ARLINGTON, Texas - On a day in late August, at a time when everyone - including his own players - was still sizing him up as a neophyte NFL head coach, Doug Pederson made a subtle but significant promise to the men in his locker room: What they would see is what they would get.
Pederson wasn't going to dabble in motivational tactics or trickery. He wasn't going to sift through a self-help book to find inspirational passage to pass off as his own. He had been a NFL player once, too, a quarterback, and he understood that NFL players know a phony and a salesman when they see one, hear one, and watch him try to coach them. So Doug Pederson was going to give them Doug Pederson, and now that the Eagles, having lost to the Dallas Cowboys 29-23 in overtime on Sunday night, are 4-3 and maybe no more than a middling team in a wide-open NFC, it's becoming clear that while their head coach may be genuine, he still has some growing to do.
"I'm not here to sell anything to anybody," Pederson said then. "I don't have to do it. This is their livelihood. This is their profession. They're professional athletes and they get paid well. At the end of the day, they know what it takes.
"But at the same time, I just know that you have to push them right up to the end, right up to the Nth degree. You've got to keep pushing them every single day and allowing them to get better and try to be great every single day, and that's a tough thing to do."
It was tough two weeks ago, with the Eagles' coming off back-to-back losses, the second to the Washington Redskins in a seven-point game whose score belied how badly the Eagles had played. And it might be even tougher now, for the Eagles had a share of first place in the NFC East in their grasp Sunday night, and like their receivers did too often with the football, they let it fall to the ground. Pederson dropped the ball, too, becoming so conservative and predictable in his play-calling, setting the stage for the Cowboys to erase a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and win in overtime on Dak Prescott's 5-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten.
The shame of Sunday for Pederson is that, until that fateful final quarter, in the aggregate he had outcoached the Cowboys' Jason Garrett. In the starkest contrast from the Eagles' two losses this season, for once they weren't the ones damaging themselves with too many penalties. They committed just five, one week after committing seven against the Vikings - a gradual and necessary improvement after they'd been flagged 27 times against the Detroit Lions and the Redskins. Pederson had them buttoned up for the most part, and from allowing Carson Wentz the chance to move the offense into field-goal range late in the first half to using a no-huddle approach to get the Dallas defense off balance in the third quarter, he was doing some of his best button-pushing of his rookie season.
Nevertheless, for all those good things, Pederson was bound to learn a cruel lesson of coaching: that a single simple choice can change everything for the worse. That choice came midway through the fourth quarter, when he had Wentz dump the ball to Darren Sproles on third down in Dallas territory. The Cowboys knew what was coming. Hell, everyone in AT&T Stadium did. Sproles had nowhere to go, and the six-yard loss backed the Eagles far enough from the end zone that punting the ball became the prudent course of action.
The Cowboys drove 90 yards for a tying touchdown on a 22-yard pass from Prescott to Dez Bryant, and with even 3 minutes, 4 seconds left, it was going to take something close to a miracle for Wentz to advance the Eagles from their 25-yard line to a place where Caleb Sturgis had a shot at a game-winning field goal. With his offensive line now missing two starters - Lane Johnson and Allen Barbre, who left Sunday's game with a hamstring injury - and with the Eagles' receivers' posing a minimal threat to the Dallas secondary, Pederson wouldn't dare call a downfield throw for Wentz. The Eagles punted the ball again, and the Cowboys were content to let the regulation clock run out and take their chances in overtime.
Doug Pederson had given them that chance. His mistake ruined what could have been a great night for him and his team, but it was a mistake nonetheless. Yes, he may be genuine, and it might be his greatest strength as a new head coach, but like his team, he has a good bit of growing to do.