Years ago, NFL Films produced an episode on the relationship between Brett Favre, who was Doug Pederson’s teammate with the Green Bay Packers, and Mike Holmgren, who was Doug Pederson’s head coach with the Green Bay Packers. The episode featured a succession of film clips of Favre making silly decisions on the field, decisions that were too brazen and daring, decisions that drove Holmgren crazy. In one particularly memorable clip, Holmgren stands on the Packers' sideline, repeating three words — “Throw it away” — three times with increasing volume and intensity as Favre rolls to the right, tries to zip a pass to a receiver who is double-covered, and throws an interception. In a game against Washington.
Pederson should cue up this clip and watch it — or rewatch it, since he might very well have been on the sideline near Holmgren. He should watch it in the wake of the Eagles' 27-17 loss Sunday to Washington, maybe the most frustrating and distressing loss of Pederson’s tenure as head coach here.
As great as Favre was, the clip showed the perils that came with his swashbuckling style of play, and Holmgren spent years in Green Bay trying to balance the freedom he needed to give Favre and the exasperation that followed whenever Favre went too far. Pederson has to know now, after witnessing Carson Wentz’s horrible final 35 minutes of play Sunday, after seeing Wentz continue to make the same kinds of mistakes over and over through their time together with the Eagles, that his old teammate is the template for Wentz.
No, Wentz over time probably won’t throw the volume of interceptions that Favre did; Favre had more than 20 in a season six times. But Wentz holds the ball too long in the pocket too often, tries too hard to pull off a spectacular play instead of taking the safe way out, and the very quality that can make him a magician can also spiral into the same unsound decision-making that Favre tended to display. As much of an inexperienced and overmatched mess as the Eagles' offensive line was Sunday, as dominating as Washington’s defensive line was — sacking Wentz eight times, holding the Eagles to 57 rushing yards — Wentz was responsible himself for at least four of those sacks. One of them, a 13-yard loss on third down, likely cost the Eagles three points; it turned a short field-goal attempt into a 53-yarder that Jake Elliott left short.
“I don’t think, as the game unfolded, that really made a difference,” Wentz said. “That’s the mentality I have. I’m always trying to make the play and extend the play when it’s there to be made. Sometimes you make them. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, bad things happen, and you take a sack. I’ve got to do better and get rid of the ball when I can, but my mentality on that front doesn’t change within a game or within a week. I’ve just to know better when to get rid of the ball.”
Instead of feeding that mindset Sunday, Pederson should have dialed back the Eagles’ go-for-it-all tendency just this once. The circumstances demanded it. It would have been one thing to keep pouring it on Washington with a full and healthy complement of skill-position players and blockers. It was another thing to try to do it, once the Eagles already had built a 17-point lead, with Nate Herbig at right guard and Jack Driscoll at right tackle and an aging Jason Peters at left tackle, with soft targets up and down the line of scrimmage for Ryan Kerrigan and Chase Young.
This was a game that needed managing. It didn’t need Pederson to go for it on fourth-and-4 late in the third quarter with his team leading by three and with his third-string right tackle, Jordan Mailata, on the field. This was a quarterback who needed managing. Wentz didn’t need Pederson to keep pushing the ball downfield, especially once Wentz started spraying passes around FedEx Field. That dangerous out route to Jalen Reagor late in the second quarter became the first of Wentz’s two interceptions. It set up Washington’s first touchdown, and it changed the course of the game, and Pederson’s response was to have Wentz throw deep twice more before the end of the half. Fifty called passes and 17 called runs from Pederson, as if the goal wasn’t as much to win the game as to bury Washington with one big play.
“The instinct is to keep the gas pedal down and continue to put pressure on Washington,” Pederson said. “That’s been my mindset. With the players, we communicated that on the sideline, and they were up for it, ready to go. I would continue to do that in those situations. Ultimately you’re trying to score as many points as you can and stay as aggressive as you can.”
That was exactly the problem Sunday. Pederson and the Eagles don’t manage. They don’t want to. From their owner on down, they want points. That desire won them a Super Bowl. It helped turn Wentz into an MVP candidate, and it helped him pull off a Lazarus project last year, leading the Eagles to four season-closing victories and the NFC East title. But that same desire cost them Sunday. A quarterback like Brett Favre or Carson Wentz will win a coach a lot of games. But sometimes, a coach has to stop that kind of quarterback from losing him one. Crazy as it might sound after one week, Sunday’s loss had the feel of an outcome that can define a team’s season. Doug Pederson had a chance to stop it. He barely bothered to try.