Doug Pederson had a good night Sunday, to cap a good week. You wouldn’t have known it from his postgame press conference, when he did his best late-career-Marlon-Brando impression, picking at his knuckles and staring at his fingernails and generally acting as if he’d rather be anywhere else instead of fielding questions about his latest success.
The Eagles had beaten the Saints, 24-21, and the decision that Pederson earlier in the week had trumpeted as his and his alone — the decision to start Jalen Hurts and not start Carson Wentz — had validated itself. Hurts had rushed for 106 yards, thrown a touchdown pass, and seemed unfazed throughout his first NFL start. The Eagles stopped a four-game losing streak and allowed that pesky thought of ... playoffs ... to remain a splinter in their brain for at least another week. Pederson had asserted himself, and his team, as it tends to do, played hard for him. And yet, he spoke of Hurts as if Hurts were the opposing quarterback, not the Eagles’. Anyone could see it. Anyone could see that Pederson was hesitating to praise Hurts too much, for fear of … what? Offending or upsetting Wentz? Piling kindling on a quarterback controversy that’s already aflame?
“We went into this week … um … you know, a lot of stuff’s been piled on this football team all season … um … negatively, positively, a lot of injuries,” Pederson said. “Different things have really piled up. Sometimes, you look for an opportunity to sort of jump-start things, almost reset a little bit. And … you do things, and obviously Jalen got the start tonight, or this afternoon, and I thought overall there were some good things, and it obviously gave us a spark as a team that I was looking for and I think we were looking for. But this win today is not about one guy. This win is about this team and how resilient this team is.”
Yes, the Eagles won a late-season game that they weren’t expected to win. They have tended to do that during Pederson’s tenure, and it remains one of his greatest strengths: His guys don’t give up, ever. They don’t quit on him. More, from a pure coaching standpoint, what he did Sunday was fairly remarkable. He beat one of the best teams in the NFL, the best defense in the NFL, with a rookie quarterback. If that wasn’t cause for full-throated happiness, at least in the moment, what was? And yet …
“Bottom line is, you try to win the game, and we were successful there,” Pederson said, with all the enthusiasm and energy of Eeyore after half a Valium. “I thought that there was some good, there was some bad. But I thought that they executed the game plan pretty well, again, with what we asked them to do.”
He was asked why Hurts seemed better able to run the offense than Wentz had this season.
“Don’t misunderstand what you’re seeing,” he said. “A lot of it was QB scrambles, too. Those weren’t necessarily designed rollouts. You know, just part of the game plan, to get … and you’ve got to consider the defense, too, and how they play, which can allow for your quarterback to get on the edge just a bit and throw quickly, just kind of cut the field in half for him and keep it as simple as I possibly could for him in certain situations.”
You don’t have to be a long-lost disciple of Bill Walsh to recognize that Pederson’s explanation for Hurts’ efficiency Sunday, aside from the addendum about keeping it simple, doesn’t make much sense. The implication that Hurts would have an easier time making throws outside the pocket against the league’s top defense than he would against any other team, or that Wentz would have against any of the opponents he faced, seems far-fetched at best. What happened Sunday is far more logical: Pederson and the Eagles implemented a game plan that accented Hurts’ strengths and de-emphasized his weaknesses and inexperience, and he followed the plan pretty well. This was a display of good coaching — and, no doubt, a better, cleaner performance from the quarterback and the offense than what the Eagles had generally gotten from Wentz over the previous 12 games.
For whatever reason, Pederson decided he had to shade that truth — he couldn’t even bring himself to say that Hurts would start next week — and perhaps he recognizes the corner into which he might yet be, and might already have been, painted. He prides himself on being a quarterback whisperer, on evaluating himself as a coach based on his ability to develop players at that position, his position, and his loyalty to Wentz in that regard is obvious.
So where does that leave Pederson now? The Eagles can’t trade Wentz. It’s not the least bit practical. So if Pederson keeps shepherding Hurts to excellence through the Eagles’ next three games, he might save his job, but he’ll only complicate matters for himself and the franchise in the future. Joseph Heller would have a field day with this.
Finally, as Pederson stood at the lectern in Lincoln Financial Field, the game long over, someone asked him: Your praise of Jalen seems tempered. Are you taking Carson’s feelings into consideration?
“I have to take into consideration the entire football team,” he said. “Jalen played well. Obviously, we won the game. But there were a lot of good performances out there.”
The coach’s included, to his own apparent consternation.