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When a regime falls apart in the NFL, there are always versions.
Some people inside franchises will refer to them as “stories” — as in, “let me tell you the whole story.” One side is operating on a full set of chapters that explain what went wrong, while the other side has tailored their own unique edition, filled with alternate tales about the same characters. In some cases, you realize that two sides are telling the same story through different eyes, and it ends up being the same story about the same people, but with versions of events that were processed differently. It’s where everyone involved has played parts as a protagonist and an antagonist, but none of them can grasp that reality. Or maybe they can, but don’t want to explain it publicly.
In a nutshell, this is how we came to the end of Doug Pederson’s head coaching tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. It was a fumbling, awkward exit in which everyone played a part in the unraveling, making it a lot easier to describe as a series of complicated messes rather than one single extinction-level event.
That’s why there’s so much ambiguity around the Eagles’ firing of Pederson, punctuated by team owner Jeffrey Lurie’s opaque news conference in which he did little more than make it evident that he was leaning hard into Carson Wentz coming back and earning all the money they’re paying him in 2021. But after talking to a multitude of sources representing their version of events, one thing is clear: If Lurie broke down everything and everyone who had some part in the Pederson break, we’d still be listening to him talk right now. And even then, it would still likely be Lurie’s version, which likely would have still come up short on his level of responsibility in what became a quagmire.
As unsatisfying as it is for Eagles fans to absorb, the truth is it’s hard to find singular blame here. It’s a sea of gray at high tide. And it didn’t arrive all at once, instead coming over a series of years and a multitude of decisions. Maybe the only thing that is definitive here is that what ultimately happened this season was an endpoint of failure. It wasn’t just for Pederson, but also for general manager Howie Roseman, who I sincerely believe didn’t want it to come to Pederson’s end, and Lurie, who probably can’t believe everything has come crashing down only three years after the crowning achievement of his team ownership. But here we are, with a column of L’s for everyone. And with a why that boils down to three things.
Doug Pederson’s coaching staff.
And the inability of everyone — including Pederson, Roseman and Lurie — to agree on a singular plan to get back onto a Super Bowl track.
How Carson Wentz factored in Eagles’ fracture
We could talk about the minutiae of draft picks and free-agent evaluations and who was or wasn’t on board with what talent. We could talk about the season finale and who did or didn’t know what the quarterback plan was in the fourth quarter. We could talk about some of the paranoia in the building regarding John Dorsey’s presence in the evaluation process. We could even talk about which people felt they were taking flak for decisions that weren’t theirs. These are all things that people wrapped up in the 2020 Eagles are happy to talk (or gripe) about. On an emotional level or an ego level, these all played some part in the final unraveling, but really, this is about how different approaches and managerial styles and changing views on decisions all came to a head.
The most import of them: What to do with Wentz and who would be a part of the plan?
This one isn’t difficult to process. Multiple sources offered up that Pederson and Wentz hadn’t been getting along for “months” inside the organization. And one person with an even longer view of it said it didn’t all start at once, that Pederson struggled with Wentz’s “stubbornness” toward his coaching since 2019. A slow burn between the two ramped up significantly for Wentz after the drafting of Jalen Hurts, then ramped up significantly for Pederson when he felt Wentz wasn’t absorbing the instruction necessary to pull himself out of a spiral.
Essentially everything that we heard this season describing Wentz and Pederson divorcing themselves from each other is described as true to varying degrees. People in Pederson’s camp say the head coach never saw it as irreparably broken, but also that Wentz’s status as the team’s starting quarterback in 2021 was debatable at best. It was so much so that by the time the season ended, two sources said Wentz and Pederson hadn’t had meaningful dialogue in “months” — and that neither was speaking to the other when the season finished. For a coach and quarterback to come back from that is hard, if not impossible.
Eagles’ front office vs. Doug Pederson’s staffing plans
All of this flowed into a question about what Pederson’s staff would look like if he stayed, and where Wentz fit in that equation. Multiple sources from divergent camps described the same thing: That Pederson wanted to promote Press Taylor to offensive coordinator, and that the front office and ownership didn’t believe that was the right move to get Wentz back on track. That left Pederson with a distinct impression that he was being told who his coordinator should be and that the limitations on the position meant that Wentz’s standing as the team’s future starter was also going to be a decision in someone else’s hands, most likely those of Lurie, who continued to take a bigger role in “ground level” decisions since the Super Bowl win.
As much as that sounds like a Pederson-getting-hosed narrative, there is a flip side to it. There’s a reason that kind of culture existed and it’s because Pederson went along with it in previous years. He thought it was part of being a good soldier and a “get along” guy. The front office and ownership saw it as a natural collaboration where Pederson was open to suggestions on what was best for the team. At some point, it starts to sound like the head coach is being told what to do on every big decision. And to the front office and ownership, it suddenly seems like the head coach is changing a decision dynamic that was successful in the past.
This is how things get really messy. By taking a quarterback problem and then having everyone disagree on the solution, all while looking at each other and insisting that it’s someone else who is changing how things are supposed to work. To Pederson, he wants to make the decisions he wants with coaches and players, particularly after feeling like he stood up as a punching bag all season for outcomes that weren’t all his doing. And for the front office and ownership, they just want the problems fixed in the most aggressive and sensible way – without nuking the quarterback everyone seemed to believe in at one point or another. If that means they need to push back against some staff changes that don’t seem like a good fit in that effort, well that was never a problem in the past so what’s the issue now?
Final breakup became clear in rocky 2020 season
All of which brings us to having a plan. When Pederson met Lurie for the last time, it was clear to everyone involved what had to happen to make the relationship work. It had to look a lot like how things functioned in the past. Wentz had to be part of the solution. Coaching staff changes had to be open to collaboration. And Pederson had to show that he was dedicated and motivated to getting the fix accomplished immediately and with Lurie’s continued involvement.
What ultimately happened was two sides looking at each other and not agreeing on almost anything. Sources said Pederson was tired to the point of almost not caring if his reticence was going to get him fired. He was taking so many hits that it was only natural that he wanted more influence over what was getting him shelled in the media. If he felt the future was more Jalen Hurts than Carson Wentz, then that’s what he wanted to move toward. If Wentz didn’t want to be an Eagle under Pederson, then the coach was ready to move on without him. If Press Taylor was Pederson’s chosen coordinator, then that’s what he was going to stand on the table for.
Ultimately, that’s why all of this stopped working. You had a head coach drawing up a different plan than ownership and the front office. And you had ownership and a front office that had seen the collaborative formula work once before, making it harder to bail on during an extremely rocky season. They’d rather solve the problem the way they have in the past.
It was a divergence. And it became apparent in the final days that everyone was more likely to smash into each other than to slow down and find other avenues before the 2020 crash was made even worse. That’s why it ended, because two halves of an organization were preparing to move forward with different plans for solving the same problems.
Now Pederson is gone. The front office and ownership move on with their design. Finally, the versions of what happens next sync into one. However this plays out — in grand success or telling failure — the responsibility rests on those who remain at the controls. And now everyone is acutely aware of who that is.
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