Win of­fers chance for off­sea­son of op­ti­mism

The Boyertown Area Times - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

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 jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @Jack­McCaf­fery

RICK KAUFF­MAN - DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Car­son Wentz, cen­ter, con­grat­u­lates Ea­gles tight end Zach Ertz af­ter a touch­down re­cep­tion. Wentz and Ertz con­nected on two touch­down throws on the day.

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