As Doug Pederson now realizes, the problem with declaring a championship performance “the new norm" is that, of course, anything else is considered abnormal. Insufficient. Failure.
It should not be considered as such, but it is.
Pederson issued his proclamation in February, on the Art Museum steps in the afterglow of the city’s first Super Bowl title, at the end of the most anticipated parade in the region’s history. He had it plastered on a wall at the NovaCare Center. It was a glorious, foolish thing to do. Forgive him his bravado.
He didn’t win the Super Bowl, but he did an outstanding job, again. That’s what we should get used to.
For the record, Pederson has now beaten Sean McVay, last season’s Associated Press coach of the year and this year’s Super Bowl finalist, twice. At his place. With Nick Foles as his fourth-quarter, game-winning quarterback.
Pederson also beat this year’s coach-of-the-year favorite, former subordinate Matt Nagy, who has already won the Pro Football Writers Association award. As with McVay, Pederson beat Nagy at Nagy’s place. This time, Pederson won in the playoffs. And again, Pederson won not with Carson Wentz, but with Foles.
The two wins over the Rams and the playoff win over the Bears won’t earn Pederson anything more than a slap on the back and some deep-winter satisfaction. That satisfaction will be dampened this week, of course, as he watches McVay, 33, be cast over and over as the next Bill Belichick -- whom, you might recall, Pederson also has beaten.
Pederson clearly was the best coach in the NFL in 2017, even though McVay won the award. So, how should Pederson’s 2018 be viewed?
In much the same light.
Pederson lost his top two offensive assistants, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo, and didn’t have much of his roster for much of the season and was saddled with a revamped medical staff that is, at best, clumsily finding its way.
Still, he took a team that was shorthanded early, and was ravaged by injury during the middle of the season, and had it playing as well as any team in the league by the end of the year. Left for dead after Game 10 and again after Game 13, the Eagles came up six points -- maybe one dropped pass, in the divisional playoff game in New Orleans -- short of reaching the NFC championship game.
It was like watching Lazarus rise twice. Amazing.
No, Pederson didn’t do the best job in the league. Nagy, a rookie, probably did -- partly for retaining defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and giving him free rein to engineer the league’s best defense, and partly for winning 12 games with (or despite) quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel.
But Pederson did win nine games. When the roster was stable the team was good. Very good. Good enough to win five of the last six regular-season games, including that win at the Rams and a home win over the Texans. Good enough to beat the Bears in the postseason in Chicago, even if it took a bit of double-doink magic.
Good enough to justify the retention of defensive coordinator Jim “wide-nine” Schwartz -- but not defensive line coach Chris Wilson. And offensive coordinator Mike Groh -- but not receivers coach Gunther Brewer and assistant line coach Eugene Chung. But then, every season needs its scapegoats.
At different times Pederson dealt with 18 significant injuries that either delayed the start of players' seasons (such as Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Tim Jernigan); diminished their effectiveness for significant stretches (Jason Peters, Brandon Graham, Jason Kelce, Corey Clement, Jordan Hicks, and Darren Sproles); or cost them the remainder of the season (Mike Wallace, Jay Ajayi, Wentz, Clement,, and four front-line defensive backs).
“Obviously, as the head football coach, the number of injuries to starters to start the season who missed games -- that was real. That was a real thing,” Pederson said two days after his season ended. “As the season progressed, we began to sort of overachieve just a little bit. Guys were doing things right and preparing right and studying and getting themselves ready, and we were able to win some tough games.”
That last sentence acknowledges, to some degree, that the Eagles experienced a Super Bowl hangover. Players admitted that not everyone was as focused as they were in 2017; that they made “gross errors,” and they made them often. That falls at Pederson’s feet.
So does the issue of the playbook and game-planning.
He asked his offense to do too much too often. Some of that happened at the insistence of Wentz, but again, Wentz isn’t the coach. Pederson is.
The team played better after the 48-7 loss at New Orleans in Game 10, when Pederson first watered down the scheme with fewer motions and shifts. It played better still when it leaned more on the running game after halftime against the Giants in Game 11. And better yet after Game 13,, when Wentz’s bad back finally gave out and Foles took over -- which was completely coincidental, Pederson claims, since he was going to further simplify the offense, anyway.
“Eventually you get to the point in the season where you go, 'You know what? You have to get back to some of your basics, some of your core stuff that really began to work,” Pederson said.
He specifically mentioned the challenge of incorporating high-volume receiver Golden Tate, who was acquired after Game 8, and the spotty utilization of fourth-year receiver Nelson Agholor.
Combined with the injuries to the first three players on the running back depth chart, the early absence of Wentz and Jeffery, the late loss of Wentz, the two-game season of Wallace, and the integration of rookie tight end Dallas Goedert, the fact that Pederson made the team, viable by December was brilliant. And that’s what we should expect.