Win offers chance for offseason of optimism
Doug Pederson will spend the next week, longer probably, watching film and doing math. One won’t change what happened to the Eagles this season. The other, he can make work.
He had just finished his first season as an NFL head coach Sunday, the Birds defeating Dallas, 27-13. That the Cowboys would show their fundamental disinterest in the outcome by turning the game over, pun intended, to Mark Sanchez was not Pederson’s problem. Two teams played. One played well enough and prepared well enough and coached well enough to win. Those games count, too.
With that, the Birds would finish a second consecutive season at 7-9. It would be, though, a different 7-9. This time, there will be no immediate search for a new head coach. This time, there is no fog about the quarterback for the next year and beyond. This time … “We’re very close,” Pederson said. “Very close.”
The NFL is set up that way, its constitutional search for eternal parity typically dragging mediocre teams into the final weeks of the season, still technically eligible for the playoffs. With that, there can be false hope. In a league where 8-8 teams often qualify for the postseason, a 7-9 team, as Pederson chanted, would be by definition, yes, very close.
But when he began to replay the season in his head, without the benefit of the printed particulars at his fingertips, he at least had the basis for a reasoned argument.
“You talk to other coaches around the league, and they see it,” Pederson said. “They see it on the outside. Even though the winloss and everything is not in our favor, we lost six games this year by a touchdown or less.
“We just have to learn to finish those games.”
That’s kind of how it works. Plenty of NFL games have close final scores. Claiming the determination to learn to finish is not the same as having the talent to finish. The Birds have too many receivers prone to dropped passes, an aging, brittle running-back stable and poor cornerbacks. They have work.
But many of their narrow losses were particularly haunting. They had a lead in Detroit but were tormented by two late turnovers and lost by a point. They were up by 10 in the second half at Dallas and lost in overtime. The Redskins beat them on a late touchdown. And if not for Pederson’s courageous and correct decision to seek a two-point conversion with seconds left in what would be a 27-26 loss in Baltimore, the Birds almost certainly could have played in overtime. And had they won, they would have finished the season on a three-game winning streak.
“We needed this one going into the offseason,” Jordan Hicks said. “Obviously, we’re not able to achieve the goals that we set out to achieve. But one goal we made when we understood that we weren’t going to make the playoffs was that we were going to start this next season and really finish this season off right.
“That’s what we set out to do and that’s obviously what we did.”
That was an unsightly five-game losing streak from mid-November until late December. As Buddy Ryan used to say, a team eventually must know how to win when the snow falls. Whether the Eagles can do that next season is in doubt. But had they permitted that slump to hit seven, there may have been some Black Monday intrigue around the NewsControl Compound. That they didn’t was a late but significant tribute to a head coach still trying to figure some things out.
“I’m super proud to be a part of this group,” Connor Barwin said. “We started strong and we finished strong. Obviously, we have to work on that middle a little bit. There are some areas we need to improve on. But there’s a lot of encouraging things that happened in this last month and we should be excited about going into the offseason.”
They’ve convinced themselves of that, anyway. But they earned that right. Their right tackle, a presumed franchise pillar, had to serve a 10-game suspension for a failed performance-enhancing-drug test. They had multiple injuries across the offensive line. Ryan Mathews ended the season on injured-reserve. And they were on that midseason slide.
But they were not the Cleveland Browns, and they were not like the 49ers, who were mangled by the same coach the Eagles had fired a year earlier. So when Pederson says they are close he is within that margin of error.
“I thought we had a team that fought every single game,” Brent Celek said. “And I think when you have that, you have a good football team. I think we need to carry that over into next year. But we just have to get a little bit better.”
A little bit better. A little. After a weird, challenging Eagles season, that sounds close, very close. To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery
Carson Wentz, center, congratulates Eagles tight end Zach Ertz after a touchdown reception. Wentz and Ertz connected on two touchdown throws on the day.