By: Joe Staszak
Nor-mal: conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected. Well, if this is the new norm I think the Eagles have to set much loftier goals. If this is the new norm, the new norm is an aging, fragile team with a 3-3 record after six games.
On Sunday the Birds got decimated by a much better Minnesota Vikings team 38-20. Clearly the Birds are under-talented especially in the secondary. A secondary that gave up 447 yards and 38 points in 53 minutes, including four touchdown passes and 333 yards by the bi-polar Kirk Cousins. This Eagles secondary has now given up 20 touchdown passes in six games, far and away the league leaders in that dubious category.
On the other side of the ball the offense failed to score a point in the 1st quarter for the fourth time this year, and aside from a little flurry late in the second quarter and early in the third, the offense once again just didn’t seem in sync. Birds quarterback Carson Wentz wasn’t bad but for some reason he can’t seem to get back to where he was in 2017 when he went 11-2 and would have won the league MVP if he didn’t get injured.
After going 11-2 in 2017 Carson Wentz is now 8-9 in his last 17 games and while his numbers are good, this game is all about wins and losses, and fair or not, it’s his team, and he needs to shoulder much of the blame for another slow start.
Expectations were high before the season began, which, it turned out, was a gross miscalculation of this team’s roster. The expectations, stemmed from most of us believing that this team could reach the bar that they set for themselves in 2017, when they won the Super Bowl.
The principles are still in place from that magical season. Or are they? Every team that wins a Super Bowl usually sees some of their assistant coaches get plucked to go on to be head coaches else where and one of the soundest ways to evaluate one’s value is how a team performs when the player or coach has left the team. Enter Frank Reich.
It is obvious that the Birds’ offense has suffered since offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DiFilipo moved on from the team after the 2017 season. If you are looking to assign blame for the regression of this offense you can blame Frank Reich. Twenty nine players and two coaches from the Super Bowl team were exiled over the last two seasons, but none more important than the loss of Reich. Those players have been replaced by competent and incompentant free agents, lots of them. But it is still unclear at this point if current offensive coordinator Mike Groh falls under competent or incompetant. Despite losing a plethora of players after the Super Bowl, the core is still in place, sans Reich.
We lauded head coach Doug Pederson for the job he did in 2017. But does he get too much credit for that championship season? It remains to be seen. Why? because the man behind the curtain, the great and powerful Frank Reich has taken his act back to Kansas. Well, actually Indianapolis. More on that in a minute. In 2017 the Eagles’ offense averaged 30 points per game and looked very smooth in doing so. Since then the team has averaged 24 points per game. In 2017 the Birds went 13-2 in meaningful games. They are just 12-10 post-Reich and Wentz is one game under .500 in that time period.
In the meantime Reich took the head coaching job in Indianapolis in 2018 where he finished last season with a 9-1 record in the last ten games and a playoff berth after starting the season at 1-5. He made Andrew Luck look like a bigger beast than he was pre-Reich and now he has a guy named Jacoby Brissett, a third string quarterback just three years ago, playing like a top ten quarterback. In six games this season Brissett has thrown ten touchdowns and just three picks. But the biggest tell in evaluating Reich happened last year. In 2017 the Colts were 30th in the league in scoring at 16.4 points per game. Last season, Reich’s first year, the Colts jettisoned to fifth in the league in scoring at 27.2 points per game, that’s an 11 point jump. That’s almost unheard of.
In 2017 the Birds were third in the league in scoring, again, with 30 points per game in meaningful games. Last year, their first year without Reich, the Birds put up just 23 points. That’s a seven point delta and undoubtedly the difference between wins and losses.
Meanwhile Carson Wentz is 14th in league in passing this season with just 243 yards per game and he has dropped from 14th to 19th in passing yards per game from last year to this one.
Reich used to script the first 15 plays of the game and in 2017 the Birds found themselves pulling away from teams early and often. Their average margin of victory was 15. That’s mind-boggling. The offense was creative and it flowed.
So does that make Doug Pederson a fraud? That might be a little extreme but clearly he has struggled without his right hand man. Are we seeing the best of Doug Pederson right now? God I hope not but the statistics say otherwise. This season they have trailed in five of their six games by at least ten points at some point in the game. That is directly attributed to their slow starts. With Frank Reich the birds went 13-2 in meaningful games. In 2018 they were just 9-7 after starting the season at 6-7. Apparently we may have overrated Doug Pederson as a head coach which is not to say that he’s a bad coach. Just an overrated coach.
Unfortunately it looks like he has the Andy Reid trait of getting out coached while basking in his own genius. He also has a crazy gene that borders on recklace and stupid. Is he aggressive? Yes. And I think we all appreciate his guts. But there are times when he makes decisions that just aren’t conducive to heads up football. A big example of this came Sunday when he called a fake field goal just as the Eagles were gaining some momentum and on the verge of closing the Vikings lead to 11 while getting the ball to start the second half.
The Vikings called a field goal block and the Eagles were supposed to snap the ball directly to their kicker, Jake Elliott, who had never thrown a pass on any level, and he was supposed to hit tight end Dallas Goedert at the sideline. The play ultimately blew up as the Vikings sniffed it out. Now first of all the Eagles had no timeouts left and a kicker who couldn’t throw a game let alone a pass, If Goedert gets tackled in bounds the Birds would have to rely on Elliott to get everybody to the line to spike the football, again, something he has never done before, with less than 20 seconds left in the half. But even if all of that goes right most likely they would end up kicking a field goal any way. The bottom line is Pederson put the ball in Jake Elliott’s hand instead of Wentz’ hand staring at a fourth and four. The other error in judgement came when the Vikings, instead of lining up in field goal block formation, lined up in field goal safe formation, meaning everybody stays back so as to keep everything in front of them. But instead of checking out of the play the Birds ran it any way and the play ended up a disaster.
Another instance of a lack of judgment came in week one, against the Redskins. In the fourth quarter the Eagles had just scored a touchdown to go up seven but instead of kicking the extra point to force the Redskins to score twice to tie the game, Pederson decided to go for two so as to put the Eagles up by nine. Again the play blew up and the Birds remained up seven, just one score ahead of Washington in the fourth quarter.
And who could forget the fourth and eight at midfield back in 2017, early in the game against a Giants team that gave the Birds all they could handle that day. Ultimately the Giants fell to the Birds on a 62 yard field goal by Elliott as time expired.
Aggressive or crazy? I think the more appropriate word to define some of Pederson’s decisions is irresponsible. He has a responsibility to do the right thing for the good of the team. Instead he tends to make non-prudent decisions that often times backfire and the result is, potentially, costing his team some games.
So to answer the headline question – Doug Pederson: Crazy or Fugazi? I would say neither in totality but both in reality. Pederson does some head scratching things but has also come through in the clutch. Beating the Packers a couple of weeks ago in Lambeau in a must win situation cannot be over looked. And the job he did with Nick Foles last year to resurrect this team from death’s door, winning the final three games of the season, and a road playoff game against the Bears, cannot be denied serious accolades.
We will learn a lot more about a Doug Pederson in the next ten games, the next five in particular. What we know right now is that he’s still a work in progress despite winning a Super Bowl. But despite winning the whole thing two years ago the big question will remain. Can he win without Frank Reich? Stay tuned.