LANDOVER, Md.—As Doug Pederson started toward the center of FedEx Field just after the Eagles' 30-17 victory over the Redskins on Sunday, he felt the bracing, surprising sensation of a cooler's worth of Gatorade soaking his back—the sort of celebration usually reserved for a championship game, not the opening day of a 16-game season.
The moment was so quick and unexpected that Fox's cameras didn't catch the whole sequence. Two backups, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and defensive end Steven Means, had crept up behind Pederson and doused him. And against a team that had beaten the Eagles five straight times, for a coach who'd had his qualifications and credibility questioned publicly just days earlier, this had to be the most refreshing shower of Pederson's tenure as an NFL head coach.
"It was just the old setup on the sideline," he said. "Appreciative of it."
What it was, really, was a small sign of solidarity and support from players who like Pederson and who used him as a convenient and maybe even genuine source of motivation for this game. Former NFL executive Mike Lombardi had teed off on Pederson on TheRinger.com, suggesting that not only was Pederson not cut out to be a head coach, but that everyone around the league knows he's isn't. An Inquirer story revealed that, within the NovaCare Complex, it's widely understood how much power defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz already wields, how ambitious Schwartz is, and how tenuous Pederson's future might be.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins dismissed those controversies as "outside noise" after Sunday's game, but it was clear that the noise and narrative of a coach under fire had seeped into the locker room.
"That's Philly," left tackle Jason Peters said. "Second-year head coach—pressure's on him, pressure's on us. The pressure on him is a pressure on us. We had to get this win for Doug.
"Doug is kind of like an Andy Reid guy. He mentored under Andy Reid, and he's more of a players' coach, and when you have a players' coach, you tend to play harder for that guy. He knows how it feels to get tired, so he'll take something off a little bit. You tend to lay it all on the line for a players' coach like that."
They got the win despite an erratic performance on offense, despite the losses of cornerback Ronald Darby to a dislocated ankle and Peters (for most of the second half) to a tweaked groin, despite Pederson's own curious play-calling. Remember: The Eagles scored three touchdowns Sunday, and none of them required a long, impressive drive. Carson Wentz spun a 58-yard pass to Nelson Agholor out of whole cloth after pulling off the kind of escape routine that Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick once made common. The Redskins' Jamison Crowder handed the Eagles possession at the Washington 39-yard line when he muffed a punt, a mistake that led to Wentz's 1-yard TD pass to LeGarrette Blount. And Fletcher Cox's 20-yard fumble return was a gift from the instant-replay gods, not the product of any Pederson brilliance.
The Eagles showed guts and resilience Sunday, and perhaps they showed more of it than they otherwise would have because of Pederson and the circumstances around him. When trying to figure out just what kind of head coach Pederson is and will be, everyone always cites Reid as the appropriate antecedent, just as Peters did. But the better model might be Charlie Manuel, who was an ideal manager for a talented team that merely required a few hard and fast rules and a more-relaxed working environment to flourish.
The difference between baseball and football, though, is that over a 16-game NFL season, a coach's strategic acumen is more relevant and more consequential, and make no mistake: In this regard, the Eagles had to overcome Pederson to a great extent Sunday. He displayed an odd fondness for wide-receiver screens, and he had Wentz carry out a misbegotten trick play that called for Agholor to either run with a lateral or heave the football downfield. There was no justification for that latter call, which led to a turnover, stopped a promising drive, and hinted that Pederson couldn't sense that the Eagles already had seized momentum and didn't have to take so great a risk with such a complex and perilous play.
It was just the sort of mistake that Lombardi had suggested Pederson was prone to make—a failure to read the intricacies of a particular game or moment and react appropriately. The Eagles survived it Sunday. It will be that much harder for them if Darby is out for several weeks or if Peters injures his groin more severely—regardless of whether the Eagles have a soft spot for their guileless, earnest head coach.
"For me, it's everything I've been telling you guys—just ask the players how they feel about me," Pederson said. "I just give this win to all the players in the locker room. They battled. They hung in through adversity."
So did he. It won't be the last time he'll have to.