John McMullen: Coaching isn’t the Eagles’ problem

The Eagles coaching staff started playing the “what if?” game this week, outlining all the attrition that turned Philadelphia from division favorite into a last-place team heading into a meaningless (for the Eagles) Week 17 finale against the Washington Football Team, a club that ironically is perhaps a competent quarterback away from a win and worst-to-first scenario.

Black Monday, of course, is right around the corner for the transient profession of NFL mentors and there is a little bit more uncertainty than usual locally.

The pause stems from the obvious in a bottom-line business where you can go from the top of the food chain to ineffective and unimaginative in say three calendar years and Jeffrey Lurie, a stealthy meddler as an owner who disguises his whims with a simple noun: collaboration.

Doug Pederson doesn’t even have to retreat 12 months to remember Lurie forcing his hand when it came to former offensive coordinator Mike Groh after an unlikely late-season playoff push. So what happens after a four- or five year campaign where just about everyone signaled advantage-Eagles after the rest of the NFC East convinced new head coaches to relocate in the middle of a pandemic?

Lurie chases the innovative tag like a junkie chases the dragon but he’s terribly pedestrian in his thinking. Just like the majority of his peers after a disappointing season, the default setting is not a substantive problem-solving solution, it’s assigning blame.

So who’s it gonna be? Who is the 2020 scapegoat?

One thing coaches preach endlessly is the thought you can only control what you can control.

With all hope lost Pederson started that Monday by adding context to his “failings” in 2020.

“You got to look at the injuries, No. 1, and the amount that’s piled up on us and the amount of guys on injured reserve,” Pederson said. “That, to me, has been one of the biggest things that has affected our football team.

“… You look at the offensive line. Let’s just start there. You lose Brandon Brooks in the offseason; Andre Dillard goes down; then Lane (Johnson) and J.P. (Jason Peters), and your entire O-line. Isaac (Seumalo) is out for eight weeks. Where are you going to find continuity? How are you going to get continuity there?”

By Tuesday the coordinators stepped to the plate.

“You’re going to be shorthanded sometimes. Sometimes you’re going to be a full complement,” defensive chief Jim Schwartz said. “It’s part of the challenge of this job is trying to figure out a way to solve those problems, trying to figure out a way to minimize match-ups or maximize match-ups, go with your strengths, try to minimize your weaknesses.”

Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp also spoke about the process of coaching, again intimating the talent wasn’t what it typically is in Philadelphia. 

“At the end of the day, I think coaches focus really a lot on the process,” Fipp explained. “I know the outside world focuses a lot on the outcome. There’s a lot of things in the outcome that I think any individual coach can’t necessarily control.”

Highlighting injuries tends to be viewed as an excuse by most.

Realistically, however, with the NFC East champion likely to finish with seven wins, it is easy to imagine the Eagles getting to .500 and the original plan of Dillard, Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Brooks, and Johnson from left to right in front of Carson Wentz never mind the other issues.

The problem with that is other 2019 playoff teams can play the same kind of game. 

What if Kyle Shanahan didn’t lose Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and most of his running back room for significant periods in San Francisco?

Do you really think Mike Zimmer’s defense is giving up 53 points on Christmas Day if names like Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks weren’t replaced by D.J. Wonnum, Jaleel Johnson, Blake Lynch, and Hardy Nickerson?

For that matter what if Dak Prescott plays his usual 16 games with those WRs in Dallas. You don’t believe the Cowboys get to .500?

The goal for every coach in this league is always rather simple and plainly stated by Schwartz: mask as many deficiencies as possible while accentuating the strengths you do have with the goal of providing a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. To do that for a long period of time, however, you need to convince the mob that evaluations need to be on a sliding scale.

If the personnel isn’t championship caliber the Lombardi Trophy isn’t in play no matter who the coaches may be.

“Did your players know what to do? Did they know how to do it? Did you put them in situations in practice? Did you drill it? Fipp asked rhetorically to explain his point. “Did you go over all the things possible to have them prepared the best you can have them prepared? 

“So, I think individually, like my focus is more on that type of stuff, in terms of how I evaluate myself.” 

Logic should tell you that Pederson and his major assistants didn’t forget how to coach between February of 2018 and New Year’s Day of 2021. The emotion of what so many put into the Eagles from Lurie to the average family in front of the television set on game days often clouds that logic.

Take this past Sunday on defense during the 37-17 loss to the Cowboys. 

Pick your favorite coach who you know deep in your bones is so much smarter than Schwartz and then let that choice know attrition means you’re going to have to give double-digit snaps in a must-win environment to Grayland Arnold, Marcus Epps, Mike Jacquet, Genard Avery, T.Y. McGill, K’Von Wallace, Raequan Williams, Joe Bachie and Shaun Bradley.

Maybe a reincarnated Jim Johnson loses 30-17 or Bill Belichick on his best day gets you within a TD. Then again maybe they lose 44-17.

“That’s just part of the NFL, and there’s no excuses in this league,” Schwartz acknowledged of the hand he was dealt.

The Eagles were forced to rely on so many developmental pieces this season in the most difficult environment possible for such a thing, the COVID-19 scaleback.

“I think that’s probably the only thing that has affected us this year,” Schwartz admitted. “I think just with the normal off-season program, normal training camps, and normal season schedule, I think it gives ample opportunity to get guys up (to speed).

“Without being face to face with guys, we don’t have face-to-face meetings, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s not just the meeting, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of stuff, just getting to know guys, learning their personality. I think there’s a lot of coaching involved in that, and just peer pressure with players, being around — being in front of the other guys, being in the meeting room. All those dynamics are different for young players. They don’t have older guys that they can watch. They don’t have older guys that they can learn from because they’re doing it like we’re doing this meeting right here.”

Brandon Graham took the baton from there.

“I mean, yeah, you could say that. A lot of guys come in and they don’t know the real experience of just seeing y’all every day in the locker room, seeing how we do things when we’re talking to the media and then when we’re just walking around the building, how we treat other people in the building because there’s nobody here,” the Pro Bowl defensive end said. “… I know exactly what Schwartz is saying, the regiment of what they do every day and how they carry themselves and how to be a pro, you just only see us on the playing field but not off the field, so yeah, I do understand what he means. But we don’t make excuses, we roll with whatever, we just came up short this year, and we didn’t do well with what COVID brought to us this year.” Schwartz also wasn’t using the virus protocols as a crutch.

“I wouldn’t say that there’s any great challenge other than this year, but everybody was in the same boat this year. Again, this is a no-excuse league,” he said. “You have to deal with situations that come up, and we haven’t always done our best — well, we’ve always done our best, but we haven’t had the results that we’ve wanted.”

That doesn’t mean the baby has to go with the bathwater, though.

Pederson’s resume is the most obvious after stewarding the Eagles to their first championship since 1960 and the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.

Over Schwartz’s first four seasons in Philadelphia, he put together units that were top 10 in rushing defense (No. 1), red-zone defense (No. 2), third-down defense (No. 3), and scoring defense (No. 7). Fipp arrived in 2013 with Chip Kelly and over his first seven seasons, the Eagles’ special teams units ranked second in the entire NFL when it came to both ST touchdowns and total blocks.

What are the odds replacements produce at similar levels?

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of that fence.

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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media, the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for SI.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

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