There’s a lot to look forward to for the Eagles in 2017. Carson Wentz’s anticipated jump from year one to year two, that he has actual real life pass catchers to throw to, that the team has a young secondary with exciting potential, and other reasons as well. It all adds up to what should be an improved team. But improvement starts at the top, and Doug Pederson’s performance is as important as anyone else’s. After an acceptable first year as a head coach, the bar has been raised for Pederson. There’s reason to think he’ll be a better coach in 2017, and reason to think he won’t.
5 Reasons Why He’ll Be Better
1 Improved roster
Duh. You’re only as good as your weakest link, and the Eagles have a better roster this year from top to bottom. There was a high degree of difficulty with the Eagles offense last year, and that’s going to limit any coach. Just as Carson Wentz was somewhat held back by his supporting cast, so was Pederson, who now has a competent group of skill position players to get the ball to.
2 More familiarity and experience
It was a little surprising how few players the Eagles had that Pederson had previously coached. Generally every coach has a handful of familiar faces, Pederson had just two in Chase Daniel and Aaron Murray. Virtually the entire roster was new to him (and to most of his staff) and the learning and adjustment process goes both ways. A year later and most of the roster and the staff are familiar and experienced with each other, and that has real value.
3 Improved practices
In our Q&A with Football Outsiders, this section stuck out to me:
I spend a lot of time at Eagles camp -- though not as much as you guys -- and I also get to see other team's camps. Last year, Eagles camp was sluggish and turgid. It felt like Pederson didn't have a handle on how he wanted things scheduled and paced, which is odd for an Andy Reid disciple. This year, everything is peppier and more organized, drills seem more specified and purpose-driven, and so forth. I think the quality of practice time is an underappreciated factor for a team's success or failure. It can't be measured analytically, of course, and not even the NFL Network guys visit enough practices often enough to draw comparisons. But I see improvements from Pederson's rookie year, as surely as I see improvements from Wentz or have seen from any developing rookie player.
Professional athletes and coaches spend much more time practicing than they do in games. A better practice environment created by Pederson is a very good sign.
4 More aggression
It was a pleasant surprise that Pederson turned out to be aggressive on fourth down, especially since Chip Kelly was expected to and instead was hopeless timid about it. After a season to digest and evaluate with the Eagles’ analytical staff, Pederson has said he’ll probably go for it on fourth down even more, and go for two in non-obvious situations as well. If he stays true to his word, Pederson will create advantages for his team.
5 Ability to adapt
The last two points tie into a larger one: it appears that Doug Pederson has shown both a willingness and ability to adapt and improve. We will find out how that materializes during the season, but for now there’s at least reason to believe Pederson has taken a step in his own development.
5 Reasons He Won’t Improve
1 He’s not actually good
All the reasons why Pederson should or could improve won’t mean a thing if he’s simply not a good coach. Pederson wouldn’t be the first or last coach whose best season was his first, as was the case for his predecessor and plenty of other coaches before them around the league. It was easy to blame the Eagles struggles last year on a lack of talent on the field, because it wasn’t there in key spots, but that could also have masked the lack of talent on the sideline. The Eagles talent is now at a level where they can be dragged down by bad coaching.
2 He’s too soft on players
One criticism of Pederson’s first year was that he was probably too lenient with players. The team has taken some steps to correct that. Greg Lewis was far too soft on players and has been replaced, and the undisciplined Dorial Green-Beckham is gone. However you pretty much are what you are, and if Pederson truly was soft last year, there’s good reason to think he’ll soft this year. Given his public statements to his players to basically grow up in the wake of the Jordan Matthews trade and other comments by players, Pederson may not be, but it’s worth keeping in mind as the season progresses.
3 He’s too aggressive and doesn’t realize it
It’s great that Pederson wants to be even more aggressive. But there’s a difference between aggressive and reckless, and with Pederson given the green light to push it even further, he risks crossing over into recklessness. Coaches should go for it on fourth down more often, and they should go for two more often. But that doesn’t mean a blanket green light for every situation.
4 He thinks he’s too aggressive
In his first few seasons in the league, former Falcons coach Mike Smith was fairly proactive on fourth down, including going for it twice in one drive while in field goal range. A year later, he lost the gamble and the game in overtime, and went for it twice went for it and came up short in a playoff loss. It was a turning point in his philosophy. After being one of the more aggressive coaches in his first three seasons, Smith became one of the most timid after a bad run in 2011. Decisions to go for it on fourth down or to go from two are separate from the outcome. If a series of bad outcomes makes Pederson second guess himself, it would take away a real advantage he has over other coaches.
5 The league has him figured out
One reason why some coaches falter after their first season is that the league adjusts to what he does, and the coach can’t readjust. Given an entire offseason to study play calling and personnel tendencies, opposing teams show up with a superior game plan and the coach can’t react. Given Pederson’s relatively short coaching career and his inexperience as a play caller, he may be at greater risk of this than his second year head coach peers.
If it feels like the reasons why Pederson won’t improve are a bit of a stretch, it’s because they are. I think there’s much more reason to believe that Pederson will improve in 2017 than there is reason to believe he’ll falter. That doesn’t mean he will be better, only that it’s more likely that he is. There are a few coaches who make their team worse, a few who make their team better, while most coaches are Just A Guy who neither clearly hurt nor boost their team compared to their counterparts. I think Pederson is safely above the Gus Bradley/Dennis Allen/Jim Tomsula level of self-inflicted harm, and he’s likely Just A Guy. Third years are usually make or break for a coach, so 2017 is still in the learning curve for Pederson. But within that, he can demonstrate his worth, whatever it may be.