the Eagles hired him after just seven seasons as an NFL assistant, none of them as a coordinator. Which is an example of the logical flaw in any evaluation of Pederson that still includes his lack of experience as a factor. He’s already shown that he isn’t a disaster.
Pederson might not be a great coach, or even a good one, but it takes a certain level of competency to lead a team to seven wins with a rookie quarterback, a suspended right tackle, and a roster that the previous guy supposedly decimated. There are a lot of NFL head coaches who had a lot more experience than Pederson who never came close to winning seven games in a season.
“I think he’s on the right track,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said when asked to defend his coach. “I think he knows and understands that this is a players’ league and so a lot of the ownership and a lot of the responsibility for wins and losses around here falls on the players. He’s willing to allow us to have input on where we see the team going. He leans on his leadership a lot, keeping the pulse of the locker room, and I think those are things in my experience that make really good head coaches.
“Guys that can give ownership to the players and have them buy in just as much as the coaching staff, and then your players will follow you anywhere. I think he’s off to a good start. He’s definitely got a good grasp of the locker room, good relationships with his veterans, so I’m excited about it.”
Besides winning the locker room, people seem to forget that the Eagles were pretty competitive on the football field last year. They weren’t great. They’ve got a lot of progress to make before anybody will be comfortable giving Pederson an extension. But they weren’t the 49ers under Jim Tomsula or the Jaguars under Gus Bradley. It’s certainly possible that Carson Wentz went from an FCS cowtown to the NFL and won seven games in spite of his head coach. It’s also possible that two different men dramatically under-coached the talent that was on their rosters when they went 7-9 in 2015 and 2016. But there would seem to be likelier scenarios.
Simply put, Pederson was a lot more competent than many people feared heading into last season.
This year, the central question is what Jeffery Lurie and Howie Roseman think they have with their team. In public, they speak as if 2017 is nothing more than the next step in a methodical process, but their actions suggest they see it as something other than a means to an end. They signed a marquee free-agent wide receiver to a big one-year deal, traded down 30 spots in the draft for a defensive tackle in the last year of his contract, added a 30-year-old running back on a one-year deal, traded a second-round pick for a cornerback with two years remaining before free agency. The Eagles’ roster is much more talented than last season, but, with Alshon Jeffery and Tim Jernigan and LeGarrette Blount and Darren Sproles all in the last years of their deals and Jason Peters nearing the end of his career, there’s no guarantee it will stay that way beyond this season.
The ebb and flow of the schedule does Pederson no favors; 6-3 could easily turn into 8-8 or 9-7, the way the opponents line up. But if he pays any mind to the pressure that is supposedly on him this season, he does a good job of hiding it.
“Somebody here — Mr. Lurie, Howie, the guys — thought I was qualified,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s good enough for me.”