SUNBURY-ON-THAMES, England — What happened to "Big Balls Doug"?
Doug Pederson, seemingly an NFL trendsetter with his aggressive play-calling, hasn't pushed the envelope as much this season. The Eagles coach is still gambling on fourth down, still going for two when maybe other coaches wouldn't, but his end-of-half decision-making has been cautious.
Sunday against the Panthers, he settled for a 10-0 lead at the break even though the Eagles had more than two minutes to score. The Pederson of 2017 wouldn't have taken his foot off the gas. The Pederson of his memoir, Fearless, would have looked at his tepidness with derision, just as he did with Jaguars coach Doug Marrone last season.
In the AFC championship game, Jacksonville led the Patriots, 14-10, when they got the ball back with 55 seconds left in the second quarter. The Jaguars were at their 25 and had two timeouts remaining. But Marrone had quarterback Blake Bortles kneel twice, seemingly satisfied with the four-point lead.
"It made me mad because Jacksonville had New England right where they wanted them," Pederson wrote. "I was screaming at the television in my office. When they knelt right before halftime, inside I was like, 'I'll never do that.' "
Sure enough, when the Eagles got the ball back with 29 seconds left before halftime later that day in the NFC championship game, Pederson had only scoring on his mind. His team was already ahead, 21-7, but with three timeouts left, the coach had quarterback Nick Foles throw. Three completions later, Jake Elliott kicked a 38-yard field goal.
"That's how I wanted to play the last minute of a half," Pederson wrote, "with an aggressive mentality."
Pederson was anything but aggressive against Carolina. The Eagles were backed up at their 4 when they got the ball with 2:04 left before halftime. They likely didn't want to go three-and-out and give the Panthers the ball back with good field position and two timeouts.
But the Panthers had been shut out. They had managed just 83 total yards. And they would have been playing into the wind. The Eagles, meanwhile, had already gained 222 yards. Quarterback Carson Wentz had completed 83 percent of his passes. Pederson had plenty of reason to have faith in his offense.
On first down, Corey Clement gained 4 yards on the ground before the two-minute warning. On second down, Wendell Smallwood ran 4 yards. And on third down, with the clock ticking down to 1:19, Smallwood ran a tough 2 yards for the first down.
Pederson burned a timeout and called a screen pass to Smallwood. The tailback picked up 51 yards, but a Brandon Brooks holding penalty brought the play back to the 11-yard line.
"You're back behind in the field position with a long way to go at that time," Pederson said. "I felt like we were OK in that situation."
But there was a minute left on the clock. It was only first-and-13. Wentz threw a screen to receiver Alshon Jeffery that netted only 3 yards. Still, there were more than 50 seconds and two timeouts remaining. It was only second-and-10, but Pederson chose not to use another timeout, and ran out the clock with a Clement 4-yard loss.
After the break, the Eagles added on another seven points. But they coughed up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost, 21-17.
"We can sit here and hindsight 20/20," Pederson said Monday. "I did what I did."
Marrone, whose 3-4 Jaguars "host" the 3-4 Eagles on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, said that failure naturally brings about second-guessing.
"Whenever you do something and you're not going to win a game, it opens it up for everything," he said Wednesday during a conference call. "There's times myself when I look back and [say], 'Hey, I could have made better decisions that put our team in a better situation.' "
There's an unwritten code that coaches don't criticize other coaches publicly, but Marrone took the high road when asked about Pederson's comments. In August, however, when he was originally asked about the book, Marrone subtly mentioned that he had recently read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F—: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.
But Marrone is seemingly more aggressive than he was a year ago, at least on fourth down. The Jaguars have gone for it nine times (and converted four) – they went for it 13 times last season — and are second only to the Eagles and three other teams (10) in attempts.
"I have a philosophy that I try not to take a game away by making calls," Marrone said. "But if I feel good about it, and I think we can execute it, and I like the matchups, I have no problem calling it."
There's been a narrative that more teams have adopted Pederson's aggressive approach this season, but the numbers don't suggest a sea change. In 107 NFL games through the first seven weeks, there was an average of 1.869 fourth-down tries per game. Last season, after the full slate of games, the average was 1.894. In, 2016, it was 1.870. And in 2015, it was 1.895.
The success rate (53.5 percent), at least at this juncture, is at its highest in four years, but the improvement is minimal compared to 2017 (46.0), 2016 (52.6), and 2015 (48.9), and might have more to do with the NFL's offensive explosion than with anything else.
"Teams have more confidence in their offense," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "Scoring is up. Completions are up."
The Eagles went for it on fourth down more than any other team from 2016-17 (53 times) and converted 30 (53.3 percent). Their success rate has even increased this season (70 percent).
"Each coach has their own opinion [on] what they should do," Marrone said. "It's hard to talk about what someone else is doing if you have different tools in the toolbox. But it does seem like people are being more aggressive this year."
They are with two-point attempts. There have already been 59 tries this season. Last season, all told, there were 86. Pederson went for two three weeks ago against the Vikings even though the Eagles trailed by eight points in the fourth quarter. Old school heads thought he was crazy, but the analytics said that he made the right choice.
"I was a bit slack-jawed, like, 'What are we doing?' " Schwartz said. "And then after the game, somebody was explaining to me, like, the statistics behind it, and it's like, oh, I get it."
The New York Giants followed the same blueprint last week, although they failed to convert. Nearly every NFL team has tapped into analytics. Pederson has two assistants feeding him percentages based on situations throughout the game.
But sometimes there's gray area and you just must go with your gut. Pederson said Wednesday that he thought he's been as aggressive. He's had his offense take chances with less than a minute left before the half in three previous games – against the Falcons, Buccaneers and Giants.
The first went nowhere, but the latter two led to field-goal attempts that Jake Elliott missed. But Pederson ran out the clock against the Vikings with 16 seconds and three timeouts left on his own 22. And he was uncharacteristically conservative against the Panthers.
The Pederson who relished his new nickname and the pats on the back he received from fellow coaches at the NFL combine and owners meetings last offseason would have hardly taken the consequences of failure into account.
He doesn't have the same offense this season, but a little confidence goes a long way.