As Eagles face disaster, Doug Pederson wants more from himself and team leaders. Will it be enough? | Marcus Hayes
A week ago, 10-6 was sitting right there, waiting to be claimed. The lifeless 27-20 loss to the Cowboys didn't just make their future 9-6. Now, even 8-8 seems less likely than 5-11.
Nine games into his team's Super Bowl defense, Doug Pederson admitted Wednesday that he hasn't been up to snuff.
"I just know this: as an offense, I need to teach better. Bottom line," said Pederson, for whom teaching is the foundation of coaching.
Pederson said this about 2½ hours after his weekly 8 a.m. meeting with the team's leadership committee. In the meeting, he asked about the locker room's psyche after the 27-20 upset by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, easily the worst loss in Pederson's three seasons.
"Talking to the committee this morning, I asked them … how do they feel," Pederson said. "They're all disappointed, obviously, in the performance the other day. It is disappointing: division game, and we came up short."
Pederson also said the leaders expressed eagerness and excitement, but that's not the point. The point is that Pederson — whose high quotient of Emotional Intelligence attracted owner Jeffrey Lurie — felt he had to take the locker room's temperature.
"It didn't surprise me," Jordan Hicks said. "What's special about this team, and what has been special about this team, is the fact that this locker room is so close. We can't afford to lose that. It was just him gauging it."
These Eagles are still reeling from the loss of a must win. At 4-4, coming off a bye, facing a three-win Cowboys team that seemed one more loss from a franchise reboot, the Eagles had 10-6 in their sights. Now, they're preparing for a can't-win game at New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, and they're staring at a 5-11 season.
Maybe because the leaders aren't leading as they should. Asked what he expects of his leaders, Pederson said he wants them to make sure the younger players get fully prepared during the week.
"I rely on those guys to bring the guys — especially the young guys, some of the young guys that are playing — to make sure they understand the game plan. If they need to stay after and watch more tape or condition or whatever they do, that they grab those players and make sure that they're leading by example."
This, of course, implies that the leader's aren't leading by that sort of example; at least, not to Pederson's satisfaction.
Jason Kelce, who alliteratively allowed that the Eagles were "bleep poor" against the Cowboys, said Pederson's question was not unusual: "We get that question every week."
Maybe, but they don't get beaten by a lousy Cowboys team every week. They aren't 4-5 every week, and they aren't facing the best team in the NFC every week. So this week, Pederson's "How ya doin'?" carried more weight than, say, a year ago, when they'd just hung 51 points on Broncos and stood at 8-1.
As for the veterans leading the younger players, Fletcher Cox said, "Guys are absolutely taking responsibility for their role."
Kelce, however, offered the observation that the Eagles lost a truckload of veteran character from last year's roster: tight ends Brent Celek and Trey Burton, running back LeGarrette Blount, receiver Torrey Smith. Running backs Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi have been sidelined since Games 1 and 5, respectively.
"There was a much greater accountability from a cohesive standpoint," Kelce said. "Part of that was just on the makeup of the team. Guys having done this for a long time and knowing the ins and outs of the game."
This is the latest indication that Pederson is dissatisfied with his team's focus and preparation during the week, which, he believes, affects its play when the whistle blows.
Pederson's top offensive coach and his quarterback disagree.
"In terms of saying that we're not practicing well, I wouldn't say that's accurate at all," first-year offensive coordinator Mike Groh said.
"I wouldn't say that's the issue," said Carson Wentz, who is on the leadership committee. He echoed Pederson's depiction of the leaders' upbeat response to the coach's question about their collective psyche.
"We're not going to sink down now because of the performances we've had, or our record," Wentz said.
The poor performances and the losing distill to two areas, Pederson said.
"We've got to finish better, and we've got to score more points," Pederson said. "The difference is, creating turnovers on defense and then scoring in the red zone."
The Eagles rank 17th in red-zone touchdown conversions, at 55.9 percent. They were second last season, at 64.1 percent.
The Eagles have forced just seven turnovers, which is third-fewest in the league and a rate of 0.78 per game. They forced 31 turnovers last season, which was fourth in the league and a rate of 1.94 per game, more than twice this season's rate.
Don't expect a surge in takeaways Sunday. The Saints have committed only eight turnovers. MVP favorite Drew Brees has thrown one interception. What's more, this week significant injuries will limit or exclude six of the projected 11 defensive starters: linemen Derek Barnett (out) and Tim Jernigan, corners Ronald Darby (out), Jalen Mills (out), and Sidney Jones, and safety Rodney McLeod (out).
The Saints, 8-1, lead the NFL at 36.7 points per game. They have scored 21 points or more every week. The Eagles, 4-5, are 21st, at 22 points. They have scored 21 points or fewer six times.
It will simply be too hard for the Eagles to win in the Big Easy … right? And what, realistically, lies ahead?
A week ago, 10-6 was sitting right there, waiting to be claimed. The lifeless loss to the Cowboys didn't just make the Eagles' future 9-6. Now, even 8-8 seems less likely than 5-11.
Why such a change in only seven days? After all, it was only one loss.
Because it appeared that right tackle Lane Johnson wouldn't miss a game after suffering a four-week knee injury, and that Sproles' 35-year-old hamstring was finally healed, and, after the bye week, the patchwork defensive backfield might be able to limit the Cowboys' sad passing attack.
But Johnson didn't play. Sproles reinjured himself at practice. Darby, their best cornerback, blew out his knee Sunday. Rasul Douglas, who started at cornerback, delivered a performance so putrid it recalled Halapoulavaati Vaitai and Winston Justice.
A week later, this season seems hopeless. Realistically, who can they beat?
The Saints? The Rams? Those division leaders will score 50 apiece. The Redskins, whom they face twice? Washngton won at Tampa on Sunday, where the Eagles lost in Week 2 with a much healthier team. At Dallas on Dec. 9? After the debacle Sunday night? The Texans? Maybe a month-and-a-half ago, but the Texans have won six in a row.
The best chance for the Eagles is 10 days away, when they host the Giants, who haven't won at Lincoln Financial Field in four years. Even that won't matter if the Eagles cannot regain the simple mindset that brought them their first Lombardi Trophy in LII tries.
"Understanding you job. Doing your job. Doing it collectively," Pederson said. "They understand where they are and, quite frankly, have dug themselves a hole."
What the dissatisfied teacher meant was, We've dug ourselves a hole; so much so, he was worried about the team's mental toughness.
"We realize where we're at," Wentz said. "I don't want to throw the word 'desperate' around."
Because they are.