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August 15, 2016

First impressions of Doug Pederson weren’t necessarily good ones

When Doug Pederson yanked starting quarterback Sam Bradford after only three plays in the preseason opener last week, the new Eagles coach made his first major rookie mistake. Unwittingly, he announced to his team and their fans that he is already coaching scared.

Even more worrisome is the pattern Pederson has established in first few months running the Birds, a sequence of decisions that have been highly conservative, if not downright timid.

Pederson deserves every benefit of the doubt in his first season coaching above the high-school level. And he has succeeded overall in his first assignment, to be the exact opposite of his predecessor, Chip Kelly. The new coach has been engaging, open-minded, honest and efficient.

But the quick hook of Bradford and most of his starting offense was a blunder, because of what it said about the coach’s philosophy. Even his mentor, the arch-conservative Andy Reid, has never pulled his starters out in the first preseason game after three plays. What was Pederson so worried about?

After the game, the coach said he had mapped out his plan beforehand, and it called for the first offense to leave after one series if it scored. OK, so far, so good. But when Tampa fumbled the opening kickoff and presented the Eagles’ starting offense with the ball 18 yards from the end zone, Pederson didn’t adjust his thinking.

So, when Ryan Matthews scooted 10 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the series, Bradford and many of the other starters were told their night was over. The quarterback didn’t like the decision; he needs work in the new West-Coast system. The fans hated the move; they had to watch backup QB Chase Daniel.

The timing of this bailout was not encouraging, either. A few days earlier, Pederson stopped all tackling at training camp after a flurry of minor injuries. The original idea of allowing serious physical contact made sense, especially after Kelly’s non-contact camps. But stopping it so soon seemed like a panic move.

Granted, Carson Wentz managed to break a rib working behind a putrid line of castoffs and scrubs in the latter stages of the game, but that unfortunate turn of events in no way absolves Pederson from his skittishness. Football is a contact sport. Coaches can’t finesse their way through injuries. Pederson should realize that by now.

The new coach has also developed a weird way of handling – or not handling – off-the-field issues. Two months ago, Nelson Agholor was accused of a sexual assault at a local strip club, an allegation that led to no legal action. Weeks later, Pederson said he had not even discussed the matter with his starting wide receiver.

And just last week, word leaked out that Lane Johnson had tested positive for a banned substance, a violation that will cost the starting right tackle a 10-game suspension if his appeal fails. The absence of Johnson for more than half a season would be catastrophic, especially after the abysmal showing of the backup linemen in the preseason opener.

So what did Pederson say to him? Would you believe nothing? When asked about the situation last week, the coach stammered for at least five seconds before admitting he had not even discussed the issue with his best offensive lineman.

It would be easy to call Pederson gutless by avoiding the Agholor and Johnson crises, but it’s far too soon to make any rash judgments like that. What is safe to conclude as these timid responses mount up is that the new coach hasn’t adjusted well to unforeseen twists — much like Andy Reid during the 14 years he was here.

By most accounts, this is going to be a trying year for the Eagles. The offense is already struggling. The defense has no depth. Sam Bradford is public enemy No. 1. But Pederson should learn from his first significant mistake. He cannot – must not – coach scared.

In Philadelphia, nobody wants to see the boss sweat.


The football gods are not Eagles fans; that’s for sure.

It isn’t bad enough that Johnson faces a second suspension, for 10 games this time, because he took a banned substance. Now an even crueler blow — the broken rib suffered by Wentz in his very first preseason game.

The Wentz injury surfaced two days after the contest, when sore ribs suddenly turned into a hairline fracture that will sideline him for at least the next couple of weeks. Goodbye, preseason excitement. Hello, McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

The real shame of this unexpected development is that Wentz had already made a terrific first impression with the fans, receiving a standing ovation when he entered the game last Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field. It was pretty close to love at first sight.

Although his numbers were pedestrian (12 for 24, 89 passing yards) and he accounted for only three points in the 17-9 win over Tampa, Wentz provided a tasty hors d’oeuvre before the main course. Yes, he has a big arm. Yes, he can move extremely well. And no, he didn’t look lost in his first test above Division 1AA football. He can play, no question.

What is a question for fans now is, when will he play? The injury will deny him the one definite chance for some game action before he is relegated to the sidelines in favor of Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. If we learned anything from the crowd reaction in the preseason opener, it is that Wentz already is the apple of Philadelphia’s eye, and Bradford is the worm.

How long will Pederson stick with Bradford? How will Wentz’s injury affect his development this season? If Bradford goes down early with an injury — a distinct possibility — how will fans react when the diminutive Chase Daniel jogs onto the field? How long will it be before “We Want Wentz!” becomes the slogan for the 2016 Eagles?

Only the football gods can answer those questions, and right now they’re too busy looking for new ways to ruin our season.  


Two former Phillies were in the news over the weekend for very different reasons — Gentleman Jim Thome and Jackass Jonathan Papelbon.

Thome, a certain Hall of Famer with 612 career home runs, was inducted into the Phillies' Wall of Fame, and he was the same engaging, accessible sports hero he has been throughout his 22-year career, which included two tours of duty in Philadelphia.

During a visit to the WIP radio studios last week, Thome recalled his meeting outside a still-under-construction Citizens Bank Park in 2003 with members of Local 98 of the electricians union, a bonding moment with the city that quickly established the slugger as a part of our community.

He said he has always connected with the working man, partly because he grew up in humble trappings himself and partly because he was taught by his parents always to show respect to people. As a child, he was treated kindly by players when he sought their autographs, and he paid it forward when it was his turn to sign. There’s a reason why he is called Gentleman.

And then there’s Papelbon, who will be remembered first as the overpaid ingrate who reacted to well-deserved boos one day here by gesturing toward his groin. Of course, he then lied about it afterward. Throughout his two-plus seasons here, he was combative, obnoxious and unreliable.

Now he’s also unemployed. The Washington Nationals, in the middle of a pennant race, granted his request for a release. He hadn’t pitched in a week, and he remained a dour presence in the clubhouse. You may recall that a year ago at this time, he choked superstar Bryce Harper in the dugout. To the very end, he has been an incorrigible jerk.

Or is it the end? Papelbon, his fastball gone, has already started campaigning for a return to Boston. At this point, the arrogant ex-closer could use some advice from Thome, who told me last week that he retired in 2012 because he didn’t want to disrespect the game he loved so much.

Wouldn’t it be comforting if Papelbon’s final act was to show respect for the sport that provided him with the fame and fortune he has enjoyed for the past 12 years?

Don’t bet on it.

And finally …

• Nerlens Noel appears to be counting the days until the Sixers trade him. At least that was the assumption last week after he removed the Philadelphia skyline from his Twitter account and replaced it with a black background. He even changed his status to “current” Sixer. Noel has collected huge checks for doing next to nothing over the past three seasons, and now he’s copping an attitude? Good riddance to him.

• Deon Long endured the double indignity of getting cut by the Los Angeles Rams last week and having the low point of his career broadcast on Hard Knocks, the HBO reality show. What did he do to deserve this fate? The wide receiver had a woman in his dorm room at training camp. In an NFL world dealing with domestic abuse, drug cheats and gun incidents, Long is a Boy Scout. A few days ago, the Eagles signed him, then cut him, too. No woman issues this time, though.

• After fans had traveled hundreds of miles to watch the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio — which was cancelled because of an unplayable field — the NFL felt no obligation to compensate people for more than the price of their tickets. This billion-dollar industry turned its back on its most loyal fans. Needless to say, a class-action suit has already been filed.

• Remember when commissioner Roger Goodell said last year that he was always available to the media? Well, it has been eight days since the Hall of Fame debacle, and not a peep yet out of the most powerful executive in sports. Does Goodell owe the fans an explanation? Clearly, he doesn’t think so.

• One year after his failed attempt to catch on with the Eagles, Tim Tebow has announced that he’s going to take a run at baseball. It’s starting to look like Tebow just keeps finding new ways to get attention, doesn’t it? This just in: He’s not going to make it in baseball, either.