The innovative genius of Doug Pederson surfaced again Wednesday when he canceled the usual helmeted, padded day of misery for a hatted, T-shirted walk in the park. More precisely, a walkthrough in the park. Parasols optional.
It was a remarkable decision if only because it came two games into the season. But then, so is dialing up a play that calls for a direct snap to your fourth-string running back, who flips to your third-string tight end, who throws to your second-string quarterback on fourth-and-goal at the 1, against Bill Belichick, in the Super Bowl.
Coming off a ragged loss in which several starters suffered injuries, you might think it unwise for the Eagles to deviate from their normal course of preparation for Hump Day Heaven.
A word of caution: Question “Philly Special” Pederson at your peril. A walkthrough allows gimpy players to participate; slows down the process for replacements such as rookie receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and tight end Alex Ellis; and allows those same younger players to serve in their normal roles on the scout team.
“With the guys that are a little nicked up who have a chance to play in [Sunday’s] football game, I want them to get the rep in practice,” Pederson said. “Then ... we have some young guys that might have to play, and they’re also servicing the defense or the offense.”
He’s the ultimate players’ coach not only because he gives them independence and listens to their voice, but, having been one of them, Pederson also takes care of them. So, with one eye on the schedule and the other on the injury report, and with the roster’s age and decrepitude in mind, Pederson decided the discretion of a lighter workload outweighed the valor of another exercise in head-butting.
“Doug played. He knows how it feels,” said veteran Darren Sproles.
Pederson’s 14-year career as a pro quarterback informs all of his decisions.
“That’s the whole reason to pull back just a touch. I want these guys as fresh as possible for these next two weeks.” Pederson said. “I’ve got to think of the big picture here. Keeping guys as fresh as possible now so we can make a push later in the season.”
Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Nick Nurse have made similar cases for their Spurs, Warriors, and Raptors, respectively, and they’ve won nine of the last 21 NBA championships, or about half. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Pederson has won exactly half of the last two NFL championships. Great minds and all that.
The Eagles will host the Lions on Sunday and play the following Thursday at Green Bay, where two hours after Pederson explained his logic, rookie head coach Matt LaFleur called off his Wednesday mosh pit, too.
As Oscar Wilde contended, imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery. The copycats will continue if the Eagles dominate Detroit, then batter Green Bay.
Besides, it just makes sense.
Franchise quarterback Carson Wentz got hit 13 times in Atlanta on Sunday night, but, Wentz insisted, his sore rib cage is the least of the issues. He reported no lingering hindrance, and said Wednesday wasn’t wasted.
“We got a really good workout, still, with a fast-paced walkthrough," Wentz said. "Still feel good about where we’re at.”
A light work week might make functionally sound but painfully operative players a bit more likely to participate and play well over the next two weeks. A lighter work week in general -- having Hump Day Heaven every week -- might even keep some of those players off the list, period.
Tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Nigel Bradham, the heart of the defense, missed the preseason, both recovering from foot surgeries, as did defensive end Derek Barnett (shoulder), cornerback Ronald Darby (knee), right guard Brandon Brooks (Achilles), and, of course, Wentz (back).
All-Pro center Jason Kelce essentially is a reconstructed cyborg, and his bad knee, like that of right tackle Lane Johnson, is a week-to-week worry. The two top receivers, Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, are taking their annual in-season sabbaticals, as is backup running back Corey Clement. Jackson has an abdominal strain; Clement, a shoulder injury; Jeffery, like backup tight end Dallas Goedert, has a calf strain.
Left tackle Jason Peters, 37, and Sproles, 36, need every extra second of nap time they can get.
Rest assured, the idiocy of holding games on Thursday nights, compounded with the brutality of having only one bye week per season, will continue to diminish full-scale NFL practice sessions. The data will support it. The players should demand it.
“We can’t do this every week. You need these days. But for us right now, it’s a special situation. It’s nice today,” Bradham said, and he nodded at his repaired right big toe. “For me, it doesn’t feel the best. It’s all right. It’s nice to have today."
Johnson wouldn’t mind fewer padded practices in general.
“I do like it,” Johnson said. “Usually, Wednesdays and Thursdays are tough days.”
Do they need to be so tough? Sports science exists to protect billion-dollar businesses from losing assets. Those assets must, and will, be protected. The Raptors gave Kawhi Leonard a lighter workload in the winter, and he delivered a title in the spring. Don’t be surprised if 34-year-old LeBron James only plays on Taco Tuesdays this seasaon.
The team’s vast bank of sports science data certainly supports these sorts of ideas. It is, after all, a religion founded on rest, recovery, nutrition, and hydration. But Pederson didn’t mention those two dirty words, perhaps because they have become anathema in Philadelphia.
The Sixers and Phillies have jumped into the sports science stew with both feet. Brett Brown routinely limits the games and practices of young center Joel Embiid. Gabe Kapler asks his players to record every exertion and encourages them to take personal days in spring training. But then, Kap and BB haven’t won championships, so their innovations are viewed with more skepticism.
The same man who told you Nick Foles could bring home the Lombardi Trophy (you doubted him then, too) now brings you an early-season off day in the middle of a work week.
Pederson also established a players’ leadership council, which, unlike “councils” on other teams, has both the ear and the trust of the head coach. In 2016, after an embarrassing effort in Cincinnati led Pederson to embarrass the players in public, Pederson tasked his leaders with policing themselves. That led to a championship. At 8 a.m. Wednesday, Pederson met with Sproles and the rest of his leadership council, told them about the altered schedule, and asked them to make sure their teammates run extra laps and study extra hard, so Ice Cream Wednesdays don’t blow up in his face.