Players are defined by the postseason. Dan Marino is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, but he will always be known as the guy who didn't win a Super Bowl. Eli Manning has had a solid career, but his supporters simply point out the fact that he's got a pair of Super Bowl rings.
Coaches are held to the same standard. Regular season wins are important, but postseason success is critical for being considered a great coach. It's ridiculous some of the coaches who are held in higher regard than true legends like Don Coryell and Marty Schottenheimer, who never even got to the Super Bowl.
Doug Pederson is only in his second season at the helm of the Eagles, but he is showing the signs of a coach who is going to win his share of playoff games.
Think about what he did on Saturday night.
Pederson took a team missing All-Pro quarterback Carson Wentz, a future Hall of Fame tackle in Jason Peters, Pro Bowl running back/return specialist Darren Sproles, starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, special teams maven Chris Maragos, and kicker Jake Elliott and guided them to a win over the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons had their quarterback, their running back, their left tackle, and their middle linebacker, but they couldn't beat the Eagles.
Doug Pederson had a lot to do with that.
When it is done right, football is the ultimate team game. You don't need Dan Marino at quarterback or Barry Sanders at running back. You do need the right combination of 53 guys, not to mention the right coaching staff and a strong overall organization. Every coach knows this, but some do a better job of creating a true team atmosphere than others. Pederson is one of those coaches.
The Eagles had a 12-10 lead in the fourth quarter on Saturday night and were driving down the field. Nick Foles dropped back and threw a pass to Mack Hollins, a rookie receiver chosen in the fourth round last spring. Foles then threw a third-down pass to Corey Clement, an undrafted rookie running back. That was the most important drive of the season and a pair of rookies were involved. This wasn't due to necessity, either. The rookies were used because they fit those situations and could execute those plays.
Pederson has preached competition and accountability all year. The best players are going to play. Not the biggest contracts or the highest draft picks, but the best players. Guys know they can earn playing time. Coaches can talk about doing these types of things, but Pederson puts action behind his words. That helps players to buy in and it brings out the best in them.
One of the key reasons Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie hired Pederson is he wanted to change the culture in the organization. Pederson has done a brilliant job of that. The players love playing for him and team chemistry has been a huge part of the Eagles' success this year.
Pederson knows how to push his players, but also to bring out the best in them. Think about his aggressive style of coaching. The first play of the game was a deep ball. Most analysts expected the Eagles to play it safe. Pederson sent a message to his quarterback and his team that the offense was playing to win.
The Eagles were down 3-0 and drove down to the 1-yard line. They faced a fourth-and-goal situation. Pederson easily could have kicked a field goal to tie the game. Nope. He gave LeGarrette Blount an off-tackle run play and Blount got into the end zone, putting the Eagles ahead 6-3.
Pederson is aggressive at times when it isn't so easy to make those choices. When you're down 14 points with only a few minutes left, anyone can go for it. You have nothing to lose. Pederson takes chances when he doesn't have to. He does it because he believes his players can make those plays. The risk is worth the reward.
That mentality helps the team quite a bit. They have been in several close games and you never see the Eagles panic. Pederson's coaching style has taught them not to be afraid. The players believe in the coaches, the scheme, and most of all, each other.
Late in the game, Pederson kicked a field goal instead of going for it. I thought that was the smart move. If the Eagles had scored a touchdown there, it would have put the game away. At the same time, if something had gone wrong, the Falcons would have only been down two points. Kicking the field goal extended the lead and meant Atlanta needed a touchdown to win.
A coach has to know when to roll the dice and when to play it safe. Too much of one or the other can be a bad thing.
Pederson made good in-game adjustments. In the first half, he focused on running the ball. In the second half, Pederson called more run-pass options (RPOs). Foles got into a rhythm and made some terrific throws. He marched the team down the field for the go-ahead field goal.
On the next drive, the Eagles went back to feeding the running backs, both in the air and on the ground. A screen pass to Jay Ajayi went for 32 yards and really got the drive going. The Falcons had played the run better, but Pederson still wanted Ajayi getting the ball. Smart move.
Pederson also handled the playoff angle well. Coaches have a huge challenge in wanting their players to understand the do-or-die nature of the playoffs, but also keeping them in their season-long routine. Players are creatures of habit. If you make changes, it will affect them.
The Eagles played as they would in most games. They were loose and aggressive. Pederson did use a couple of plays he had been saving for a special occasion. One was an inside run to Nelson Agholor. The Eagles run the play on a regular basis, but normally hand the ball off to a back. This time they gave it to Agholor. He gained 21 yards and set up the lone touchdown of the game.
That was an incredible play call. Just brilliant. It caught the Falcons completely off guard and came in a key situation. Pederson later called another play to Agholor, similar to an end-around, except the quarterback “pushes” the ball forward so it becomes a pass. That play also went for a first down and was part of a scoring drive.
If you have an ace up your sleeve, you have to know when and how to use it. Pederson did and those plays were pivotal in the Eagles beating Atlanta and advancing to the NFC Championship Game. I can't wait to see what Pederson has in store for this week.
Lurie made a brilliant hire when he chose Pederson to take over the Eagles. He got a coach that can lead men, is good with X's and O's, and is an aggressive decision-maker. Lurie also got someone who can push the right buttons in big games and win when it matters.