IN THE LOCKER ROOM, nobody spent much time over the past few weeks wondering whether Doug Pederson would return as the Eagles' coach.
The thought might have occurred, after that awful 32-14 loss Dec. 4 at Cincinnati, that if the same tone carried through the remaining four games, well, a long enough string of dispirited setbacks could get anybody canned. But the final four games produced two defeats by a total of six points, and then two wins. Effort and spirit were never again a question.
Players tend to look for different things from a coach than fans and reporters do. (Beyond wins, which is everyone's top criterion.) Fans and reporters get hung up on why this call was made, and why the offense struggled in this or that situation.
These are important concerns; in the long run, they're crucial to a coach's viability. Pederson won't be here after next season if we enter 2018 debating whether the team could have made the playoffs had he opted to kick field goals in three or four crucial spots, instead of failing to convert fourth downs, or if we're trying to figure out why Carson Wentz's development stalled.
Pederson could be smoother in explaining himself in news conferences - an important part of public perception, but something players don't track. The fact that sometimes he tell us things that don't end up happening (such as, last Friday when he said Stefen Wisniewski would start for Allen Barbre in Sunday's finale if Barbre couldn't go) makes us wonder whether he really has final word in such matters, or whether upper management is telling him, "No, if Barbre can't play, we only want to see Isaac Seumalo there, he's the future starter."
In 2016, Pederson's rookie year as a head coach at any level beyond high school, players were looking mainly at the message, and whether they and their teammates could buy into it. They wanted to know if they could place their trust in the guy running the team.
The level of support voiced for Pederson in the locker room after a 7-9 rookie season is strong.
"I like everything he's done," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "He never overreacts to a lot of stuff, which is good. He's handled a lot of stuff. I think everybody on this team, every player's got his back, in every situation . . . Everybody loves him."
Tight end Zach Ertz called Pederson "a beast of a coach."
The players saw Pederson handle having original starting quarterback Sam Bradford traded eight days before the season started, and then that unexpected surge to 3-0. Later in the year, they saw him deal with a five-game losing streak. They saw the coach's stance when Josh Huff was dismissed after an arrest, how he handled the Lane Johnson suspension and the subsequent uncertainty on the offensive line.
From the start, Pederson wasn't selling the abstraction of "emotional intelligence" that owner Jeffrey Lurie referenced, he was selling the reality of it -- his background as a 12-year NFL quarterback, mostly of it as a backup, a guy who'd struggled through tough situations but who also knew what winning felt like. A guy who'd had to fight to keep his roster spot, who knew what it was like to be elevated, demoted, cut.
"He's earned the respect of everybody on this team," middle linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "I didn't know him at first, just like everybody else, but once you got to know him, once you understood who he was and his personality, and his story, you understand that he's a coach that really has the players' best interests at heart. Really, this team's best interests at heart.
"Doug is consistent in who he is as a person, who he is as a coach. No matter what - offense, defense, no matter who he's talking to, no matter if it's a win or a loss - he's always the same person. He comes in with the mindset, 'It's not about anyone else, it's about us.' That's something you can rally around. He comes in with a smile on his face every day and rallies his troops. We play hard for him, and I think it shows."
Systems and tactics are seldom what bonds players and coaches.
"To me, it's about your relationship with your guys, can you get your guys to play hard for you?" Hicks said. "If you're (coaching) on this level, you've paid your dues, you're going to make the call you think is necessary . . . It's a matter of getting your guys to execute, it's a matter of getting your guys to play with emotion, with passion for you. Not necessarily for you, but for something, for each other."
Pederson's most important relationship, other than with Lurie, is with Wentz, the franchise QB. There are no hints of strain there.
"Doug is really good," Wentz said. "I thought he had really good communication, all year long. Obviously, you see the aggressive side of him (27 fourth-down attempts), which I love. As players, we all love that."
Wide receiver Jordan Matthews said he sees a coach with "poise, a cool head, consistency."
"I like how you can go talk to him; he'll tell you like it is. He has that demeanor where it feels like you've known him a long time. I feel like that really helps out, especially in the good and bad times of the season . . . He's going to be competitive, but he also has that side to him, where he's going to let players make plays. When we're in practice, we're like, 'Hey coach, let's throw this play in.' He's like, 'All right, let's go, go make a play.' "
Asked to define a key Pederson moment this season, Matthews mentioned the Oct. 30 overtime loss at Dallas, the only game in which the Birds blew a double-digit lead. They led 23-13 early in the fourth quarter.
"The way he handled the Dallas game, that was impressive," Matthews said. "That would have been a time for a lot of coaches to go crazy, act like all hope was lost. But he came in and he was the same guy . . . 'You're a great football team. We let one go. We've got to get back to work.'
"Players appreciate that a lot. You want to go out there, you want to go win for him. It would have been easy to mail it in last week (against the Giants), vs. a really good team. He got us gassed up, he got us motivated . . . I'm happy I'm playing for him."
Safety Malcolm Jenkins said that Pederson "kept us together when things hit the fan a little bit, never panicked, never once got too high or too low, and I think it kind of carried out through our team."
Pederson had never consistently called plays in the NFL before this season. There were times when that showed. It was hard to evaluate his version of the West Coast offense in detail, because the Eagles were playing a rookie quarterback and they possessed fewer weapons than at any time in recent memory. If Wentz ends 2017 with a yards-per-attempt figure similar to 2016's 6.2, there's a good chance the Pederson era will be over.
But nobody working in Pederson's offense chafed at his play calls. Players knew the shortcomings he was working around. Pederson said after Sunday's finale that he felt he had "grown in the play-calling realm."
Ertz said the offense's problems weren't with coaching.
"He's going to leave it all on the line, in the players' hands to make plays, when we need to make plays. I think as a player that's something you've got to respect, because you love a head coach that's gonna give all the faith in the world to you," Ertz said. "We didn't make enough plays for him this year . . . We're going to be better in situational football. Obviously, it's our first year together."