Here is the thing that everyone should have learned about Doug Pederson by now: You underestimate him and his football team at your peril, at a potential cost to your credibility.
The Eagles were dead meat after Carson Wentz went down in December 2017. They were underdogs, famously, against the Falcons and the Vikings in the playoffs, and they were deader meat against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the Patriots dynasty. They were done for last year after an embarrassing loss to the Saints in New Orleans and an overtime heartbreaker to the Cowboys in Dallas, a game in which Pederson appeared to have lost his gambler’s nerve, the very quality that had given his coaching performance in 2017 its gleam of genius. And without Wentz again, they were roadkill-in-waiting for the Los Angeles Rams in early December – the night, as it turned out, the Eagles began saving their season.
Compared to those crossroads and odds, what the Eagles face now, with their record 1-2 ahead of a Thursday night game against the Packers at Lambeau Field, shouldn’t seem so daunting. None of this recent history assures the Eagles of winning Thursday, of course. But it does mean that the cloud of civic dispiritedness that settled over the region after their 27-24 loss Sunday to the Lions – that settles over the region after every Eagles loss – isn’t necessarily a harbinger of a wasted season to come.
The Eagles could have beaten the Falcons last week. They should have beaten the Lions on Sunday. But Pederson and the team’s veterans have been here before, with more on the line than a bad start to a season, with a roster as injury-riddled as this one now is, and they’ve pulled themselves back from the canyon’s edge. That experience can only help them now.
“We can totally relate to our circumstances the last couple of seasons,” Pederson said Monday. “But the one thing, I think, for me as the head coach, that stands out in these last couple of games are just the self-inflicting wounds: the turnovers, the penalties, things that have cost us yards or cost us points in obviously these two games. So if we just eliminate that – take the injuries aside – we have a chance to win both football games. [If] we just make the plays that kind of come our way, make those plays, then maybe we're talking a different story. So I can draw a little bit on the injury front from the last couple of seasons, but honestly, that's not what's keeping us from winning these two games.”
No, what has kept them from being 3-0 is themselves: the dropped passes, the fumbles, the kinds of errors that ought to be easily corrected. Someone asked Pederson on Monday if there was a way to use all those drops by the Eagles’ skill-position players – Nelson Agholor, Dallas Goedert, Mack Hollins, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside – as teaching points, and he responded as if the question had offended him. “Teaching points?” he said. “Catch the ball.” The solution is that simple, that fundamental. And in a league that can be split into two divisions – the Patriots and Parity – there are few problems that a generally competent team can’t fix in a week, or even in three days.
“I talk a lot about ‘Hold your focus,’” he said. “This game comes down to a one-play-at-a-time mentality, and you have to be engaged on that play: maximum effort, maximum concentration. Sometimes, when fatigue might set in or maybe you’re dealing with a nagging injury or something like that, it just draws from your attention.
“When I say to the team that everything matters – everything matters – and it comes down to your attention to detail during the week, how we prepare, how the coaches prepare, the players, how they study, there are a lot of factors that can go into that. And then I tell the guys a lot, ‘Listen, when the play comes your way or when the ball comes your way, make that play. Make that play.’ That sounds easy, but obviously it's extremely hard.”
In 2017 and 2018, Pederson was better at handling that challenge than just about any coach in the NFL. Here’s his first such situation in 2019. The Packers are 3-0, and Aaron Rodgers might tear apart Jim Schwartz’s suspect group of cornerbacks. Of course, the Eagles could end up limping home from Green Bay with a 1-3 record, with so many justifiable doubts. Just remember: They have been here before, and no matter how difficult and improbable it might be to envision now, no one should be surprised if they quell those doubts again.