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On Nick Foles, Doug Pederson, and the Super Bowl

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On February 4, 2018, the Eagles will try to etch their names into history

NFL: NFC Championship-Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is a REALLY long post. I had a lot to get off my chest (and this wasn’t even everything). Sorry not sorry.

This sort of “Super Bowl purgatory” - the two weeks we spend languishing in anticipation after the afterglow of the NFC championship victory has faded away - has been nothing short of surreal for me. I didn’t really have football explained to me by my father until I was 12 years old in the fall of 2005, after the Eagles had already appeared in their most recent Super Bowl. I still remember him using the vents and radio buttons in his car to diagram out the offense and defense, and that I was only asking for this because I joined my school’s marching band (SHOCKER). Later that school year, when grilled by my Eagles fan friends to name players on the team, I could only produce two: McNabb and McMahon. The next season, I was determined to be a more avid follower of the team, armed with a newfound appreciation for the sport that I garnered from watching my high school games.

Fast-forward thirteen years, and not only do I watch football religiously, but I can also share my thoughts with the wonderful community here at BGN, and I am only a few days away from potentially witnessing history. It’s starting to sink in that, as a fan whose inaugural season was Jeff Garcia’s redemption (the original “our baby”), this is the penultimate experience of my relatively nascent fandom. All of the excitement and heartbreak I’ve experienced as an Eagles fan has been building up to this moment.

As much as I hate to admit it, all these years there has been a certain comfort to be found on the plateau of frustration, futility, and mediocrity. It was easy to say “In two seasons, we’ll be contenders,” and adopt a position of patience rather than deal with the nerve-wracking anxiety and potential devastation of actually reaching the Super Bowl... and possibly losing. I have no idea how it feels to lose the Super Bowl, and the constant playoff near-misses, wild card berths, and #3 seeds shielded me from that, providing me with a convenient pill to swallow that we weren’t “true contenders.” That was still off in the future, where I didn’t have to worry about it.

But that time - that chapter of my life as an Eagles fan - has now passed.

Even when I was ready to hang it all up and return to my comfort zone when Wentz got injured, the Eagles dragged me back out of it. They clinched the #1 seed. They upset the defending NFC champion Falcons in the divisional round. And then they absolutely obliterated the second-seed Vikings, America’s playoff sweetheart. The time for patience was over, the time to get excited had arrived. WE ALL WE GOT, WE ALL WE NEED.

And now they’re in the Super Bowl.

And they’re going to win.

Let’s explore that topic a bit.

Nick Foles - and the Eagles offense - could be the perfect foil for Darth Hoodie

Bill Belichick is the best coach in the history of the National Football League. What he is able to do, game after game, season after season, is nothing short of unprecedented. He does this by promoting simple concepts that are difficult to execute - and gets his players to execute them anyway.

The primary concept is his determination to eliminate a team’s top offensive weapon and force them to win without him. But who do you eliminate if you’re playing the Eagles? They have done an incredible job of spreading the ball around to whomever is in position to make the best play. In games that important contributors have missed, the offense has stayed on schedule. My guess would be they might try to take out Zach Ertz and eliminate the RPOs, but that’s objectively a tall task. The RPO isn’t unbeatable, but relies on the opponent being predictable to be defeated, which is one thing the Eagles aren’t.

That’s where the Eagles might have one of their few advantages. Belichick slaughters teams that dare to be predictable against him. Pederson has made introducing wrinkles to his gameplan a staple of the offense while still remaining within the structure of their identity. I expect to see some new looks against the Patriots that are creative without being outrageous. We’ve seen a fresh play in each of the two playoff games, and both plays were key moments in scoring drives. I would be shocked if Pederson unveiled fewer than four of these kinds of plays in the big game.

And finally, there’s the question of “Which Nick will we get?” Most people assume this is an advantage for the Patriots, but that’s not how I see it. Belichick has shown to be vulnerable to quarterbacks that don’t have a lot of film on tape. Geno Smith(!) once beat the Patriots in overtime, 30-27, and Bill’s 2010 team gave up 27 points to Matt Flynn in his first start with the Packers.

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, there is plenty of tape on Nick Foles, who has been in the league since 2012. But he is a high-variance player with three distinct identities: “No Faith Foles” is the one we saw at the end of the season against the Raiders and Cowboys (and during a stint with the Rams), “Nick Foles, Game Manager,” is the one we’ve seen from 2014 and 2016, and in the Falcons playoff game, and then there’s “Big Dick Nick,” who massacres any defenses that oppose him. This is the Nick Foles from 2013, and the one we witnessed against the Giants and Vikings.

Bill Belichick has the unenviable task of deciding which Nick Foles to prepare for in the Super Bowl. Belichick will obviously assume he won’t have the fortune of seeing No Faith Foles because that’s his best-case scenario. So that leaves Nick Foles: Game Manager and Big Dick Nick. The smart move is to prepare for the game manager and basically force Nick to ball out if he wants to win. The only potential issue with that is if Big Dick Nick shows up right away, big plays will be there to be had early on in the game. The Patriots are typically slow starters in Super Bowls - they’ve never scored any points in the first quarter in any of them - so if Nick comes out slinging it the Patriots could find themselves in a hole early. Of course, the Patriots are masters at in-game adjustments and making comebacks, so this is probably a risk Belichick is willing to take. Whether or not that’s a good risk is something we’ll cover in a moment.

On the other hand, if Belichick decides he’s going to sell out to stop the big play in the passing game, that will leave the middle of the field susceptible to the Ajayi-Blount 1-2 punch and an onslaught of easy RPOs for Foles. Not needing Foles to make big plays to win is a dream scenario for Doug and there’s no way I can see that happening. The Eagles should see plenty of opportunities early on in the game to take shots deep, and they should be prepared to take them. I don’t think Doug will miss a step here, for several reasons.

Doug Pederson might actually be the best coach in the playoffs to dethrone the Patriots

When Dougie P got hired in 2016, I was an optimist. Was I excited about him as I would have been about Hue Jackson or Adam Gase? Definitely not. But I think he, like any new head coach, deserved the benefit of the doubt, and I was ready to give him an opportunity to prove himself.

And then, in early February 2016, Zach Berman wrote this excellent piece on Doug and his unusually meteoric rise through the coaching ranks. I saw a few people mock this too for highlighting his time as a high school coach, but for me it showed that Doug was a genuinely good guy. The way he managed to connect with a bunch of high school kids and the fact that, as a backup quarterback, he acted as his own agent in a happy-go-lucky kind of way, really struck a chord with me. I found myself wanting Doug to succeed as head coach of the Eagles not simply because he coached my team, but because he was Doug. After the team showed grit and resolve at the end of a lost 2016, I was confident he would lead them to better results in 2017. And now here we are, on the cusp of Super Bowl greatness, because of Doug’s excellent coaching.

It’s this coaching that will determine whether or not the Eagles will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in a deluge of green and white confetti on Sunday. And I think Doug has a better shot than other recent coaches have had against Belichick, for the simple reason that the inner core of Doug’s coaching philosophy is to force the opponent to play the Eagles’ brand of football. Everything the Eagles incorporate into their identity - stopping the run, chucking the ball deep, going for it on fourth downs - aims to impose their will on the other team, and that kind of assertiveness is something New England really does not face that often by virtue of being New England. Coaches seem to psyche themselves out when they face New England, trying to plan against what Belichick might be planning, but Doug doesn’t care. His comment in his press conference - “this is about us” - is the only real way to approach playing the Patriots. He’s going to treat them like any other team and do what he’s always done: draw up a gameplan, make adjustments as necessary, and stay aggressive for 60 minutes.

Outside of staying aggressive (which is an absolute must against the comeback-capable Patriots), Doug’s penchant for clock control will bail out the defense too. The Eagles have led the league in time of possession in both of Doug’s years as head coach, and so long as he continues to chew clock this will keep the defense fresh for four quarters. The only real way to beat Tom Brady is to pressure him with the front four, which the Eagles can do. In theory, they have the depth to do this all game, but if we’re being honest the starters have played much more in the playoffs, with Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox seeing about 90% of snaps. If we don’t want them to be gassed in the fourth quarter, we’ll need them on the sidelines as much as possible in the first three.

(Tangent: Speaking of defense, if you’re worried about Gronk, don’t be. On his side of the ball, Schwartz has proven to be a master of letting superstars “get theirs” without having a damaging impact on the game. See: Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.)

Lastly, there is the odd fact that the most successful coaches from Andy Reid’s coaching tree have fared well against the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots. I’m defining “most successful” here as “made the Super Bowl,” which is a bit of selection bias, but I think appropriate in this case. Andy Reid himself owns the two biggest victories over Bill Belichick as head coach of the Chiefs, although he’s never beaten him in the playoffs. Someone who has, however, is John Harbaugh, a former Reid assistant. His Ravens are easily the most consistently successful AFC team against the Patriots in the playoffs at 2-2, with both wins being blowouts (33-14 in 2010 and 28-13 in 2012) and both losses being narrow (23-20 in 2011 and 35-31 in 2014). Andy Reid’s other Super Bowl head coach, Ron Rivera, has never lost to Belichick as head coach of the Panthers, although they’ve only played twice since Rivera was hired in 2011. While it’s too early to tell whether Doug will be as good or better than either of these coaches (specifically Harbaugh), the early returns are promising and history appears to be on his side.

Closing Thoughts

I’m up to about 2000 words here so I’ll keep this brief. I’m sure most of you know how to savor moments like these leading up to the Super Bowl. I’m doing the best I can, but ultimately this is all uncharted territory for me. I don’t know how I would handle a Super Bowl loss - the two nightmares I’ve had about it in the past week haven’t helped - but I think it would go along the lines of telling myself this:

If the Eagles can do all of this without Carson Wentz - if they can wrap up the #1 seed, beat the defending NFC champions, and embarrass the best defense in football en route to a Super Bowl appearance - if they can do all of this right now, with Wentz on the sideline in street clothes...

What are they going to do when they have him for a full season?