BUFFALO -- Doug Pederson’s supportive, player-friendly style was perfect for the 2017 Super Bowl-winning Eagles, whose ability to overcome adversity might never be topped by any champion, ever.
But the struggling 3-4 team Pederson took to Buffalo for Sunday’s encounter with the 5-1 Bills is a different Eagles group, playing a different season, with a very different feel.
Does the head coach still strike the right note? Sooner or later, Pederson’s ability to connect with his locker room will fade. It happens to every coach who isn’t Bill Belichick. It happened to Andy Reid, toward the end of his 14-year Eagles tenure, and when it did, Reid went to Kansas City and recreated the exact same thing he’d done here, turning around the franchise while still not quite winning the Super Bowl. He just needed a new venue.
Are we getting close to that time, when Pederson no longer is the perfect leader for this group? Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie talks to reporters only a few times a year. We don’t know what Lurie thinks, or what he will think if this season continues to spiral downward, as seems quite possible.
We know Lurie owes a lot to the coach who finally got him that Lombardi trophy he spent more than two decades chasing. Most likely, just about everything about the current team, except Carson Wentz, will change before we reach the point where Pederson’s job is at stake. The only way he is in serious trouble soon is if Wentz becomes unhappy, or Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman develop a rift. All are under contract through 2022.
At spring’s NFL meetings, Lurie said he was very happy with Pederson’s 9-7 follow-up to the Super Bowl season, which included a return trip to the playoffs, a win in Chicago, followed by a loss at New Orleans.
Lurie said the was impressed that through 2018’s ups and downs, Pederson remained “so poised, even-keeled, focused, dynamic. As impressive as the year we won the Super Bowl.”
Lurie also said: “We think we can compete at the very highest level in 2019. And at the same time, plan for 2020, 2021, and be as good of a football team as we can be.”
This team, predicted to return to the top level of Super Bowl contention, has trailed by double digits in six of seven games. After playing the Bills, it faces the Bears, the Patriots, and the Seahawks. After that, the schedule gets easier, but when you’re 3-8 or even 4-7, easy is relative. Really, once you’ve lost eight games, you aren’t talking about contending for the Super Bowl.
Pederson ran a very relaxed, “we-know-what-we’ve-got” training camp this year. A parade of national reporters dropped by and assured the local scribes they were covering one of the league’s most-talented teams. But it hasn’t felt like that, right from the early 17-0 deficit in the season opener against the woeful Washington Redskins.
Pederson’s message to his team this year, complete with T-shirts, was “Everything Matters.” At times, it almost seems the team’s play is mocking that slogan. The Eagles have been mistake-prone and inconsistent. In the wake of last Sunday night’s 37-10 loss at Dallas, right tackle Lane Johnson suggested in a TV interview that after something like this, being late for meetings or practice probably wouldn’t be tolerated.
Everyone watching sat straight up. After this, being late won’t be tolerated? It was being tolerated before, as in, it was being tolerated after a 38-20 spanking the previous week at Minnesota? What the actual heck?
Johnson didn’t try to explain his remarks until Friday, when he said he “probably messed up on my comments. I didn’t mean any ill will toward any teammate. Didn’t mention any teammates’ names.”
Johnson said he just meant that everyone, including himself, needed to be more disciplined. But, asked to clarify whether he was speaking hypothetically or had instances of tardiness in mind, Johnson answered, “No comment.”
When Pederson was asked what Johnson might have been talking about, he explained how bad traffic can be in Philly.
Discipline, of course, is Pederson’s job. He and Roseman have cut players after each of the last two losses -- linebacker Zach Brown, cornerback Orlando Scandrick, and defensive tackle Akeem Spence.
That led to a bitter Scandrick appearance Friday on FS1, with the former Cowboy ripping the locker room, Malcolm Jenkins, and Roseman, just as Pederson was telling reporters about his team: “Last week, we had a lot of distraction … off-the-field distraction, and they have put that behind them. They have moved on. They are focused in on this game, this opponent. They understand the mistakes they have made. As coaches, it’s our job to not only point it out, but correct it and fix it. They have done that. They’re excited for this chance to go play again this weekend.”
Center Jason Kelce said he hasn’t noticed anyone being late for anything. He said Pederson is communicating well.
“Everybody knows what their responsibilities are. I can’t say that much is different now than it was during the Super Bowl year,” Kelce said. “I think that all of these things tend to get brought up when you’re struggling, and people are looking for answers.”
The Eagles’ early-game struggles this season certainly reflect on coaching and preparation, whether you blame Pederson, offensive coordinator Mike Groh, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, or some combination. Though it’s difficult to envision Pederson being fired if this season goes bad, it is not difficult to envision one or both coordinators changing.
Besides consecutive blow outs to NFC contenders, the last few weeks have featured distracting, self-inflicted controversies. First, Brown deprecated Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who proceeded to set the Eagles’ defense on fire. The Eagles said Brown’s release wasn’t related to his remarks.
Then, with the team reeling, Pederson went on the radio and promised the Eagles would win at Dallas. He later explained that he was just showing confidence in his players, but when the Cowboys got back a host of injured standouts a few days before the game, the Eagles suddenly were headed into a talent mismatch that their coach had guaranteed they would win. As Dallas edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence foresaw, Pederson wasn’t playing and was in no position to deliver on his promise. He just looked silly. And ineffectual.
Along the way, an ESPN reporter offered anonymous quotes from an Eagles player ripping the offense and Wentz. This brushfire was just dying down Monday, when WIP radio reported that the source of the quotes was wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
More angst, more time spent on non-football intrigue. But by Friday, the Eagles were actually talking about strategy and matchups again. Until Scandrick put the organization on blast.
“At this point, it’s like something once a week,” right guard Brandon Brooks said. “Another situation, another piece of adversity, I guess. I just don’t pay attention to it. I’m trying to win a game this week.”
Earlier in the week, Pederson was asked why, after a full week of talk about accountability and looking in the mirror and coming together leading up to the Dallas game, the Eagles got blown out and had to repeat all those things again.