In the week’s work leading up to Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks, the offensive coaching staff of the Eagles had a number of decisions to make, none of them particularly easy.
That is the job, however. The guy sorting socks in the laundry room can make the easy decisions. NFL coaches are paid to know more about coaching football players than the fans, the ownership and the front office, and more than the guy with the socks.
One of the decisions was very straightforward and binary, an either/or proposition. Plan A or Plan B. Was it better to leave Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle in place of Lane Johnson, or was it better to cross-train rookie Andre Dillard, a left tackle, to start on the opposite side of the line?
This is about as basic a coaching question as there is: Who is better to start at this particular position? It doesn’t get any more elemental than that. Decades and decades of coaching background is contained within Doug Pederson’s staff. Season upon season of experience can be brought to bear in making the proper call in these situations. It is the very essence of why they are paid to coach.
Well, how did they do?
Turns out, not so well. Dillard lasted 36 snaps at right tackle before being replaced at halftime by Vaitai. He was pretty awful, and if the coaching staff had an inkling Dillard would be that bad, he would not have been the starter. But the coaching staff didn’t know, didn’t have a clue, and of all the concerns that emerged from the loss to Seattle, that absence of coaching acumen should be at the very top of the list.
It isn’t as if Dillard didn’t telegraph a few clues. In speaking to the media during the practice week, he likened the move from one side of the line to the other as the equivalent of a right-handed person writing an essay left-handed. He emphasized the difficulty of what he was being asked to do, and on a scale of “Oh, it’ll be fine” to “This could really blow up,” he didn’t exude confidence in the experiment.
The reality, however, is that the Eagles spent a first-round pick on Dillard and there is probably some organizational pressure to justify that decision with some contribution. Vaitai had a poor game the previous week against New England and, well, why not? The Seattle game provided the answer, of course.
“He prepared well all week and was ready to go,” Pederson said Monday. Well, actually, no, he wasn’t.
As for Vaitai, he was a draft pick, too, albeit a fifth-rounder, and this is his fourth season in the system. He started 10 games in 2017 and was in the lineup for the Super Bowl. What the hell has happened to him?
That’s a question for another time, and, yes, there are hands being raised in the back of the classroom to point out all the extenuating circumstances from Sunday, so let’s get to those.
Right guard Brandon Brooks took himself out of the game in the first quarter and went to the locker room with what the team termed an illness. Brooks later confirmed an Inquirer report that he was experiencing symptoms related to an anxiety disorder. As a result, Vaitai finished the first half at right guard. Maybe that didn’t help Dillard, either, but his struggles were apparent.
With Vaitai at tackle in the second half — and second-year lineman Matt Pryor taking his first NFL offensive snaps at right guard — Carson Wentz, who was sacked three times in the first half, wasn’t sacked again. He was hurried and he was pressured, but it wasn’t the fire drill of the first half.
So, that was one coaching decision that failed the test, and failed miserably.
There were others. Pederson opted to adjust to the shaky line situation and the lack of credible wide receivers by changing … virtually nothing about the offense. He didn’t make it possible for Wentz to get away from pressure, didn’t use a moving pocket or rollouts, and didn’t employ a screen game to make use of the pressure.
They just went out and ran the offense, with Jordan Matthews, Mack Hollins, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Greg Ward as his wide threats. They were within one score of the lead until early in the fourth quarter, but Jay Ajayi, a tough, middle-of-the-field runner, got just nine snaps and six carries.
Wentz had a bad game. There’s no denying that, but he also wasn’t put in position to have a good one. The same coaching staff that thought putting rookie Andre Dillard at right tackle was a good idea didn’t come up with a single innovative thought for the overall game plan.