October 16, 2017
Six weeks ago, a former NFL executive said: “Doug Pederson might be less qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve ever seen.” That ex-GM’s name is Mike Lombardi, and he has enough egg on his face right now to make a nice omelette.
The truth is, Lombardi was hardly alone around Labor Day, when he compared the Eagles head coach to the worst in Sixers history, Roy Rubin. No one would have predicted that Doug Pederson would become a candidate for coach of the year in his second season.
But it’s happening. Just check the standings, where the Eagles have an NFC-best 5-1 record and a team of happy, overachieving players. It’s hard to believe that many of those same faces were barely able to hide their contempt for Pederson’s predecessor in the final days of Chip Kelly’s grim tenure.
After scoring 21 points with his 15 scripted plays against Arizona, Pederson affirmed his status as a smart strategist again during Thursday night’s 28-23 win at Carolina after the Eagles had successfully converted an extra point. The Eagles coach didn’t want the point. He wanted the chance for two, thanks to a penalty.
It’s rare that an NFL coach takes points off the board, especially with a 17-10 lead, but Pederson said the analytics favored a two-point conversion in that situation. He was right. Moments later, the Birds were ahead 18-10.
Intelligent coaching is not something most of us expected when owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman chose an old friend to detoxify the locker room after Kelly’s smug reign. Pederson’s deferential style was interpreted as soft, weak, not conducive to success in the NFL.
In fact, some people openly wondered if he was smart enough to run an NFL team. Many of them were callers on my WIP radio show, and I did not stop them from making that unfair assumption. Pederson even fed into this undercurrent by admitting after the one loss this season in Kansas City that he was “still learning.”
What NFL coach says that? Certainly not the most popular ones of the past quarter-century in Philadelphia, head-strong types like Buddy Ryan, Ray Rhodes, Andy Reid and Kelly. Still learning in the billion-dollar pro-football industry? Perish the thought.
There’s still plenty of time for Pederson to prove all of his doubters right – parades are not scheduled after six weeks of the season – but what appears to be emerging is the wisdom behind his arrival. Yes, he is unusually friendly and accessible, more willing to acknowledge his own shortcomings. But these qualities are a strength, not a weakness.
The players love Doug Pederson. That’s why a millionaire veteran like Fletcher Cox forced his way back onto the active roster last week after a calf injury, why a rookie kicker like Jake Elliott hasn’t missed a field goal since the coach gave him a chance to boot one 61 yards, why a young quarterback like Carson Wentz has adapted to the NFL so smoothly.
Mike Lombardi is a regular guest on my radio show, and I have tortured him after every Eagles win for his premature indictment of Pederson. Repeatedly, Lombardi – normally one of the most astute and entertaining analysts in the national media – has kept warning me not to fall in love too fast.
But even he may be coming around on Pederson now. Tweeting during last Thursday night’s game, he said: “Eagles are amazing on 3rd and ten plus all year. Never seen a team convert on this down and distance as much.” He also said: “Great win for the Eagles.”
Hey, if Doug Pederson can shut up his biggest critic, anything is possible for him and his Eagles this season.
The NFL has a major problem, and it was on display last Thursday night when the Eagles faced 53 talented Carolina Panthers and seven shamelessly biased officials led by the biggest hack in stripes.
Of course, I’m referring to Pete Morelli, a referee for 14 years and an enemy of the Birds for at least the past four seasons. How unbalanced was the officiating in the Eagles’ 28-23 win? It was the first time in NFL history that a crew flagged one team for over 120 yards and the other for under 10 in the same game.
The stat sheet shows that Morelli assessed the Eagles a total of 126 yards, and the Panthers one. That’s right. One yard. There were 10 penalties called against Philadelphia, one against Carolina. In a brutally physical game, the Panthers were charged with no holds, no personal fouls, no blocks in the back, nothing.
Granted, one game is not enough to indict a referee, but if he’s done it for four straight seasons, an investigation is required. Last year in Detroit, Morelli called 14 penalties against the Eagles, for 112 yards. The Lions, who won in the final minutes, got two for 18.
Over the past four years, Morelli has whistled 40 infractions against the Eagles and eight against their opponents. No other referee has a disparity like this against any team in the NFL; it’s not even close.
When I asked Eagles coach Doug Pederson on Friday about the imbalance in calls, he said it was just another hurdle his team had to overcome. Then I mentioned how upset the fans were about Morelli.
“I’m not surprised,” he said, with an approving chuckle.
No exploration of this level of incompetence would be complete without at least a theory for the bias. Morelli has been a ref for 14 years, and his crews have botched big calls in games in 2006, 2007 and 2010 – the latter helping to decide the winner of the NFC championship.
By many accounts, Morelli is a bad official, but never as blatantly one-sided as he has been against the Eagles. That’s why I turned to an NFL coaching legend last week, former Eagles, Kansas City and St. Louis head coach Dick Vermeil, for an explanation.
“He doesn’t like the Eagles,” Vermeil replied.
Matt Klentak is immersed in his first managerial search since getting the Phillies GM job two years ago. Hmmm. Let’s see how the novice baseball executive is doing so far.
This is the list of candidates made public over the past week:
• Jorge Velandia, a special assistant to Klentak since 2015.
• Juan Samuel, the Phils’ third-base coach this season.
• Dusty Wathan, the Lehigh (AAA) manager.
• Mickey Callaway, the Cleveland Indians pitching coach.
• Mike Redmond, the Colorado bench coach.
Notice a trend yet? There will be more names added to the list before any decision is made, but here’s an early prediction about who will NOT be the next Phillies manager: anybody who has ever managed in the big leagues. Matt Klentak is not comfortable around people who have major-league experience. Just ask Pete Mackanin.
Is there any other logical reason why the GM would be considering Velandia, a man whose name has come up as a managerial candidate exactly as many times as Klentak’s did before he got his Phillies job — none. The Angels, where Klentak worked as an assistant GM, never considered him for a promotion.
And therein lies the biggest problem with this Phillies rebuild. With president Andy MacPhail now on the record saying that Klentak has final say over all roster moves, no one with a history of success is in a position of authority. To hire someone like, say, former Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire wouldn’t be appealing because the young GM would have to yield some power.
Well, at least there was a small piece of good news last week. Rumors that ex-GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was on the short list for the manager’s job proved to be false. He will not be returning to the Phillies.
Actually, Amaro has too much experience for Klentak anyway.
And finally …
• The good news so far for the Flyers so far is that they seem faster and more explosive offensively than they have been in ... forever. Eight goals in the home opener against Washington is encouraging. The bad news is that that top draft pick Nolan Patrick looks lost. In that rout over the Caps, he didn’t take a single shot. He’s barely 19, but, at least in his first five games, he hasn’t looked like the stud we were expecting.
• If anyone associated with the Flyers deserves to be honored, it’s the longtime owner Ed Snider, so it makes sense that the late patriarch of the family will receive his own nine-foot, 1,300-pound statue outside the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday. But please, pretty please, let this be the last monument commemorating the champions of 1974 and ’75. It’s time for the Flyers to stop living in the past.
• Brett Brown has been an honest voice in a dishonest organization over the past four seasons, but the Sixers coach blatantly lied when he said Joel Embiid’s availability in preseason games had nothing to do with contract negotiations. Are we supposed to believe it was just a coincidence that the franchise center suddenly became available right after the new deal was signed? Sorry, the fans are not that gullible. Brown knows better than that.
• Kyle Adam Maraghy, a thug wearing a Cam Newton jersey, assaulted a helpless older fan at the Eagles game in Carolina last Thursday night, and he was arrested when the crime was caught on video. Here’s my suggestion: Put Maraghy in jail for a few days with a cellmate who will show the same mercy for him that he gave to his victim. An eye for an eye is an ancient concept, but sometimes it’s still the most satisfying solution.
• The decisive Game 5 of the NLDS between Chicago and Washington ended at 12:45 a.m. on the East Coast, where there is, by far, the largest concentration of fans. Strictly from a business standpoint, there is one word for these annual post-midnight playoff finishes: S-T-U-P-I-D.