Doug Pederson answered the question as quickly and as definitively as any he’d been asked all season:
“Yeah. My three coordinators will be back.”
Seriously? No equivocation? No review necessary? OK, maybe Jim Schwartz should get a pass, having won a Super Bowl the previous season, then having dealt with flood of injuries.
But Mike Groh? A first-year, first-time NFL coordinator? The force with which Pederson answered the question, posed early during his postseason press conference last week, was startling. Why would Pederson endorse Groh so willingly?
One possible answer arrived a six days later, when PhillyVoice published a story that depicted quarterback Carson Wentz as headstrong, uncooperative, and perhaps even insubordinate. It has been cast as a vendetta piece by a writer who disliked Wentz. The writer, Joe Santoliquito — who has also worked for this company — denied this. In fact, on Tuesday, he insisted that the story wasn’t pitched as a hit piece on Wentz.
It was supposed to be a hit piece on Mike Groh.
If that is true — if players and other NFL sources defended Groh at the expense of Wentz — then it becomes more difficult to gauge Groh’s performance. At least, it makes Groh look considerably less inept.
Because, for most of the year, Mike Groh seemed like exactly the wrong man for the job.
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I’m as guilty as anyone. I wrote it for the papers, and I said it on television and radio; the biggest loss from 2017 was offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who left to become the Colts' head coach. Reich was level-headed, pedigreed, patient and powerful — and poorly replaced, it seemed, by Groh, the team’s receivers coach in 2017. I was not alone in my assertion. It was a common refrain.
It crescendoed first after a 48-7 loss in New Orleans, then again after an overtime loss at Dallas in Game 13. Both times, the Eagles seemed doomed to miss the playoffs. Both times, it seemed like a simple, elegant Monday-morning remedy.
Fire Groh. Promote Duce Staley, the running backs coach (and, this season, the assistant head coach) whom Groh beat out for the job.
It was never that simple. A league source said this week that Pederson never considered firing Groh; not at any point this season.
If what PhillyVoice reported is true, and there’s no rational reason to doubt it, then it explains Pederson’s support of Groh — at least, it explains it in part. If, in fact, Wentz bucked Groh (and Pederson) and was insistent on having the full, complex menu of plays at his disposal despite continual upheaval among the offensive personnel; if he declined to hit early reads, or routinely failed to go through his progressions, or too often looked to pass during a run-pass option play; if, consciously or unconsciously, Wentz favored some receivers over others — then the blame lies more at Wentz’s feet than at the feet of Groh.
Several teammates defended Wentz on Twitter when the story broke Monday, including safety Malcolm Jenkins. However, on Wednesday, at a Pro Bowl practice, Jenkins indicated that at least part of the PhillyVoice story had merit. Jenkins acknowledged that Wentz was like himself, in that “any great player ... is going to be demanding. Him being assertive is what you want out of your starting quarterback.”
Would Reich have been better equipped to coach Wentz away from these (alleged) imperfections? Perhaps. But we don’t know that Groh didn’t try. Part of the PhillyVoice report cast Wentz as a game-planning bully. Of course, most veteran quarterbacks with MVP-caliber seasons in their past tend to throw their weight around.
What we do know is that Pederson and Groh simplified the offense three times. First, after the November loss in New Orleans. Second, at halftime of the next game, against the Giants. Third, after the loss at Dallas, which was Wentz’s final game — coincidentally, we’ve been told. Pederson insists that he and Groh planned to further simplify the offense before they knew Wentz would miss the rest of the season with a fractured vertebra.
We also know that Eagles coaches and teammates said that one of the benefits of having Nick Foles start the last five games involved Foles' adherence to the simpler game plan and Foles' willingness to run the plays more seamlessly, to hit the first read, to go through progressions, to hand the ball off, to accept a modest play instead of trying to make the biggest play possible.
It should be stressed that Wentz’s issues are neither abnormal, unforeseeable or irreparable. His predisposition to try to make big plays should be expected for a player with just 40 NFL starts and possessing his athleticism and arm strength. Most young players with otherworldly talents often rely too much on those talents, mainly because they can. This often leads to inefficiency and, worse, injury.
Wentz has now suffered a broken rib, a shredded knee and a broken back in his first three seasons. He’ll learn.
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Wentz’s shortcomings don’t absolve Groh (or Pederson) from all blame. The Eagles' offense sputtered during a season in which top offenses spiked, and the decline was most marked in two categories. In 2017, the Eagles scored 28.6 points per game. They scored just 22.9 in 2018. In 2017, they scored a touchdown on 64.06 percent of their trips into the red zone, inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. They scored a touchdown 59.02 percent of their red-zone trips in 2018.
These decreases were not completely Wentz’s fault; by definition, they could not have been. After all, his knee injury from 2017 cost him Games 1 and 2, and his back injury this season cost him Games 14, 15, and 16.
Groh was active for all 16. So was Pederson.
Notably, Pederson refused to define Groh’s role in the preparation of the season’s plan, in the preparation of the weekly game plans, and in the actual game-day play-calling. Pederson is recognized as the play-caller, but perhaps that role is less absolute than it seems; several times players credited Groh, not Pederson, for calling particular plays in particular games, particularly during the two-minute offense.
Was Pederson protecting Groh’s limited role? Was Pederson worried that his command of the offense might be perceived as not absolute?
Was Pederson just telling us to mind our own business?
Honestly, Groh never really had a fair chance. His hiring always was weighted and loaded, primarily because he had to live up to the expectations left by Reich but also because he wasn’t as highly regarded as quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who left to be the Vikings' OC. (Reich left after DeFilippo. It was a mess.)
He ascended after a spectacular season as the Eagles' wide receivers coach, but only one season, when other coaches — specifically, line coach Jeff Stoutland and Staley, the running backs coach — had been with the team longer and had performed just as spectacularly in 2017. There was a nepotism dynamic, since Groh is the son of former Jets coach Al Groh, and since he worked for his father from the time he entered coaching, in 2000, until 2008.
There was a racial component to Groh’s hiring as well. Groh is white. The Eagles have a strong record as a progressive franchise as far as hiring minorities in the coaching ranks and in the front office. Still, Staley is black. He is emblematic of the NFL’s glass ceiling that has kept black assistants from landing jobs as quarterback coaches, which turn into jobs as offensive coordinators, which turn into jobs as head coaches; there are only two black NFL head coaches.
There also was an element of the institutional incest, the type that that marked, and sometimes marred, the Andy Reid regime from 1999-2012. Pederson interviewed no outside candidates for the OC job.
Groh had never been an NFL coordinator, and his three-year stint as his father’s OC at Virginia went badly, but his pedigree isn’t the biggest obstacle in evaluating his 2018 season. It is the instability of the Eagles' roster. Injuries, and returns from injury, and midseason additions must have made Groh’s job maddening.
Among the receivers, he lost starter Mike Wallace in Game 2 and had to incorporate Jordan Matthews off the street, regained Alshon Jeffery from offseason surgery in Game 4, had to incorporate trade addition Golden Tate in Game 9, and never had a consistent role for Nelson Agholor, who, in a contract year, might be the most unfortunate victim of all.
Among the running backs, Groh lost Darren Sproles after Game 1 for the next 10 games, Jay Ajayi for Game 3, then for good after Game 5, and had Corey Clement at 100 percent for about five of the 11 games he played until Clement finally was lost for good after Game 13, against the Cowboys. That loss at Dallas also was Wentz’s last game.
We thought it might have been Groh’s last game, too.
Now, maybe, we know why it wasn’t.