Updated: Monday, October 2, 2017, 5:39 PM
There’s a truism that armchair evaluators often overlook when delivering their periodic analyses of Doug Pederson’s job performance. In the NFL, play-calling ability is the most valuable coaching currency of all. The Rams did not hire 31-year-old Sean McVay to improve their fourth-down decision-making. The Giants and Bucs did not nudge out their well-respected incumbents to pave the way for assistant coaches who had more gravitas. Andy Reid hasn’t lasted 19 seasons as a head coach because of his ability to manage a clock.
All of those characteristics are useful to the job, but none is as valuable as the ability to diagnose an opponent, formulate a game plan, teach that game plan to one’s players, and then call it in a manner that looks pretty on TV.
These were the skills that prompted Reid to give Pederson a resounding endorsement before the Eagles hired him last January, and they are the skills that currently have them sitting at 3-1 on the season and 10-10 in Pederson’s career.
It was funny to listen to some of the criticism leveled at the Eagles coach this past offseason. The consensus seemed to hold that Carson Wentz had exceeded expectations during a rookie season, and that he had managed to do so despite one of the least talented groups of skill position players in the league, plus a 10-game suspension to the star right tackle. Yet all of those observations would often come before a transition that went something like, “Now, on the other hand, let’s talk about the coach,” as if Wentz had built his own NFL playbook from scratch, taught it to his teammates, and tailored it to each week’s opponent while running film sessions himself.
That’s not to say that Pederson deserved all of the credit for Wentz’s rookie campaign. But the notion that Wentz’s success came despite his head coach flies in the face of logic. So does any evaluation that holds the Eagles’ offense to be something other than a well-coached unit. Through four games, they’ve scored on 44.4 percent of their drives, a number that ranks fifth in the NFL behind the Rams, Saints, Patriots, and Falcons, and one spot ahead of the Chiefs. They are averaging 34.5 yards per drive, which ranks fifth, 2.13 points per drive, which ranks eighth, and 3:09 of possession time per drive, which ranks eighth.
None of those numbers proves anything, of course. The NFL schedule is a funny thing. The Eagles’ last two wins have come against teams that are a combined 0-8. Their first win came against a Redskins team that many picked to finish last in the NFC East. They started 3-0 last season and lost nine of their next 11.
But consider the current cases of two of the other coaches the Eagles interviewed for the opening that Pederson ultimately filled. Ben McAdoo’s Giants are 0-4 and rank 30th in the NFL in scoring. Adam Gase’s Dolphins are 1-2 and have scored a combined six points in consecutive losses to the Saints and Jets. One thing you can say about the Eagles under Pederson is that they have largely defeated the teams they are “supposed” to beat. Last season, they did not lose a game to a team with a losing record. Six of their nine losses came against playoff teams (Cowboys, Bengals, Seahawks, Packers, Giants, Lions), all but one of them on the road.
Beating the bad teams might not get you a bust in Canton, but it does offer a valuable reminder to those who have already convinced themselves that Pederson is not a Super Bowl-caliber coach. The bad teams have coaches who, at some point, were hired by a team that thought it could find an upgrade over the previous guy.
In the Eagles’ ongoing evaluation of their head coach, the variable with the heaviest weight should be the performances of Wentz, and, by extension, the Eagles offense. In Los Angeles, McVay seems to be getting plenty of credit for the second-year turnaround of 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. What a difference a capable offensive coach makes, the thinking goes. It should hold true for Pederson, too (it’s also worth mentioning that, one week after the Eagles beat the Redskins on the road, the Rams lost to them at home).
Through four games, Wentz’s arm has been a difference-maker. Maybe he’s doing it all on his own. But for Pederson, credit seems to be due.