The more Doug Pederson tried to clarify what he was trying to say, the murkier his message seemed.
In his weekly Monday appearance on WIP-FM, the Eagles coach said the now-3-9 Miami Dolphins “played harder than we did. … They wanted this game more than we did,” in upsetting the visiting Eagles, 37-31 on Sunday.
Host Angelo Cataldi was taken aback by the frankness of Pederson’s answer, and Pederson immediately tried to qualify his assertion, an effort Pederson continued at his noon Monday news conference.
“I don't want to be misunderstood when I make that statement. What I mean by they want it more, there were certain plays in that game where, obviously, they made the play, we didn't. So, in that case, yeah, they wanted that play a little bit more than we did,” Pederson said at the news conference.
“As a whole, as a game, the effort, the energy level, all that was there in the game,” Pederson said. “Playing tough. Guys played hurt in the game and went back in the game, so it's none of that. It's the fact that there were plays to be made in that game, we didn't make them. They wanted that aspect of the game just a touch more. They made those plays, and ultimately came out on top.”
But, what is a game other than a collection of individual plays? If the Dolphins wanted those crucial plays more, played harder than the Eagles on those downs, then wouldn’t it follow that Miami wanted it more overall? Where was the distinction?
One theory there would be, a coach whose calling card has always been his ability to connect with the locker room quickly realized he’d said something that could strain that bond, and he wanted to walk back his words, somehow take the sting out of them.
Later in his news conference, asked about the defense’s plan to cover Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker, who caught seven passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns, Pederson came back to the idea that his team had the right plan and gave a strong effort, Miami just somehow prevailed on individual plays.
“If you rewatch the game, again, we have guys in position. It's not the calls. It's not the effort of the team. It's not any of that. We're in position,” Pederson said. “They made the play. We didn't. That's really what it comes down to. We have to do our job as far as putting our players in position.”
Pederson was asked if he was saying that Miami, which started the season 0-7, had more talent than an Eagles team many observers picked to win the NFC East and make a long playoff run. If the plan and the effort were fine, then, isn’t talent about the only difference left?
“It’s not a talent thing. If you’ve ever played competitive sports in your life you would know, there are times when you get beat and times when you win. We got beat,” Pederson said. “We physically got beat, and we have to accept that.
“Every player has to look at that, every coach has to look at that. What can I do this week to get better from that? How can I maybe be another six inches further down the field, or listen to the snap count a little bit, or whatever it might be to make those plays in the future?”
In his radio appearance, Pederson talked of coaches and players needing to look in the mirror this week – which is what the 5-7 Eagles have been vowing to do regularly after losses dating back to Week 2 at Atlanta. At this point, surely, they have gazed into more mirrors than Snow White’s stepmother.
If Pederson couldn’t adequately explain what happened against Miami, he did have a clear message looking ahead, one gifted him by the historically bad competition level of the NFC East.
“This will be great for our leadership right now, where we are,” Pederson said. He said he needs to challenge the team leaders, and the team leaders need to challenge the rest of the players to win the final four games and make the playoffs at 9-7.
“We're not throwing in the towel. We have a lot of football left. We have a great opportunity. There is still a chance for us. We control our own destiny,” Pederson said. “So that's going to be the message moving forward to this football team, and the leaders have to embrace that, and they have to also take it to the team as well.”
The defensive penalties stood out more, but offensive penalties also helped bog down the Eagles after their fast start at Miami. Their first punt came after a Mack Hollins block in the back erased what might have been Nelson Agholor’s best catch and run of the season. The next series, the Eagles settled for a field goal after Jason Peters false-started, negating a completion for a first down to Agholor.
Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns in the second half, in which he was not sacked. He hit 19 of 25 second-half passes, after going 8-for-14 in the first half, with three sacks and an interception.
The three drives that took the Dolphins from a 28-14 deficit to a 34-28 lead were six plays, 75 yards; six plays, 61 yards; and nine plays, 96 yards. That’s 21 plays, moving at better than 11 yards per snap. The Eagles had no answers. Miami’s possessions went: interception, punt, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, and punt that left the Eagles with 8 seconds to try to score a game-winning touchdown.
Carson Wentz completed 22 of his first 32 passes, but starting with that Zach Ertz drop at the Miami 5, he went 6-for-14 down the stretch.
On the final-play Hail Mary, the ball was batted around in the end zone before Miami cornerback Chris Lammons plucked it. Reaching out as well, his hands just below Lammons’, was Alshon Jeffery, who had gone to the line limping after making the sideline catch that set up the final fling. If Jeffery had caught the ball and Jake Elliott had made the extra point for a 38-37 win, would you feel better about the Eagles as contenders?
That taking a 10-0 lead would be so problematic? According to former Daily News stat master Bob Vetrone Jr., the Eagles are 3-4 on the last seven occasions they have done that.
The last Eagles coach to beat the Dolphins was Andy Reid in 2011.
The Eagles’ handling of the Dolphins’ trick play touchdown continued to roil the fans Monday.
Doug Pederson stuck with his conviction that no timeout was necessary, when his group of field goal defenders was confronted with a “swinging gate” formation, with Miami punter Matt Haack at quarterback, in the second quarter, from the Eagles 1.
On Sunday, Pederson’s point seemed to be that the Eagles knew the Dolphins’ special-teams coach likes trick plays, and they had prepared for something unusual. But the Miami players made it clear this was not a play they had ever put on tape, so the Eagles would not have prepared specifically for Haack’s jogging left and flipping the ball to kicker Jason Sanders.
By Monday, Pederson’s answer was that if he had called timeout to go over the details of defending that formation, the Dolphins could have just changed their play. But would they have scored a touchdown after changing the play?
In any case, Pederson also said that the Eagles had the play covered, except Josh Sweat decided to leave Sanders to pressure Haack.
“I watched the film again this morning, and we had everybody covered up. We broke the formation,” Pederson said. “We lined up where we were supposed to align, and we just came off the guy that caught the touchdown. That’s the bottom line.”