EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A Super Bowl champion coach needed a 17-point fourth quarter to squeak into the playoffs … and it was the best job he’s ever done.
If that sounds hyperbolic, or even foolish, consider the numbers.
Doug Pederson won a division title with just four offensive starters, or with 37% of his first 11 players. To put it another way, Pederson finished the 2019 season without 12 of the top 17 offensive players entering the season, or without 70.6%.
By the end of their 34-17 win at the Giants, the last men standing were offensive linemen Jason Peters, Isaac Seumalo, and Jason Kelce, as well as quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles were 9-7, and they were waiting to see if they would host Seattle or San Francisco in the wild-card playoff game. Was this Pederson’s finest hour?
“Oh, yeah,” Peters said as he pulled on his NFC East championship T-shirt, which went nicely with his black wool overcoat and black felt fedora. “With all the guys we’ve got down? Three starting receivers? Oh, yeah.”
Pederson, who calls his own plays, said he’s most proud of his consistency with his players this season, surely must be proudest of his scheming and his play-calling and his messaging this season over any of his first three as a head coach. That is the essence of coaching.
He’d never toot his own horn, though he’d probably say something corny like that. He constantly credits his assistants, particularly Mike Groh, the game-planning coordinator; Duce Staley, the running backs coach who turns janitors and plumbers into Marshall Faulk every week; and line coach Jeff Stoutland, such a genius with giants that, in a different epoch, he’d have brontosauruses dancing ballet.
But it all begins and ends with Pederson. As it did in 2017.
Pederson’s Super Bowl run was made all the more remarkable by the losses of five frontline players, including Wentz, but it was nothing like this. Pederson’s a pious man. Many times this year he must have felt like Satan’s plaything, Job.
Pederson won a division title without Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and DeSean Jackson, the aforementioned receivers, as well as Mack Hollins, who got cut, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who was an injured mannequin Sunday — so, really, without his top five receivers. He won it without Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz and without right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks, his best linemen. He won it without Miles Sanders, the transcendent rookie running back who missed the second half with an ankle injury, and without Jordan Howard, who, like Arcega-Whiteside, wasn’t healthy enough to contribute. Injured running backs Darren Sproles and Corey Clement were long ago irrelevant.
He won a division title with anonymous running back Boston Scott gaining 138 yards from scrimmage and scoring three touchdowns. With converted college quarterback Greg Ward, one of 10 former practice-squaders currently on the roster, leading the team with six catches, and with fellow squader Deontay Burnett snagging a team-best 41-yard catch. With Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Matt Bleeping Pryor paving the way on the right side and protecting Wentz all day. He was sacked just once.
They won with focus and guts and resilience.
They won it because of Doug Pederson. He turned 5-7 into 9-7. He’s now 15-3 in meaningful games in December and January since 2017, an .833 winning percentage, the best in the business. Belichick, at 18-6, has won 75% of his games. And he’s 0-1 against Pederson once December comes.
Pederson won his Super Bowl over Belichick, but then immediately lost his top two offensive assistants, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo, and last winter he lost his Miracle Man quarterback, Nick Foles. Still, none of the supposed geniuses who get much more credit than Pederson could have accomplished what Pederson did this season. You know, guys like the last two Coach of the Year winners: Matt Nagy, whom Pederson beat twice in 10 months, and Sean McVay, whom Pederson has beaten in 2017 and 2018 twice, both times on the road.
Pederson won’t have a chance to beat McVay this season. McVay didn’t make the playoffs.
Wentz was wonderful in the four-game stretch, with a 100.8 passer rating, seven touchdowns, no interceptions, operating with fringe players without any hint of real speed. The defense surged, too, allowing 17.5 points in the four games and capping it with four sacks Sunday.
But this was Pederson’s moment. Pederson’s day.
The season seemed over after a Game 10 home loss against New England, and hopeless after a home loss to Seattle the next weekend, and cold, dead, and buried when the Birds choked up a road loss at Miami in Game 12.
Pederson didn’t let them die. He did his best job.