PHILADELPHIA — By the way, the Eagles dismissed the only coach who ever won them a Super Bowl. This will be their biggest regret. More than whatever happens to Carson Wentz. More than letting Howie Roseman continue to run the franchise.
It’s been a little more than a month since Jeffrey Lurie fired Doug Pederson. Addressing the injustice of it somehow slipped through the cracks. Of course, the cracks were earthquake-sized, the results of a cataclysmic shift unseen before in Philadelphia sports history.
“It’s not about: Did Doug deserve to be let go? No, he did not deserve to be let go,” Lurie said when he made the biggest mistake of his 27 years of ownership. “That’s not where I’m coming from, and that’s not the bar in the evaluation process.”
It should have been.
None of the reasons surrounding Pederson’s departure merited dismissal. NFL sources have indicated that Lurie balked at Pederson’s demands. After five seasons of Lurie’s meddling, Pederson finally insisted on hiring his own coaching staff. After five seasons of Roseman’s poor personnel decisions, Pederson wanted a louder voice in building the roster. After five seasons of polishing Wentz — an FCS (Division I-AA) project that Pederson turned into a competent and often scintillating NFL quarterback — Lurie believed that Pederson could not fix him now, or that Pederson wasn’t interested in fixing him now, or that Wentz would refuse to be repaired by Pederson, now and forever.
None of that matters. All of these reasons combined are not reason enough to fire Pederson. He was a good coach who won lots of games when he had decent players. That’s the bar.
It happened a week after Pederson’s first postseason debriefing with Lurie, which was held in Philadelphia immediately after the season ended. It happened at a second debriefing, held in Florida. It never should have happened.
He turned Carson Wentz into a star. He turned Nick Foles into a legend. Talent flourished on his watch: If Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Zach Ertz, and Lane Johnson make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Pederson should have a front-row seat, because they had their best years with him, and thanks to him. Moreover, his teams played hard. Such a coach is hard to find.
But no coach is perfect.
Pederson also was, like everything else in 2020, flawed.
He made uncharacteristically conservative decisions on the field. He performed erratically during news conferences. Perhaps these behaviors were influenced by his summertime bout with COVID-19. We might never know.
In the end, Pederson failed to save Wentz from himself. Ultimately, he alienated Wentz by benching him in Game 12 — a well-deserved benching, one that should have happened weeks earlier, since Wentz had performed worse than any other NFL starter.
Pederson also appeared to intentionally lose Game 16. He finished the year 4-11-1, which left him at 42-37-1 in five seasons, with a Super Bowl win and a 4-2 playoff record in three trips, all in his first head coaching job.
Bill Belichick also was fired after five seasons in his first job, but he’d gone just 36-44 with the Browns, 1-1 in his only trip to the playoffs. The Browns have regretted that decision since. It took them 26 years and 23 coaches to win another playoff game.
Belichick, meanwhile, has won six Super Bowls in nine trips. Know who handed him one of those three losses?
Why talk about it now? Because we’ve been fixated on the rest of the insanity.
First distraction: TankGate. Pederson, possibly in conspiracy with Roseman, guaranteed a loss in Game 16 by pulling starting quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter, trailing by 3, in favor of the wax statue we’ve come to know as Nate Sudfeld, who immediately ensured the loss — a loss that kept the Giants out of the playoffs. This caused convulsions throughout the NFL and prompted outrage on these pages. When Pederson was fired nine days later it seemed to me that a measure of justice had prevailed. Pederson got what he deserved. I regret that reaction. Pederson deserved better from me, and from all of us.
Second distraction: Divorce. Wentz reportedly boycotted his exit interview with Pederson to contemplate whether he wanted a “Divorce” from the team which he apparently distrusts to its core. Two ESPN reports during the season indicated that Wentz would refuse to return to Philadelphia in 2021 — an absurd stance considering he is under contract for four more years — but Lurie fired Pederson partially in hopes of finding a replacement of Wentz’s liking, since Lurie considers Wentz “fixable.”
Third distraction: The Replacements. The unexpected coaching search included 10 official interviews, two candidacy withdrawals, several prospects taking jobs elsewhere, the usual fiery debate over racial hiring practices, and the hiring of clothes horse Nick Sirianni, the Colts’ enthusiastic offensive coordinator and the protege of Colts head coach Frank Reich, the OC of Pederson’s Super Bowl team.
Fourth distraction: The Rejection. The hiring of Sirianni did not placate Wentz. The ESPN reporter who first reported Wentz’s dissatisfaction with the Eagles organization in December reported last week that Wentz still wants to be traded. Since then, the Eagles have scrambled to make that happen. Talks have stalled. So, this is the first real chance to dissect Pederson’s undeserved fate since the ax fell Jan. 11.
Pederson often speaks with two left feet, but, incredibly, has an accidental gift for leadership. He handed the reins of leadership to the locker room after he criticized two players for avoiding contact during a game at Cincinnati in December 2016. The leaders galvanized the locker room and created a synergy that the Eagles rode to their Super Bowl LII win the following year, despite losing Wentz in Game 13.
Pederson designed plays and game plans and called games so masterfully that even Foles couldn’t screw them up. This culminated in his Minneapolis masterpiece, the “Philly Special.” A lesser masterpiece stands outside Lincoln Financial Field: two bronze figures on the Super Bowl sideline, poised for the greatest moment of their football lives.
There was much more to Pederson than “Philly Philly.”
Pederson, who is white, elegantly navigated five seasons of social justice land mines. As Colin Kaepernick’s protests spread through the NFL, Pederson gave Malcolm Jenkins his support and encouraged him to lead the team’s and the league’s players in both voice and action.
Pederson held together a locker room that Wentz’s browbeating continually threatened to tear apart.
But he couldn’t survive 2020.
Pederson’s team was the only NFC East franchise to return its head coach and most of its staff from 2019, when the Eagles won the division. They finished last, for two main reasons: injuries and Wentz.
It’s somewhat fair to judge Wentz on a curve. The enormous number of injuries diminished his protection and weapons. However, Wentz too often played horridly when well-protected with easy targets. Sources say he also frequently abandoned Pederson’s game plans and play calls once he hit the field.
It’s much fairer to judge Pederson on a curve. He was an offensive coordinator without much to coordinate. Injuries forced Pederson to field 14 different offensive line combinations in 16 weeks, an NFL record. Top receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey were completely healthy for seven of a possible 32 games. Rookie receiver Jalen Reagor and tight ends Ertz and Dallas Goedert each missed five games, and running back Miles Sanders missed three.
Injuries devastated his already toothless linebacker and secondary units.
Pederson won just four games because the roster was old and thin, the players couldn’t stay healthy, and his starting quarterback stunk. Pederson wasn’t the GM, the team doctor, or the QB.
Yet, somehow, all of them remain.
That’s the greatest injustice of all.