Doug Pederson said he had never heard of Mike Lombardi after the former NFL executive questioned his qualifications, coaching acumen, and future with the Eagles.
Pederson had just walked off the podium following a Monday news conference in which he defended himself against Lombardi's criticism. But before parting the Eagles head coach asked a reporter, "Which NFL team does he work for?" The answer was no team, which seemed to be Pederson's point.
But if he wanted more detail about Lombardi, who worked for six teams over 30 years, all he had to do was walk down to Jim Schwartz's office to find out. The Eagles defensive coordinator got his NFL start when Lombardi, then the Browns personnel director, hired him nearly 25 years ago. They've remained friends ever since.
"Don't link the two of us together in this because we're friends because that's not the case," Lombardi said when asked Tuesday on Comcast's Philly Sports Talk if the source of his blistering assessment was Schwartz. "One thing people know about me … I say what I think. I don't have to wait for somebody else to tell me."
And yet, Eagles coaches and players have made the link. Lombardi's initial comments, which appeared on the web site The Ringer, have only fueled the belief from some in the NovaCare Complex that Schwartz has designs on Pederson's job.
"Everybody knows Pederson isn't a head coach. He might be less qualified to coach a team than anyone I've ever seen," Lombardi said during the Ringer video segment. "When will the Eagles admit their mistake? Will they throw away 2017 by stubbornly sticking to the Pederson Principle?"
It isn't unusual in today's NFL climate for a coach to be on the hot seat after just one season. The 2016 Eagles finished with the same 7-9 record as they did the year before, and as Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie noted Thursday, Pederson inherited a locker room with leftover problems and a rookie quarterback named the starter just eight days before his first season.
But here we are, and not just because of Lombardi's hit piece. Lurie said he was giving his coach a full endorsement during his "impromptu" news conference, but it was lukewarm compared with his appraisal of Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who "has done a tremendous job" and in whom he "has total confidence."
"I see him as someone who can keep improving," Lurie said of Pederson. "He's a listener. He's a collaborator. I think he has terrific relationships with the players. The future is in front of him, and it's there for the taking."
Nowhere in Lurie's comments did he mention Pederson's coaching expertise – his ability to scheme, game-plan, and manage. He highlighted his "quarterback analysis" in the evaluation of Carson Wentz, his handling of "locker room chemistry," and his putting "together a top-notch coaching staff."
Roseman, though, led the way on hiring many of the coaches – in particular, Schwartz. To this day, Schwartz's presence and media availability at Pederson's introductory news conference in January 2016 defy logic. The Eagles were likely attempting to assuage fans who weren't enthused by Pederson, who had gone from entry-level assistant to head coach in seven years.
Having Schwartz, a former head coach with a large personality, in the building always threatened to overshadow Pederson. Lombardi doubled down on his remarks during interviews with the Inquirer and PST. He said that Pederson wasn't detail-oriented enough. He pointed out that Wentz and the Eagles offense had regressed last season.
And he questioned the second-year coach's ability to stand in front of his team and inspire confidence – a bold presumption unless he gathered it from someone in the room. The only Eagles entity who escaped Lombardi's wrath was Schwartz.
"When I was in Cleveland, I hired Jim Schwartz … He's an outstanding football coach," Lombardi said to the Inquirer. "I have nothing but great respect for him, and I think the Eagles' success last year was their defense."
On Tuesday, when a reporter asked Schwartz to comment on Lombardi in part because of their history, the coordinator said that he worked with many people around the NFL over the last quarter-century. He downplayed their relationship and said that he hadn't seen Lombardi's remarks on Pederson, that he only knew the general premise.
Lombardi said that he doesn't talk to Schwartz very much.
At the very least, the optics aren't favorable. One Eagles staffer said the only coach who probably doesn't think Schwartz is trying to undercut Pederson is Pederson. Three players, who requested anonymity, said that it has become well-known in the locker room that Schwartz is waiting to usurp power.
"He walks around the building like he thinks he's the head coach," one player said.
But would Lurie ever consider Schwartz as a long-term replacement? He hasn't hired a defensive-minded head coach in more than 20 years. And Schwartz has many of the characteristics of Chip Kelly, whom Lurie fired after just three turbulent years.
Schwartz is bright and has one of the better defensive minds in the NFL, but some Eagles coaches and players said that he's arrogant. A few players said they liked his swagger. He has been known, much like Kelly, to walk past colleagues in the hallways without acknowledgement.
There are still doubts about Pederson, particularly in play-calling and game management. But many players cite his authenticity and his playing experience when asked why they supported their head coach. After Kelly, Lurie wanted someone with the "emotional intelligence" to handle the locker room.
But Lombardi, who worked for the Eagles in 1998, said that knowledge was paramount.
Lurie would dub his ex-employee's original comments as "click bait" or "hot takes." But the Eagles owner didn't refute Lombardi's statement about Pederson's qualifications, and he didn't give a rousing endorsement of his first season.
"There's going to be growing pains with any first-year head coach," Lurie said. "We had that with Andy [Reid]. We had it with Chip. We've had it no matter who it is."