Pederson's Progression Dooms Dallas
There was a moment late in the third quarter of the Eagles’ 37-9 demolition of the Dallas Cowboys that perfectly captured the essence of the game.
The camera panned to the owner’s box and found Jerry Jones. Seated next to Jones was America’s favorite part-time governor, Chris Christie, who had the look of a man who had just been told the stadium vendors had run out of hot dogs.
Chris Christie: At least we’re still best friends.
Jerry Jones: I’ll have you buried in the ditch next to Goodell pic.twitter.com/APL9svcXih
— Jawn Gonzalez (@JohnGonzalez) November 20, 2017
Christie, who enjoys bashing Philly fans when he’s not restricting access to bridges or catching some sun on a closed public beach, could only watch as the Eagles methodically sucked the air out of AT&T Stadium during a 30-0 second half surge.
The outcome was so obvious that even Cowboys superfan Skip Bayless got to work early offering up his sorry excuses for Dallas’ wretched performance:
As I said last week, congratulations, Eagles, you won the NFC East. The injury and suspension gods decreed it: Fly, Eagles, fly. This year should've belonged to Dallas. But now it's Philly's. Ring that Liberty Bell. Schedule that parade.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) November 20, 2017
Let Cowboys fans whine about their misfortune as they count their franchise’s Super Bowl trophies and weep into their Jay Novacek shirseys. The Eagles are 9-1, have a stranglehold on the NFC East, and appear primed to make a run at home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In the words of the great philosopher Richard Sherman, “a lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of a sheep.”
Instead, let’s marvel at the progression of Eagles’ head coach Doug Pederson. Pederson, who arrived in Philadelphia after the Chip Kelly saga, was so unheralded as a coaching candidate that no other organization interviewed him for the top job. He was perceived as a fall-back option for the Eagles after top coordinator candidates Ben McAdoo and Adam Gase went off the market and a quixotic pursuit of John Harbaugh failed. Pederson’s willingness to collaborate with Howie Roseman also was believed to play a role in the hiring decision.
Ultimately, the prevailing perception was that Pederson would be Andy Reid-lite. He was no offensive genius like Kelly or McAdoo. He would lack the assertiveness to rein in a strong personality like defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. He was in over his head. With the benefit of hindsight, we can scoff at NFL analyst Mike Lombardi’s vicious criticism of Pederson now, but he was not alone in expressing these sentiments:
— The Ringer (@ringer) September 3, 2017
Sometimes, conventional wisdom isn’t all that wise. Such has been the case with Pederson, whose second half adjustments in the Dallas game demonstrated that he is not doing a cheap Reid imitation. By re-committing to the run game after halftime, the Eagles’ head coach exhibited a play-calling flexibility that his former boss and mentor lacked (and still lacks, apparently).
As Carson Wentz struggled to connect with his receivers in the first and second quarters, Pederson continued to call passing plays, especially on first down. In hindsight, it was an understandable decision: Doug was looking to get his young quarterback back in rhythm with an easy pass or two. However, the lack of a ground game took away the deception that a play action or bootleg is supposed to create. Easy throws that were designed to create open receivers were suddenly contested. At one point in the first frame, a stat flashed on the screen: after starting the game 5-for-5, Wentz completed just one of his next 11 passes.
When the Eagles returned to the field for the second half, they recommitted to ground-and-pound football. The Eagles’ offensive line wore down the Dallas defense, which had no answers for the arsenal of running backs the Birds boast. Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and LeGarrette Blount all contributed; there was even an extended cameo from Kenjon Barner. The four combined with Carson Wentz for 215 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
The highlight of the night was provided by Ajayi, who broke free for a 71-yard run midway through the third quarter:
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) November 20, 2017
At the time, the Eagles were still locked in a one-possession game and were buried deep in their own end. With Jake Elliott injured and thus no field goal kicker available, the outcome was still very much in doubt. However, Pederson dialed up a run that called for tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to pull from his tackle position. Vaitai quickly got to the spot, sealed off the linebacker assigned to fill the gap, and sprang Ajayi. It was a well-designed play that was executed perfectly by a lineman who has filled in admirably for the sidelined Jason Peters.
The rejuvenated rushing attack allowed Wentz to settle into the game. In fact, his passes were much crisper in the second half. The touchdown throw to Alshon Jeffrey in particular stands out as an example of what the Eagles signal caller is capable of doing when he is playing at a high level.
All in all, it was a solid win for the Eagles. While the Birds will quickly shift their focus to the Bears, Eagles fans will have one question on their minds all week: How ’bout them Cowboys?