One of the selling points in reaching for Doug Pederson as their latest head coach last January is this idea that he not only was a disciple of the Eagles most successful recent coach, he might actually be an improved version.
That's right. Improved. Notorious for his clock managing skills here and, to a lesser extent, in Kansas City, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid saw in Pederson a like-minded coach with a quicker processor. Reid handed him control of the play-calling during the second half of games, triggering an 11-game winning streak that reversed a 1-5 start in 2015.
That streak ended with a 27-20 second-round loss to the New England Patriots that left most of the viewing audience holding both sides of their heads, and harkened back to Reid's clock management as Eagles coach, particularly those final minutes of Super Bowl 39 against the, um, Patriots.
Via conservative play-calling, the Chiefs used 5:16 of the 6:29 remaining in that playoff game to move 80 yards for a touchdown that pulled them to within 27-20 with 1:13 – and two timeouts -- left. Of 2,111 drives in NFL games since 1998 in which a team trailed by 9-17 points with less than seven minutes left, only one took longer.
Pederson's explanation that play calling was limited by injuries to key personnel made some sense, but this one, echoed by his boss, was the head scratcher:
"We felt like at that point, not to give the ball back to Tom Brady," Pederson said a few days later at the press conference announcing his hire as Eagles head coach. "We still had timeouts and time, even with the onside kick, to put ourselves in a position to tie the football game."
The onside kick did not work, Brady got the ball back anyway, and the Chiefs offense was never on the field again. It was a precursor to some of the eye-popping decisions at the end of close games this season, all of which ended as losses. The Eagles' first four losses were decided by a touchdown or less, while each of their five victories has been by two scores or more. In each of the close ones, the dichotomy of Pederson's play-calling – bold decisions to make a yard or two on third or fourth down, then trying to trick rather than run over an opponent for those yards – was vintage Reid.
It backfired against Detroit, and New York, and even against Washington, which dominated the Eagles but only won by seven. Ahead 23-17 with the ball on the Cowboys 30-yard line and just over seven minutes left, Pederson's screen pass call resulted in a 6-yard loss -- and an odd case of cold feet by the first-year coach.
Rather than attempt a 53-yard field goal that would have made it a two-score game, the coach who was lauded for his fourth-down boldness earlier in the season, elected to punt it away.
As Carson Wentz struggles with defensive reads and mechanics each week, his coach points to growing pains. He'll be better the more he plays, Pederson insists, and there's a library of experiences and names, some in the Hall of Fame, that support such a view.
But Andy Reid, 18 years into his NFL head coaching career, remains a good head coach who continues to slice his own Achilles with clock management issues and odd and ill-timed play calls.
Twelve games into his NFL career, Pederson has shown little indication he is an improved version of that.