PHOENIX – Doug Pederson spent the better part of the NFL owners’ meetings wheeling around the grounds of the Biltmore Resort. The Eagles coach recently had surgery to correct a nagging Achilles before it snapped and the recovery had him in a boot and resting his left knee on a scooter so he could walk without bearing weight on his foot.
The procedure was just one of the many things Pederson could do after the season ended in mid-January, unlike last year when the Super Bowl shortened the offseason. But aside from some personal maintenance, most of his extra time has been devoted to self-scouting and finding ways to improve the Eagles.
Pederson may have won a championship, but he’s not exempt from criticism, certainly after the Eagles fell short of repeating last season. And he may be his own worst critic. While there were several tense moments when Pederson chided reporters last season – “Come down and stand on the sideline with me and make decisions,” he once growled – he said Tuesday that play-calling was one area he needed to improve the most.
“A lot of situational things I looked at, I can get better with some of the decisions I made last year,” Pederson said during an hour-long interview. “Just more or less, run-pass-type options. I think going back to ’17, there were some opportunities I’ve just got to maintain that aggressiveness.”
In terms of personnel, the 2018 Eagles were different than the 2017 version, and quarterback Carson Wentz was returning from knee surgery. But many of the same players who brought Philadelphia its first Super Bowl returned, and yet, Pederson wasn’t as bold for much of the season.
The Eagles didn’t attempt and convert as many fourth downs and two-point conversions. They didn’t score as often before the half. And there were just many instances in games when Pederson made conservative decisions that ran counter to his aggressiveness in his first two seasons as coach.
“Last year was obviously a tough year. But I look at it, some of the fourth-down decisions … maybe I go and throw the ball a little more instead of run the ball,” Pederson said. “You’ve got to weigh it back and forth. Two-point conversions, I think about some of the decisions I’ve made.
“Still having the aggressiveness and showing the team that we’re going to stay aggressive in kind of a calculated way, not in a silly, kind of a whim type of decision.”
Pederson seemed to recapture his gumption after Wentz was lost for the season and backup Nick Foles took over. The Eagles won their final three games of the regular season and a first-round playoff game. But Foles is gone, off to the Jaguars, and Wentz returns with an offense that should allow Pederson to keep his foot on the pedal.
Most of the skill position faces will be familiar. Receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor are back, as are tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. But DeSean Jackson was acquired in a trade to give the Eagles the elite vertical element they’ve missed since the receiver was released five years ago, and a running back will be added to the mix, likely in the draft.
Pederson’s task, and it’s a good one to have, will be to utilize all those options, but also to keep them content with their roles. Despite Ertz’s career-high catch percentage, there was a feeling from a few in the locker room that Wentz had come to rely on his tight end more than was necessary last season.
Ertz was targeted 9.75 times a game with Jeffery (6.6), Agholor (6.1) and Goedert (2.8) significantly behind. It’s hard to argue with his 116 receptions, which set an NFL record for tight ends. But there were opportunities missed downfield. They should increase with Jackson in the fold.
“You’ve got one football and a lot of times, defenses dictate where the ball goes,” Pederson said. “I can sit here and tell you we have a play designed for Alshon but it ends up going to Nelson Agholor. Or it’s designed for Zach and it ends up going to Dallas. It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get X amount of touches, here, here, here, here.’
“It just doesn’t work that way. We’re going to scheme and we’re going to plan the way we always have and we teach the quarterbacks the progressions. And Carson gets through his reads and the ball ends up where it ends up.”
But Pederson can affect distribution by calling plays with such-and-such as the No. 1 read. And he certainly can dictate allocation with his personnel usage. The Eagles have had great success with the “11” personnel package – three receivers – particularly running the ball vs. nickel defenses.
They averaged more yards per play, however, last season when they were in “12” personnel – two tight ends – and by the end of the year Pederson’s play-calling had reflected this trend. Goedert’s development in his second season should call for more “12” personnel. But that means a receiver will have to come off the field.
“Obviously, we have guys now that we can put out on the field that can be explosive,” Pederson said. “A lot of times, too, in your 12 personnel, you’re a little more run-oriented, so your play-action pass becomes a little bit bigger and there’s where you’re seeing the yards per attempt really spike.”
Pederson wasn’t given out secrets, but he said he and his coaches had figured out a different way to use “12” personnel “to hopefully give us an advantage in the fall.”
The Eagles’ ground game could use the benefit. Of course, the running back position will need to be upgraded with just Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams currently on the roster. Injuries to Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles impacted the run last season, but Pederson said that defenses had stunted the run-pass option game and that he at times became pass-happy.
“I didn’t stay patient enough at times, maybe,” Pederson said.
The 51-year-old Pederson was forced to slow down after his foot surgery, although he often rolled past many other NFL coaches when exiting some of the meetings this week. He sat in front of the band for hours during Monday’s party, with his scooter parked next to him, its front basket holding his wife’s purse.
Pederson said he has four more weeks with the scooter, plenty of time before formal practices behind in May.
“I’ll be ready,” he said.
The Eagles should be, as well.