ON THE EAGLES When the stakes were raised, Pederson made every right move
Even as he was carrying a 13-3 record into his first postseason game Saturday, Doug Pederson had to know knew the usual rules, rules he may never stop hearing.
Unpopular as a former Eagle and untested as a head coach, few were going to have to prove more to fans and critics before being accepted. By late last offseason, the situation turned unnecessarily cruel when a failed football executive named Mike Lombardi went mediahopping to declare Pederson unfit to coach professional football. Because of how it works any more, that babble went viral.
That Pederson would forge a strong Coach of the Year candidacy by storming through the NFC East and winning the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs was enough, at least, to muffle the noise. Still, it was right to wonder: How would he react in the playoffs, when everything changes?
The answer, after the Birds’ 15-10 second-round victory over Atlanta: Very well. Very well, by any measure. Pick one.
How about clock management, which his professional mentor, Andy Reid, has so often mangled in playoff games that it is probably going to cost him a Hall of Fame spot? Wasn’t that Pederson nursing every timeout (and taking advantage of some breaks), to help squeeze one final second out of a five-play, 46-second drive at the end of the first half? And wasn’t that Jake Elliott making it count with a 53-yard field goal at the horn?
“In those situations where you can get points going in at halftime, where there’s not much time, it is huge,” Nick Foles said. “And it gives you momentum.”
How about motivation? Weren’t the Eagles determined, at the end, to prevent Atlanta from generating a game-winning touchdown? How about play-calling? Wasn’t that a new wrinkle that the Eagles embarrassed the Falcons with on third-and-three in the second quarter, when they handed to a crossing Nelson Agholor, who sprinted 21 yards around left end, setting up the Birds’ only touchdown?
“It’s a play we’ve actually had in our arsenal,” Pederson said. “We’ve had it up in game plans before this season. We just never got to it. We were in the right situation, I believe it was a third down when we called it and it was just the right time.”
He might never have needed that play. He needed it there. The Falcons were stunned. And the Eagles are a victory from the Super Bowl. They might not get there. They might not win there even if they do. But at every checkpoint Saturday, Pederson showed that he was capable of being a capable Sherpa.
Among the traits that has made him both endearing and maddening to Eagles fans has been Pederson’s disregard for the expected. In his two seasons, he has proven he will punt when he feels like punting, will call a fourthdown play when he feels like calling a fourth-down play, and will coach the way he wants to coach, no matter how sour the chorus.
So there was a danger Saturday that Pederson would be so determined to remain in that character that he would try to make it work regardless of the increased stakes. Such was the decision he faced when the Birds sputtered at the Atlanta three with 6:05 to play, up by two points. Were he a caricature of himself, he would have ordered his offense back onto the field to try to score a dagger touchdown.
“Obviously, if you score a touchdown there, you put it to a two-score ballgame and kind of put the ballgame away,” Elliott said. “So you kind of have to look at it both ways.”
Pederson did. And he chose to allow Elliott to pad the lead to 15-10 with a 21-yard field goal, putting the pressure on the Falcons to score a touchdown. They didn’t.
“I was really considering that, going for it,” Pederson said. “Obviously with the kick, you’re up five and you’re putting it back in your defense’s hands, which is a positive, because I felt like they were playing extremely well at that time. But I also knew that if we do go for it and make it at that point, the game could be over at that time.
“I elected to take the time out, talk about it a little bit more, and then just ultimately kick a field goal.” Perfect. He coached the game. He coached the moment. He didn’t smear the moment by trying to promote his image as a cavalier gambler.
“The play-calling was excellent,” Lane Johnson said. “We have a bunch of stuff that fits in with what Nick does and what he is accustomed to. We ran the ball efficiently when we needed to. Obviously down there towards the end, I wish we would’ve had the touchdown so it wouldn’t have made the ending so dramatic. But we kept fighting and made plays when we needed to.”
Throughout the room late Saturday, the Eagles liberally laced their postgame comments with praise for Pederson, for his preparation, but also for just being what so many didn’t think possible. And as he exited the field, Pederson even seemed more emotional than usual.
“Everything kind of rushes through your mind,” he said. “But the biggest emotion for me was the team, the guys, and the resiliency of this football team. And our back’s against the wall. People discount us. They don’t give us much credit, whatever it might be.”
They discount Pederson, too. That will continue, because that’s how it works, too. That he will enter the NFC final without Carson Wentz will buy him some tolerance insurance in case of a loss. But he will be judged, ultimately, the way all pro-football coaches are judged: By his playoff record. As of Saturday, that record was 1-and0. It was a strong 1-and0, too. Contact Jack McCaffery @jmccaf[email protected]turymedia.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery.
RICK KAUFFMAN - DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA FILE
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson came up on the right side of a number of crucial decisions in the Birds’ playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons.