The Eagles open their 2019 NFL season on Sunday against the Washington Redskins, and the last time there was this much optimism about this team was, well, last year. Last summer, the Eagles were coming off an incredible playoff run that culminated in their first Super Bowl championship, and Eagles fans were primed for a repeat, especially with quarterback Carson Wentz coming back from a knee injury.
That bubble got popped early and the Eagles’ 2018 season really got on track until it was too late. They made the playoffs and even won a playoff game, but luck played a big part in that – they needed an unexpected Chicago victory over Minnesota in the last week of the season (the Bears had already clinched their best possible playoff berth and had nothing to play for). And then they needed a missed field goal by the Bears (which hit the goal post not once, but twice) to make it to the second round, where they lost to New Orleans.
That’s why the most important person for the Eagles this season isn’t Wentz, although his health is always a major concern. And it’s not All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox or All-Pro offensive tackle Jason Peters or even new playmakers like wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back Jordan Howard.
No, the key to the Eagles’ season is being held by coach Doug Pederson. He was once considered the worst coach in the NFL by many, and then he changed that perception dramatically with his often-brilliant leadership during the 2017 Super Bowl run. Now, Pederson is considered to be one of the best coaches in the NFL.
But he wasn’t last season. His team definitely had a Super Bowl hangover when it started the 2018 season and that razor edge the team had the year before was missing. The Eagles never really hit their stride until late in the season, when they made a dramatic push for a playoff berth and then upset Chicago and almost upset New Orleans in the postseason – and if Alshon Jefferey had held onto that fourth-quarter pass from Nick Foles, who knows how far the Eagles would have gone?
Both of those playoff games were on the road in front of rabid enemy fans, and that was a direct result of that slow, stumbling start – it’s no secret that a major reason the Eagles hoisted the Lombardi Trophy two years ago was because they had home-field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl, and that was after having a bye week to recover and prepare for the playoffs.
In 2017, the Eagles went 6-1 in their first seven games and that set the tone for the entire season. In 2018, the Eagles went 3-4 in their first seven games – including crushing defeats to Tampa Bay, Tennessee and Carolina – and that, too, set the tone for the entire season.
Almost all of those early defeats had one thing in common – the Eagles started slowly, especially on offense, and those slow starts eventually cost them games they should have won and needed to win in order to take the division and earn home playoff games.
Sure, the Eagles had injuries last season. But, so did the 2017 team, as well as every other team in the NFL. The Eagles lost those games last season because they made too many physical and mental mistakes. And that lack of preparedness falls on the shoulders of the head coach.
So, Pederson, like his team, has to be on the top of his game in the first series of the first quarter of the first game. And Pederson has a different kind of challenge this year, as far as getting off to a fast start and playing winning football right away. For the first time ever, the starters hardly played or didn’t play at all during the preseason. And nobody hits in training camp anymore, so there’s a good chance that play will be pretty sloppy in the first couple of weeks of the season, maybe longer, as the coaches and the players get their sea legs under them.
Because of that, Pederson and his staff have had to adjust the way they do things as they prepare for the season, and Eagles fans have to hope they learned a lesson after the way the Eagles struggled early last season. They need Carson Wentz to play like he did in 2017 and, more importantly, they need Doug Pederson to coach like he did in 2017.