September 18, 2017

Pederson’s pass-first philosophy will destroy both Eagles and Wentz

Opinion Angelo Cataldi
AP_17260600343624.jpg Ed Zurga/AP

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson looks over warmups before an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.

Two games into a new season, Eagles fans are split on what the No. 1 theme has been so far. Some believe it’s Doug Pederson’s undying affection for the forward pass. Others think it is the head coach’s strong aversion to all running plays. Either way, the team is facing its first crisis.

To run or not to run – that is the question. The Eagles added a power runner, LeGarrette Blount, in the winter, fresh off an impressive 1,161-yard season in New England. He was going to end all of the angst over short-yardage situations, not to mention the many demands for a more effective ground game in run-loving Philadelphia. He did not.

In fact, what began as a murmur of discontent after the opening-game win at Washington became an outcry after the 27-20 loss to Kansas City on Sunday. When the players themselves publicly question the coach’s play-calling, it is an issue. The Eagles have passed the ball 86 times in the first two games, and run it only 35. Pederson’s players are not amused.

Zach Ertz, the tight end who has profited most from Pederson’s preference for the pass (13 catches), said 40 throws a game are way too many. Brandon Brooks, a guard required to protect the quarterback, said the line would rather run more and pass less. And Carson Wentz, the guy doing all the passing, said the team needs more balance in its play-calling.

Pederson himself agrees – right up until game time. On my WIP radio show this morning, the coach acknowledged the complaints of his own players and vowed once again to “fix the problem.” Of course, he said the same thing last week – and most of last year. Before him, his mentor, Andy Reid, broke the same promise for 14 years.

The difference now is, Pederson’s team doesn’t believe him any more than the fans do. By conservative estimate, Wentz was hit 10 times during the Chiefs’ loss, including six sacks. The franchise quarterback will not survive 14 more games like that. If the front office is depending on him to lead the Eagles to the playoffs, he will need to be upright all season.

Then there’s Blount himself, who beat the rest of his teammates into the locker room after the game by at least five minutes Sunday. Of course, since he barely touched the ball (one catch), maybe he never really left the clubhouse. Would anyone have known the difference?

And then there’s the question of what Pederson’s obsession with the pass represents to his players. Is it an indictment of the offensive line, and especially undersized center Jason Kelce? Does Pederson disagree with the addition of Blount to the roster? Or maybe the coach, and ex-quarterback himself, just finds the pass more fun. What is it?

I asked Pederson all of these questions today, and he denied every implication. Instead, he cited circumstance, saying that because most of the runs he did try failed, he had no choice but to pass on second and third-and-long situations. He loves the offensive line, likes Blount and is just fine with running the ball. Honestly.

So then there’s nothing to worry about, right? Next week, Blount will rush for more than 100 yards against the New York Giants, Wentz will not get hit at all, and the world will be a better place, at least for Eagles fans.

Yeah, sure. That will all happen. This crisis will blow over soon.

Just don’t bet on it.

***

The prospect of seeing Andy Reid on the sideline Sunday in Kansas City inspired a new debate last week among Eagles fans over just how great (good, mediocre, lousy) a coach he was during his 14 years here.

To my eternal chagrin, he left behind a city that still admires him.

Hey, I get it. Reid won more games than any Eagles coach ever, by a wide margin. His 130 victories are more than double the runner-up in Birds’ coaching history, Greasy Neale (63). Reid won six NFC East championships, one conference title and came closer than anyone to winning a Super Bowl.

What fans seem to have conveniently forgotten is the way he blew the biggest game of his career against New England in 2005 by brain-locking on the sideline in the final 10 minutes. How can Reid be considered a great coach when a far better one, Bill Belichick, famously asked an assistant if the scoreboard showing the Patriots with a late 10-point lead was right?

And while Reid’s chronic time-management snafus should be a major part of his legacy, even more significant is his unacceptable behavior during much of his tenure.

NoneEd Zurga/AP

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid speaks at the post game news conference following an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.


Why have fans forgotten how he refused to discuss publicly the decision to cut ties with the best player of his era, Brian Dawkins, deflecting questions by saying it was “Stacy Andrews’ day”? No one in Reid’s era is more beloved than Dawkins. Why is the coach’s dismissal of Dawkins OK with fans now?

And how can these same fans ignore Reid’s shameful public lambasting of David Akers after the best kicker in Eagles history missed two field goals in a playoff game while dealing with sudden news that his six-year-old daughter had cancer? How has Reid’s legacy survived that?

If those disgusting episodes aren’t sufficient, how about the many years when he dealt with all major failures – the very issues that fans were obsessed with on WIP radio – with robotic answers like “I gotta do a better job”? In a time when the people demand, and deserve, answers, Reid gave none. This was fine, too?

The sad truth is, Andy Reid was not the best coach in Eagles history, statistics be damned. Greasy Neale won two championships, the ultimate barometer of success. Vermeil was better, too, both because he showed so much more respect for the fans, made a far bigger imprint on the city and because he won a championship, albeit in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, Reid is having the same kind of career in Kansas City that he had here, fielding respectable team after respectable team with no real chance of ever winning a Super Bowl. Last week, before the Chiefs beat the Eagles, he said life in KC was pretty much the same as it was here, except for the media, which was far more demanding in Philadelphia.

Apparently, it was not demanding enough because Reid is still regarded here as a great coach – something he will never be.

***

Five years from now, which current young star will rule Philadelphia sports – Carson Wentz, Joel Embiid or Rhys Hoskins?

That’s right, Hoskins has just slugged his way into the discussion, with an improbable 18 homers in his first 36 games, more than any rookie over that span in baseball history. His astounding first month has been the best development involving the Phillies since their 102-win season in 2011.

At 24, does Hoskins have a better chance at superstardom than Wentz, also 24? And then there’s Embiid, an attraction so compelling at 23, the Sixers will be featured in 14 national TV games, up from three last season.

All three players are more than just promising young talents; they are also entertainers. Wentz’ elusiveness and powerful arm are must-see TV every week in the NFL. Embiid’s rare combination of agility and strength are mesmerizing; just try not locking your eyes on him when he’s on the court. And Hoskins is a more agile version of Ryan Howard, impossible to ignore.

So how will they rank in fan appeal five years from now? Here’s my projection:

No. 1 – Carson Wentz. First of all, it’s football. The Eagles are the most important team in Philadelphia. Second, he’s really, really smart. There’s no chance he will fall from favor because of annoying behavior, like his predecessor, Donovan McNabb. Wentz is the safest bet.

No. 2 – Rhys Hoskins. His biggest problem figures to be the Phillies organization, a timid group led by GM Matt Klentak that waited months too long to promote him. The Phils need to surround Hoskins with enough talent so he doesn’t become another Mike Trout, the only star on a lost cause. Will they?

No. 3 – Joel Embiid. Without question, he has a chance to be more than just Philadelphia’s favorite son. He could dominate his sport for a decade. He’s that talented. But you know the disclaimer by now. He can’t stay healthy. After three seasons, he has played 31 games. Betting on him – especially given the dubious Sixer medical staff – is going with a long shot.

The good news for fans is, when was the last time we can say we have three players with this much buzz, this much potential? That’s a question for another day. My plan right now is just to enjoy this stroke of good fortune while it lasts.

And finally …

• Was I the only one who derived hope from the news last week that Sixers owner Joshua Harris bought a $45-million mansion on the upper east side of Manhattan? According to real-estate experts, it was “the deal of the century.” Now, if someone will just come along and make a great offer to buy our basketball team, maybe we can say goodbye to one of the worst owners in Philadelphia history.

• NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, no fan of preseason games, remains a major proponent of Thursday night games, even though they are a far cry from the Sunday and Monday versions. Hmmm. It couldn’t be because of the huge TV deal the NFL has for those broadcasts, could it? If you watched last Thursday’s 13-9 dud in Cincinnati, you will watch anything.

Dick Vermeil appears on the latest list of Pro Football Hall of Fame candidates, and he made it clear on my WIP show last week that he would embrace the honor. The former Eagles coach was terrific here and in Kansas City, and even better in St. Louis, where he won a Super Bowl. If anyone deserves this ultimate award, Vermeil does.

• Odell Beckham mocked reports last week that – despite an ankle injury that kept him out of the season opener – he participated in a dance competition against NBA star Russell Westbrook at a New York nightclub last Monday night. The Giants wide receiver never actually disputed the story, but no one believed it anyway. Come on. It’s not like Beckham has ever done anything stupid like that before. Right?

• Travis Kelce may be the better of the two Kelce brothers, but he is also far more annoying. On several occasions during Kansas City’s 27-20 win over the Eagles, the tight end taunted the Birds, even though his brother Jason was standing right there on the sideline. After the game, Travis even planted a big wet kiss on Jason’s bearded face. Eagles fans have a message they would like me to deliver today: “Hey, Travis. Kiss this.”