Steve Spurrier, my role model in all things, used to say and perhaps still says: “If you want to know whether a guy can win, look at his record.” The problem with hiring a career assistant as your head coach is that, for all the fine work he might have done, his record is 0-0. The Falcons are free to hire Eric Bieniemy or Arthur Smith or Nathaniel Hackett or Joe Brady as head coach, but the conspicuous catch is that none has prepared a team – as opposed to an offense – for an NFL game.
(Let me state for the record: I’d be bit less enthused were they to hire a man with a defensive background, though I’m aware the greatest coaches of the era — Bill Belichick among pros, Nick Saban among the college set — apprenticed as defensive assistants. It’s just that three of the four head coaches hired by Arthur Blank have had defensive backgrounds; the exception was Bobby Petrino, who had other issues.)
Back to records. Raheem Morris? He’s 21-38 as a head coach. Todd Bowles? He’s 26-41. Then again, Belichick’s record when the Patriots hired him was 36-44. Sometimes a team must take a chance on someone who didn’t win elsewhere because the guys who’ve won remain gainfully employed. But there is, as fate/luck would have it, a man suddenly available who has been a head coach, whose specialty is offense and who has won a Lombardi Trophy.
He’s Doug Pederson. His regular-season record is 43-37-1. His record in playoff games is 4-2. His record in Super Bowls is 1-0. His record against the Falcons is 3-1. Not quite three years after taking the Eagles to their first title since Norm Van Brocklin was their quarterback, Pederson was fired. Normally a team wouldn’t be eager to hire someone who’d just been canned, but we reference Andy Reid, whom the Eagles – yep, them again – dumped Dec. 31, 2012. He was hired by the Chiefs on Jan. 3, 2013. His record with Kansas City is 91-37. His team is the reigning Super Bowl champ. It might well win again.
Again with fate/luck: Pederson worked under Reid for seven years, the final three as OC in K.C. Bieniemy is completing his third season as Reid’s offensive coordinator. Bieniemy is a year younger than Pederson. One difference in their resumes: Pederson has run his own shop.
Another difference: Bieniemy hasn’t been fired recently. The belief here, though, is that Pederson’s ouster was more because of personalities, and the clashing thereof, than of a slippage in expertise. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie wasn’t thrilled that his team went 4-11-1 this season and that Pederson seemed to have had enough of Carson Wentz, the designated franchise quarterback who signed a four-year contract extension for $128 million in 2019.
Students of history will recall that the Eagles won the Super Bowl — beating the Falcons en route as a rare home underdog — with Nick Foles filling in for the injured Wentz. (They also beat the Falcons in the 2018 season opener, again with Foles again at QB.) The worth of Wentz, drafted No. 2 overall in 2016, is a matter of great debate. He was ranked No. 8, one spot behind Tom Brady, in ESPN’s preseason quarterback ratings last summer. (Matt Ryan was No. 11, FYI.) Wentz finished 28th among 33 qualifiers in passer rating in 2020.
By year’s end, Pederson decided to try the rookie Jalen Hurts as his starting quarterback. The Eagles won one of Hurts’ four starts. Then again, they’d won only three of Wentz’s 12. In the season finale, Pederson benched Hurts in the fourth quarter — Wentz was inactive — to take a look at the legendary Nate Sudfeld in what was still a winnable game against Washington. That Philadelphia lost wasn’t the worst thing in the world; it had already been eliminated from playoff contention, and by losing it secured the No. 6 pick, as opposed to the No. 9, in the 2021 draft.
Still, there was much consternation. NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth accused the Eagles of tanking. Several Eagles said they were shocked/dismayed at Pederson’s choice. Coach Joe Judge, whose Giants needed Philly to win so they could make the playoffs, deemed it a show of “disrespect.” Eight days later, Pederson got the gate.
ESPN had reported that the relationship between Pederson and Wentz was “fractured beyond repair.” The Eagles’ firing of the latter prompted NFL watchers to conclude — quoting Dan Orlovsky, also of ESPN — that the team “just chose Wentz over Pederson, and Pederson’s got a statue outside their stadium.”
I once typed a sentence suggesting the Falcons of Dan Quinn were the sort of misdirected team that a team of lesser talent but of better coaching “loved to see coming.” Full disclosure: The team of lesser talent I was envisioning was Pederson’s Eagles. The only time the men of Quinn beat Pederson’s Philly was when Julio Jones turned a fourth-down slip screen into a game-winning touchdown. (Oh, and Nelson Agholor then dropped what would have become the winning touchdown.)
The Eagles’ Super Bowl run will stand forever as a triumph of coaching. It concluded with a stunning victory over Belichick’s Patriots. One year earlier, the Falcons had been in position to beat those Pats and failed to hold a 25-point lead. I’ve spent much of the past few years asking myself, “What might those Falcons have done with Pederson as head coach?”
The opportunity exists for the Falcons to give the man himself a call. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t, but I’ve been wrong about this team before.©2021 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.