There will be plenty said and written about Doug Pederson’s decision to punt and settle for a tie. And there will be words devoted farther down here to the Eagles coach’s curious choices late in Sunday’s 23-23 draw with the Bengals.
But any hand-wringing over Pederson’s lack of aggressiveness shouldn’t distract from the greater issues plaguing the coach, his team, and specifically his offense. Oh, Jim Schwartz’s defense has its problems. But they pale in comparison.
The Eagles' offense, three years after it was the belle of the NFL and outscored a Patriots offense -- that didn’t even punt -- to win a title, has regressed to be nothing more than pedestrian. Gone is the imagination that produced plays such as the “Philly Special.”
Pederson deserves much of the blame, of course. It’s his scheme and he calls the plays, after all. But the offensive decline is systemic. Carson Wentz might be playing worse than any starting quarterback in the league, a list that now includes Nick Foles after he replaced the benched Mitch Trubisky and rallied the Bears to victory.
Surely his deterioration has played a role in Pederson’s timidness. You can bet the coach would rather sit through daily news conferences than call multiple screen passes on third-and-long as he did Sunday. When he has schemed receivers open, Wentz has repeatedly missed them either with his eyes or his inaccurate arm.
But why has Wentz gone from being considered one of the league’s most promising quarterbacks to being anything but special? Pederson and Wentz were always going to be tied at the hip after the Eagles drafted him in the coach’s first season. The 27-year-old is, ultimately, the coach’s responsibility.
But something’s wrong higher up at the factory that prides itself on rolling out quality quarterbacks. It was hubris that led to that draft statement from Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, and it was hubris that kept him from seeing how spending a second-round pick on a quarterback would affect the starter.
Wentz is playing like he’s looking over his shoulder at Jalen Hurts, who was again on the field for two plays. But this week the rookie took snaps, while Wentz lined up wide as a receiver. There are likely other reasons for his struggles, but that it’s even a question is of the Eagles' own doing.
The same could be said of Pederson’s oft-repeated excuse that the truncated offseason has affected the Eagles because they were incorporating new ideas and new players into their offense. Like that wasn’t the case for 31 other teams, many of whom had significantly more turnover.
The decisions to bring in new assistants and new ideas weren’t necessarily bad ones. But so far there has been little to show for the hiring of Rich Scangarello, who was brought in at the behest of Jeffrey Lurie, after the Eagles owner spearheaded changes in Pederson’s staff this offseason.
“We’re still meshing and jelling as a team and building the chemistry,” Wentz said. “A lot of moving pieces today, not as an excuse, but guys will continue to get this experience and learn from it.”
Injuries have certainly hamstrung the Eagles, but that they’ve been among the most injured the last three years is no coincidence and falls again on a front office that has failed to provide continuity on the medical staff.
Toss all of the coaching and medical changes and faulty personnel decisions into one basket and you have what Pederson correctly labeled “not a smart football team” after the Eagles committed 11 penalties.
“That’s on me,” he added.
Well, yes … and no. It’s on Pederson, but it’s also on Lurie and Roseman. Why has Pederson, just three years after outcoaching Bill Belichick, looked like the coaching version of his one year as the Eagles' starting quarterback? It can’t just be the absence of Frank Reich.
His reluctance to go for two points late in regulation, or to go for it on fourth-and-7 or, following Matt Pryor’s false start, fourth-and-12 in overtime speak to a coach who has little confidence in his team or his offense.
Pederson’s muddled reasoning for his late-game decisions were all over the map. He said that he didn’t go for two after Wentz dived into the end zone with 21 seconds left in regulation because the quarterback “felt comfortable there to just kick the extra point, and then put it back in our offense’s hands.”
Wentz and the offense were a hot mess for most of the first 60 minutes, and Pederson wanted to take his chances with that unit in overtime?
But that wasn’t his most egregious decision. When Pederson opted to punt with 19 seconds left in overtime, he was essentially punting on the season and on his team. With the 49ers, Steelers, and Ravens next on the schedule, it’s hard to see them with anything left worth playing for by late October, even if the NFC East is a disaster.
“I am not happy about it,” Brandon Graham said of the tie.
The Eagles defensive end and captain wasn’t critical of Pederson’s decision. Wentz and running back Miles Sanders said they understood it, as well. But their demeanors were muted during video conferences, and while reporters weren’t permitted in the locker room, it’s safe to assume that it was subdued.
Pederson’s messaging to both his offense and defense in that moment -- he didn’t feel confident that either could do their jobs -- may not go over well if the Eagles are unable to rebound. He even seemed unsure himself, when asked specifically about the fourth-and-7 call.
“Looking back, hindsight is 20/20, I guess,” Pederson said. “I’ll look at that decision tomorrow with clearer eyes and make a decision later.”