It’s rare that the outcome of a single game can define a coach’s past and chart his future. But then, nothing about Doug Pederson’s nearly four seasons as the Eagles’ head coach has been all that predictable or commonplace.
Content to be part of the scenery when it came to designing the work of art that was the 2017-18 Eagles, he coached throughout that season with a boldness that suggested he might have been the one calling the personnel shots all along. Yet that same fearless coach (and author) has more than once chosen to walk back public criticism of his players and allowed some player-on-player backbiting to leak out of the locker room.
Under him, the Eagles have won a Super Bowl and nearly reached a second consecutive NFC Championship Game — without their MVP-caliber quarterback. They also sagged to 7-9 after winning five of their first seven games in Pederson’s first season, and they had been thoroughly underwhelming and underachieving this season until Carson Wentz’s backup band played a little more like The Beatles and a little less like Wings.
Pederson’s time here has been something of a kaleidoscope. You can see what you want to see in it, depending on your angle and perspective. But all those brilliant colors and shape-shifting images will come into sharper and steadier focus by 8 p.m. Sunday, once we know whether the Eagles are on course for the playoffs or will finish a season of high expectations with no better than a .500 record.
Sure, this game against the Cowboys is likely to decide the NFC East. But it’s also likely to clarify what kind of coach Pederson has been and will be.
Think about how the game’s outcome will cast Pederson’s tenure. If the Eagles win, they will have positioned themselves — assuming they beat the lowly Giants the following week — to win their second division title and earn their third straight postseason berth. They will have rallied to win a Super Bowl after Wentz’s knee injury and rallied twice late in a season to reach the playoffs — a testament to Pederson’s ability to keep a team united and strong through adversity.
But a loss changes the entire narrative, in a couple of ways. First, there’s the narrow, Dallas-only perspective. If the Eagles lose Sunday, it would mark Pederson’s sixth loss in eight games to the Cowboys. His two victories would be the meaningless 2016 season finale, when Dallas already had clinched the NFC East title, and the teams’ first matchup in 2017, which Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott missed because of a suspension.
“I do think about that,” Pederson said Friday. “At the start of any season, every head coach gets up and says the same thing: ‘OK, let’s take care of our division. You take care of your division, you win your division, you’re in the postseason.’
"The Cowboys have been a team that we’ve struggled with, honestly. It’s something that we’ve got to continue to work [on] and try to overcome. They’ve had our number here recently, at least during my time here in Philly, and it’s something where, as we look at the tape and how I prepare the football team and get ready to play and all that, at the end of the day, we’re focused on this one game and whether we can turn things around. We do well with the other teams. It’s just this team that has our number.”
But it wouldn’t be just this one team. A loss Sunday would mean the Eagles’ record will have worsened for the second consecutive season, from 13-3 to 9-7 to 8-8 at best, and they will have finished behind the Cowboys in the standings for the third time in Pederson’s four seasons.
Of course, the Eagles and their fans can fire up clips of that February 2018 championship parade as an easy and effective rebuttal to any assertion that the Cowboys have really been the better team recently, but what’s the more telling trend: one stunning season of greatness or three of consistent superiority? A loss Sunday will make that Super Bowl look less like an achievement and more like an anomaly.
Is that a fair way to judge Pederson? This is the NFL. The word fair doesn’t often apply to such matters. He understands that truth as well as anyone.
“It’s something that, when I sit down at the end of the season and evaluate everything, from the roster to my performance to my staff to everything involved on both sides, we need to find some answers there, and we need to fix some things,” he said. “But those are all things for the end of the season to look at.”
With a little luck, they won’t have to start Sunday night.