Eagles head coach Doug Pederson drew the ire of NFL insiders for violating the unwritten rule against in-game tanking, the coaching carousel shifts into overdrive, more
I wonder if Doug Pederson was prepared for the onslaught of criticism from inside and outside the NFL this week?
When Pederson decided to yank second-round rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s game that the Eagles trailed by three points to the Washington Football Team, in favor of four-year veteran and career third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld, he set off a firestorm of criticism and accusations of tanking levied from all angles; league insiders, media, fans, even from his own players.
At least one head coach preparing his team for the NFL Playoffs this weekend tells FanSided he believes Pederson’s actions were in the best interest of the Eagles, and the coach does not believe Pederson was openly tanking the game.
However, that opinion seems to be the outlier among current and former coaches and executives.
“Doug better be careful,” an NFC personnel director tells FanSided. “If players or coaches see that you aren’t giving your best effort or trying to be successful, they can see right through you. It doesn’t matter who you are, teammate or head coach, they’ll cut you out. And they might not let you back in.”
It appears obvious the Eagles had sights set on doing whatever it took to move up from the No. 9 overall pick in the NFL Draft to No. 6 where they will be selecting in April.
“Players know,” the executive added. “If you don’t fight for them, they’ll turn around and quit on you mighty quick. They’ll tune you out and you’ll lose the locker room for good.”
Along those lines, Pro Bowl running back Miles Sanders was perplexed by Pederson’s decision to remove Hurts.
“Man, if I’m being honest, nobody liked the decision, nobody,” Sanders told 94WIP’s midday show, taking aim at his coach. “That’s all I can say really. I don’t know who was the main person behind that decision. All I know is that a lot of people on the team was confused.”
At minimum, it seems Pederson did a terrible job of communicating his plan to get Sudfeld snaps to his team. But, could something more be brewing behind the scenes in the waning moments of one of the more tumultuous seasons in recent memory for the Eagles?
“It sure looked like a power struggle,” a current offensive coach tells FanSided. “Between Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson.”
“That sort of thing happens all the time to Super Bowl teams,” a former scouting director tells FanSided. “Head coach believes he deserves to make personnel choices, and the GM wants to determine who plays.”
While there might be some acrimony in Philadelphia, one team source says he doesn’t see it.
“Howie’s not the type to strong-arm anyone into playing time decisions like that,” the source tells FanSided. “And Doug isn’t going to do it, even if he was told to.
“But, with that said, playing Sudfeld didn’t make any sense. Nate’s a good kid, but he’s a four-year veteran, he’s not the guy you play when you’re trying to give a rookie quarterback confidence.”
Pederson’s decision-making played even worse 90 minutes up I-95 as the Eagles’ loss officially knocked the 6-10 Giants from the playoffs, handing the NFC East to Washington.
Giants head coach Joe Judge took aim at Pederson Monday, delivering a pointed soliloquy that sounded much more a criticism for how Pederson disrespected his own players than a gripe for how the outcome impacted his:
“I’ll let Philadelphia speak for themselves on that in terms of how they approached the game.
“Real simply, I was in my office last night. I watched our film from the game yesterday and then I was actually watching our first Tampa game with the Philly-Washington game on in the background. There’s been a lot made of that game internal or from the outside.
“Let me just be very clear on this, we had sixteen opportunities this year, that’s it. It’s our responsibility to take care of our opportunities and perform better and execute the situations when they’re on our plate. We don’t ever want to leave our fate in the hands of anybody else.
“We’re not going to make excuses as an organization. Not now, not ever. We had our opportunities. We need to learn from the lessons we have from this year and carry them forward. That’s the experience you truly gain. That’s really the most important thing right there, our opportunities.
“That being said, obviously players have asked me throughout the day. The one thing to keep in mind with this season is we had a lot of people opt into this season. We had a lot of people opt in. Coaches, players, that includes family members as well. To look at a group of grown men who I ask to give me effort on a day in day out basis and to empty the tank.
“I can look them in the eye and assure them that I’m always going to do everything I can to put them in a competitive advantage and play them in a position of strength. To me, you don’t ever want to disrespect those players and their effort and disrespect the game.
While Judge likely isn’t asked about Sunday night’s debacle had it not so profoundly impacted the Giants, his overarching point remains a valid one.
This was not a normal season. Players were asked to sacrifice holiday gatherings and much of their social life inside the locker room and away from the facility for the sake of preserving games and the health of their teammates.
Sanders’ comments and the report from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane that two players needed to be restrained from Pederson on the sideline after he inserted Sudfeld into the game underscore the core of Judge’s criticism; Pederson violated the unwritten rule against NFL players and coaches openly tanking games through in-game strategy.
“What it looked like to me,” the personnel executive said. “Is Doug Pederson stood on the sideline and said ‘I’m still the coach of this team, and Carson Wentz is still my guy.’ You can’t win with Jalen Hurts.
“He’s 7-for-20, he’s missing wide open throws that any quarterback can make, that we’re asking him to make, and he just can’t make them. You want to move forward with this guy, but right now, I can’t win with him.”
No one would have batted an eye had Pederson started Sudfeld to open the second half, or put him in the game for a series or two in the second quarter.
But, taking Hurts — chosen in the second-round of April’s NFL Draft and perhaps the Eagles’ quarterback of the future as soon as 2021 — off the field in a pivotal spot sends a clear message that despite rushing for a pair of scores, Pederson doesn’t trust the kid. Hurts’ removal from the game took away 15 valuable snaps to evaluate his future. All for draft positioning.
Pederson did his players a disservice and exposed an issue the NFL must now address at some point in the imminent future.
“It’s hard to tank,” the executive said. “For all the heat Doug’s taking, picking No. 6 overall is important. But, after this, we might not ever in our lifetime see a coach end a game or end a season the way Doug just did.”
The coaching candidates to watch
As the head coach hiring cycle kicks into overdrive this week, three men are bound to dominate the Zoom interview circuit, and deservedly so; Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
But, as we have seen time and again, the often overlooked candidates can also have success and even deliver Lombardi Trophies to their new programs.
This year will be no different.
When surveyed by FanSided, the consensus among current and former executives is that teams will favor young offensive coaches, and try to pair them with experienced former head coaches as coordinators.
“Two guys that I’d love to interview,” a former general manager tells FanSided. “Are (Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator) Arthur Smith and (Los Angele Rams defensive coordinator) Brandon Staley.”
Staley was a popular choice among executives, current coaches and league sources. He will interview with the Chargers and New York Jets, after the Rams allowed just 281 yards and 18.5 points per game this season. The 38-year-old is viewed as a rising star among coaching circles. This might be his chance to emerge from Sean McVay’s shadow.
Meanwhile, Smith has turned the Titans’ offense into a ground-and-pound juggernaut that helped propel Derrick Henry to two consecutive rushing titles.
This season, the Titans averaged 396.4 yards and 30.7 points per game, fourth most in the NFL and second most among AFC playoff teams. Franchises with elite quarterbacks such as the Houston Texans with Deshaun Watson and Chargers with hotshot rookie Justin Herbert could do much worse than Smith.
“What sets Smith apart from the field is the job he’s done getting Ryan Tannehill to play so much better than he ever did in Miami,” former NFL Executive of The Year Jeff Diamond tells FanSided. “His scheme has lots of play-action success, playing off defenses keying in on Henry, so that sort of scheme could be what teams hope to copy.”
Other candidates who were mentioned by league insiders were Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who interviewed for several jobs last offseason, former Texans coach Bill O’Brien, and former Colts coach Jim Caldwell among retread candidates. One former general manager says not to rule out Buccaneers coach Byron Leftwich from landing a job.
Several executives point to Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus as a rising candidate after he lifted Indianapolis’ defense to No. 8 in total defense while holding opponents to just 22.6 points per game.
With seven jobs currently open, the four teams who miss out on Bienemy, Saleh, and Dabbol will still have quality choices to lead their programs.
Two wild card teams that can make a run
For the first time, the NFL has gifted fans with “Super Wild Card Weekend,” with three games each on Saturday and Sunday. It’s a format that should be the norm going forward, especially because of the premium it places on earning the No. 1 seed and the accompanying lone bye week.
Of the 12 teams in action this week, there are two that have a legitimate chance of barnstorming through the bracket and planting their flag at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay next month.
AFC – Buffalo Bills
The wagons have been circled in Buffalo, as the Bills return to the postseason and host a playoff game on the banks of Lake Erie for the first time since the 1996 WildCard round.
Entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, Buffalo might just be the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs’ quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Quarterback Josh Allen, and his howitzer of a right arm, threw his way into the MVP conversation by completing 69 percent of his passes for 4,544 yards with 37 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions in his third season. In an offense that pushes the vertical passing game overseen by Dabbol, Allen’s arsenal of Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and running back Zack Moss, the Bills averaged 31.3 points per game this season, second only to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Head coach Sean McDermott has his players bought in, and has constructed a menacing defense that seems to be building confidence each week. Buffalo ranks fourth in DVOA, the highest among AFC Playoff teams, with the Chiefs (sixth) and Baltimore Ravens (seventh) not far behind. Only six teams have intercepted more passes than the Bills’ 15, and after producing 38 sacks this season, Colts quarterback Philip Rivers might be running for his life on Saturday afternoon.
Buffalo’s brand of high-flying complementary football gives the Bills a legitimate chance to make a run.
NFC – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Teams taking the Buccaneers lightly because of a midseason slumber do so at their own peril.
Having Tom Brady behind center, after passing for 40 touchdowns, his most since 2007, is certainly an advantage.
Pairing Brady with head coach Bruce Arians and arguably his most explosive collection of skill players that he’s had in his career; wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and running backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, makes it little wonder Brady juked Father Time this season and looked more like a quarterback in his prime than one on his last legs as he did in his final season in New England.
The Buccaneers enter the playoffs riding a four-game winning streak, averaging 37 points per game over that span.
But, what makes the Buccaneers so dangerous is the defense Todd Bowles has built and called, that features game-wreckers at all three levels; defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndomukong Suh, Lavonte David, and defensive back Antoine Winfield. While losing linebackers Devin White and Shaq Barrett this week will be a challenge, only five teams allowed fewer yards than the Buccaneers this season, and the enter ranked second in the NFL in DVOA.
The road to Tampa Bay runs through Lambeau Field, but surveying the NFC’s field, the Buccaneers are the most balanced of the bunch and offer the best chance of upsetting Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers en route to becoming the first franchise to appear in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Good for Grant Haley
Week 17 often finds young players elevated into opportunities either for the first time in a season or in an effort to give veterans a reprieve before the meat-grinder that awaits in the upcoming playoffs.
Sunday afternoon, three-year veteran corneraback Grant Haley made his debut with the New Orleans Saints in the season finale against the Carolina Panthers, and made a significant impact.
Haley, elevated from the Saints’ practice squad earlier this month, picked up his first career interception in the third quarter off Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and looked like he belonged in the Saints’ secondary.
In addition to his interception, Pro Football Focus says Haley held Bridgewater to a 79.2 passer rating when targeting him, despite Haley allowing six receptions on seven targets, and gave the former Giants defensive back a 61.7 run-defense grade.
If the Saints face any injuries in the secondary, Haley’s experience — having appeared in 25 games with the Giants prior to being released out of training camp this summer, could provide New Orleans a boost this postseason.
Free agent to watch
As the calendar turns to January, 16 teams are beginning their final sprint for the Lombardi Trophy but the other half of the league is building their offseason strategy. That includes plotting out their top free agent targets.
Romeo Okwara will be a name to watch in the second wave of the edge rusher market, league sources tell FanSided.
Okwara, 25, saved his most productive season for his contract year, producing a career-high 12 sacks and 44 total tackles for the Detroit Lions. Pro Football Focus gives Okwara an 85.4 pass-rush grade and credits him with 61 total pressures, including 42 hurries and nine quarterback hits.
In an offseason that could see the likes of Leonard Williams, Bud Dupree, Melvin Gordon, among others commanding between $15-25 million annually, Okwara will be a nice consolation prize with upside for a team looking to give their pass rush a boost. Insiders expect Okwara to command fall somewhere between $8-14 million APY, and expect a robust market to develop.
The Cleveland Browns have to be among the most snakebitten NFL franchises.
After finally breaking an 18-year drought, the Browns return to the NFL Playoffs with a clash with their bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a very winnable AFC Wild Card Game at Heinz Field, but will need to do so without head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Stefanski, one of the front-runners for Coach of The Year, tested positive for COVID-19, and for as Herculean an effort the rest of the NFL pulled off keeping the virus largely at arm’s length en route to playing all 256 games this season, the Browns have been no match in recent weeks for the surging cases in Ohio.
As of Tuesday, Cleveland saw 5,942 new cases, which is actually down from the 25,721 new cases discovered on Dec. 8. With an outbreak that potent ripping through the Browns’ home city, it’s no wonder that this is a team that was forced by the NFL to play against the Jets without its starting wide receiving corps and now will be without its head coach in its biggest game in nearly two decades.
This season will always be remembered for the fact that the league largely overcame COVID-19, but its impact — games with fans in some cities but empty stadiums dotted in most places across the country, games played all seven days of the week, etc.
Now, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the winner of the Super Bowl will be the team that can best keep COVID-19 out of its locker room and away from its coach’s office over the next five weeks.
Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL.