EAGLES OWNER Jeff Lurie went into his fourth head-coaching search with a specific plan.
The first part of that plan was to see if the two names at the top of his wish list - Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Saints coach Sean Payton - became available. Neither did.
He has since moved on to part two, which is interviewing the top NFL assistants on his list.
As we told you earlier this week, Doug Pederson, a former Eagles quarterback and assistant coach and now Andy Reid's offensive coordinator in Kansas City, was Lurie's leading assistant candidate going into the interview process.
He appears to still be that, though Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase apparently made a very good impression on Lurie, club president Don Smolenski and vice president of football operations Howie Roseman Tuesday when he met with them.
Because the Chiefs are in the playoffs, the Eagles can't talk to Pederson until next week.
As for Gase, the Eagles aren't the only team interested in him. He already has interviewed with the Browns and also is scheduled to meet with the Dolphins and the Giants.
If they decide that he is their guy, they might not have the luxury of waiting until after they talk to Pederson to offer him the job. But there are no indications at this point that that's the case.
I would think Lurie would prefer to wait even if Gase did knock his socks off in the interview. Like I said, Pederson was his top assistant-coach candidate going into this process.
Lurie knows Pederson, likes him, respects his football acumen. He comes very heavily recommended by Reid, and even if Lurie now has become bullish on Gase, he wouldn't disrespect Reid and Pederson.
One other name has sort of surfaced in the Eagles' coaching search: Jon Gruden.
Gruden is doing his biennial return-to-coaching tire-kicking. Whether he's serious this time or just needs his ego massaged still is unclear.
But a league source told the Daily News that he has informed Lurie, through an intermediary, that he is interested in the Eagles' head-coaching job.
The source said that while Lurie likes and respects Gruden, who was the Eagles' offensive coordinator in 1997-98, he has reservations about the ESPN Monday Night Football analyst's ability/willingness to play nice with Roseman, who has returned to a seat of personnel power now that Chip Kelly is gone.
Gruden has told people that working with Roseman wouldn't be a problem. But Kelly said the same thing when he was hired in 2013, and look how that turned out.
For now, according to the source, Lurie is focused on his assistant-coaching candidates, with the idea that if he doesn't happen to fall in love with any of them, he always can pick up the phone and call Chucky.
Much like scotch, Sam Bradford is an acquired taste. Or at least he has been for Eagles fans this season.
At the beginning of the season, there was very little enthusiasm for the guy. He was coming off his second ACL tear and was adjusting to yet another new offensive system and a whole new cast of teammates.
For most of the first half of the year, his play, like that of the entire offense, was inconsistent. But then he found his stride.
Bradford's 97.4 passer rating over his last seven starts was the eighth-best mark in the league over the last nine weeks of the season (he missed two games with a concussion and shoulder injury).
The only seven quarterbacks with higher passer ratings over that period: Russell Wilson (119.6), Kirk Cousins (117.7), Cam Newton (115.0), Drew Brees (106.3), Matthew Stafford (105.1), Carson Palmer (101.2) and Alex Smith (100.8).
His 100.7 third-down passer rating in his last seven starts was the sixth best in the league, behind only Wilson (128.3), Cousins (118.5), Newton (116.5), Palmer (116.1) and Teddy Bridgewater (104.2).
Third down was one of two areas in which Bradford dramatically improved in the second half of the season. His third-down numbers in his first seven starts were abysmal - a 47.9 completion percentage, a league-low 4.04 yards per attempt and a 51.8 rating. Just 25.3 percent of his third-down attempts resulted in first downs.
In his last seven starts, however, he had a 62.2 third-down completion percentage and averaged 6.9 yards per attempt. Thirty-one of his 74 third-down pass attempts, or 41.9 percent, went for first downs in those seven games.
LAST 7 STARTS................FIRST 7 STARTS
Comp Pct. YPA TD-INT Rate/Comp. Pct. YPA TD-INT Rate
1ST DOWN 69.9 8.5 4-2 100.4/ 65.8 6.7 4-6 74.7
2nd DOWN 73.7 7.2 2-2 91.4/ 69.9 8.1 3-2 96.1
3rd DOWN 62.2 6.9 4-0 100.7/ 47.9 4.0 1-2 51.8
OVERALL 68.5 7.6 10-4 97.4/ 62.0 6.4 9-10 76.3
The other area that Bradford showed night-and-day improvement over his last seven starts was in his intermediate passing. According to Pro Football Focus, he had a 129.7 passer rating on throws of 10 to 19 yards in his last seven games. Completed an impressive 72.6 percent of his throws from that distance and averaged 14.6 yards per attempt. Had seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
In his first seven starts, Bradford's passer rating on throws of 10 to 19 yards was just 48.0. Had a 40.4 passer rating and averaged 7.8 yards per attempt. Three touchdowns and six interceptions.
In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that the Eagles should re-sign Bradford to a long-term contract. And if they can't get a deal done by the end of February, I would put the franchise tag on him while I continued negotiating with his agent, Tom Condon.
I know he has a 25-37-1 career record as a starter.
I know he's never taken a team to the playoffs.
And I know he's missed 33 of 96 games with injuries, including 25 with two ACL tears.
But one of the few things I agreed with Chip Kelly on was that Bradford can be a franchise quarterback.
There are people I respect, people like former Eagles linebacker and current 94WIP afternoon co-host Ike Reese, who don't feel Bradford has proven he's worth the money it's going to take to sign him.
But good quarterbacks don't grow on trees. I mean, does anybody around here really have the stomach to watch Mark Sanchez start 16 games next season?
Are you willing to gamble on RGIII or suffer through the growing pains of a rookie quarterback or sign one of the other more affordable free agents-to-be not named Bradford, like Matt Cassel or Matt Schaub or Chad Henne or . . . Michael Vick? Or, I got an idea. How about they do a trade-back for Nick Foles?
Take a gander at the contracts of the league's quarterbacks. None of them come cheap. Not the great ones or the not-so-great ones. There currently are 19 QBs who have a 2016 cap number of $15 million or more, including nine at $20 million-plus.
The cap is going to take another fairly significant jump in 2016. And if you look at most of the top quarterback deals that have been done in the last couple of years, the deal usually is structured so that the first year includes a much lower cap number than the rest of the deal.
The new four-year, $87.6 million deal Russell Wilson signed with the Seahawks in July included a $7 million cap number this year. Carson Palmer's cap number last year after he signed his three-year, $49.5 million extension with the Cardinals was $7.4 million.
So re-signing Bradford isn't going to rob the Eagles of their cap flexibility.
* The Eagles gave up 36 touchdown passes this season, which was the most in franchise history. The previous record was 33 in 2012. In the last three seasons, the Eagles have given up 91 TD passes. Only Washington has given up more during that period (94).
* The Eagles gave up 40 red-zone touchdowns. Thirty of them were through the air. The Saints were the only team that gave up more passing TDs in the red zone (35).
* Sam Bradford's 65.0 completion percentage was the highest in franchise history. What's particularly impressive about that is the fact that his receivers led the NFL in drops with 50. A breakdown of those 50 drops:
* The Eagles, who finished 21st in rushing average (3.94 yards per carry), averaged just 3.78 yards per carry on first down. Just three of the 10 teams with lower first-down rushing averages than the Eagles made the playoffs - Washington (3.25), Green Bay (3.45) and New England (3.59).
* Just 33 of the Eagles' 203 possessions took up more than 3:30 off the clock. In their last seven games, just 10 of 87 possessions were 3:30 or longer. For the first time in Chip Kelly's three years as head coach, the Eagles didn't finish last in time of possession. The 49ers aced them out, 26:45 to 26:56. But they did finish last in time of possession per drive (2:07).
* In the last three games, Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews combined for 51 receptions for 769 yards, five touchdowns and 27 first downs. That's 53.6 percent of the Eagles' receptions, 72.5 percent of their receiving yards, all of their TD catches and 56.2 percent of their passing first downs in those games.
* The Eagles finished 26th in third-down defense. Opponents converted 42.9 percent of their third-down opportunities. That's the highest third-down mark in Bill Davis' three years as defensive coordinator. So was his team's 90.7 opponent passer rating on third down. Opponents completed 60.9 percent of their third-down attempts and threw 10 touchdown passes on third down. Both of those numbers also were three-year highs. A breakdown of the Eagles' third-down defense over the last three years:
Year..3rd-D Pct. (Rk.)...Pct. TD/I....Rat.
* The Eagles were flagged for 20 false start penalties, which was the 10th most in the league and the most in Chip Kelly's three years as head coach. They had 18 last year and 15 in 2013. Right tackle Lane Johnson had a team-high seven false starts, followed by left tackle Jason Peters, who had five. The Eagles had 30 offensive holding penalties called on them, which was the 13th most in the league. Center Jason Kelce had a team-high eight, which was one more than he had in the previous two seasons combined.
* Opposing running backs had their way with the Eagles' defense this season, both on the ground and through the air. The Eagles finished last against the run, allowing 134.6 rushing yards per game. Opposing RBs also caught 86 passes for 781 yards (9.1 yards per catch) and six touchdowns. Much of that pass-catching damage came in the second half of the season. Opposing backs had 54 receptions for 579 yards (10.7 per catch) and 5 TDs in the last eight games.
* So, on Monday, a reporter — not me — asks DeMeco Ryans if he sees a correlation between the decline and fall of the Eagles' run defense and the season-ending Week 9 pec injury to rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks. Not a good question to ask a guy who very well could very be out of a job next year when Hicks returns. "I think a lot of people keep saying 'when Jordan went down . . . " Ryans said. "I mean, Jordan's a great player. But it's 11 guys out there. If I knew what went wrong, it would've been fixed. But for some reason, guys just weren't playing up to our level of how we were playing earlier. It just dropped off for some reason. That three-game stretch – Miami, Tampa, Detroit – that's where it just went downhill. That's where we lost the season right there.''
*Imagine this unlikely, but possible offseason scenario: The Eagles don't re-sign Bradford and don't put the franchise tag on him. He signs with, drumroll please, the Rams, which would give the Rams the player they traded for (Nick Foles), the guy they traded away (Bradford) and the second-round pick they got in that deal with the Eagles last March.
*While the Eagles' new head coach likely will be free to hire all of his own assistants, I'm told four of Chip Kelly's assistants will be recommended by Lurie and Howie Roseman as possible "keeps'' to the new coach: special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, running backs coach Duce Staley, defensive backs coach Cory Undlin and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.
WR...Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
WR...Julio Jones, Falcons
TE...Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
T....Joe Thomas, Browns
T....Andrew Whitworth, Bengals
G....Marshal Yanda, Ravens
G....Trai Turner, Panthers
C....Travis Frederick, Cowboys
RB...Adrian Peterson, Vikings
RB...Doug Martin, Bucs
FB...Patrick DeMarco, Falcons
PK...Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
KR...Darren Sproles, Eagles
DE....J.J. Watt, Texans
DE....Fletcher Cox, Eagles
DT....Aaron Donald, Rams
DT....Kawann Short, Panthers
OLB..Thomas Davis, Panthers
OLB..Von Miller, Broncos
ILB..Luke Kuechly, Panthers
ILB..Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
CB...Josh Norman, Panthers
CB...Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
S....Eric Berry, Chiefs
S....Harrison Smith, Vikings
P....Johnny Hekker, Rams
Most Valuable Player: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer, Vikings
Assistant Coach of the Year: Sean McDermott, DC, Panthers
Comeback Player: Eric Berry, S, Chiefs
Defensive Rookie: Marcus Peters, CB, Chiefs
Offensive Rookie: Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
Defensive Player: J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
Offensive Player: Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals
On Twitter: @Pdomo