Eagles

To rest or not rest is Doug Pederson's question

To rest or not rest is Doug Pederson's question

It's a pretty good problem to have, but it's still a problem that needs sorting. 

By the time the Eagles play the Raiders on Christmas night next Monday, they might have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Then what? 

Do they rest some starters? Do they play everyone and try to win? What's the plan for the next two weeks? 

"I've begun thinking (about it), but my focus is winning the game on Monday night," head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "Because that, to me, is the most important thing. Once we get to next week, we'll figure out next week. But my mindset this week is all about the Oakland Raiders, Monday Night Football."

To put it in baseball terms, over the last two weeks of the season, the Eagles' magic number to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is one. So either a win from the Eagles or a loss from the Vikings would ensure that the Birds have the top spot. 

That means if the Vikings lose to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Saturday night, the Eagles will have clinched and will have a couple days to make a decision before playing on Monday. (Whether Rodgers faces Minnesota may depend on tonight's Falcons-Bucs game. If Atlanta wins, Green Bay is eliminated from the playoffs.)

Even if the Vikings win, the Eagles could beat the Raiders and still clinch the top spot this weekend, which would set up a situation where that last game of the season is meaningless. 

"You just make the best decisions for your football team," Pederson said. "If that means resting a guy, you rest a guy or two or three. But you also have to maintain the edge with these players, and you've got to maintain that confidence and that dominating swagger and you've got to keep that alive.

"You just can't go — it's not a preseason game, you know what I'm saying, where you can rest in Week 4 and rest all your guys. You can't do that because you're still limited to the roster limits on game day. Guys are still going to have to play, but at the same time, I'm going to be smart about the decisions we make moving forward and getting guys who need it rest, if possible."

While rest is obviously helpful at this time of year, the Eagles could be in a spot where they have three straight weeks — two nothing games and a bye — without a meaningful game. Good for rest, potentially bad for momentum heading into the postseason. 

The quarterback position, specifically, is a bit of a quandary. Had Carson Wentz not torn his ACL, it would be a fairly easy decision — rest him. But Nick Foles hasn't played a lot this year and could probably use the work, especially with his relatively unfamiliar receivers. The problem with that is, if he gets hurt, the team is down to Nate Sudfeld. Pederson also said that he'd ideally like to get Sudfeld some work. 

The Eagles haven't been in this position in quite some time. You'd have to go all the way back to the 2004 Super Bowl season to find a similar situation. Like what could happen with a Minnesota loss on Saturday, the 2004 Eagles had home-field clinched with two games to go. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles' starters played just one series in Week 16 and then most key players were rested in Week 17 before the bye in the wild-card round. 

Because of the rest, the Eagles lost their last two games heading into the playoffs, but it didn't matter. In the divisional round, they went up 14-0 early in the second quarter and took down the Vikings 27-14, their first step in the playoffs toward the Super Bowl. 

On Monday, Pederson didn't want to answer too many specific questions about hypothetical situations, but he and his coaches will probably have some sort of plan in place if the Vikings lose. That plan could either be to play like normal or begin the coasting process into the playoffs. 

"Like I've said pretty much these last few weeks, we control our destiny right now," Pederson said. "So that's the focus for me."

By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

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AP Images

By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

Bill Belichick didn’t win a playoff game until his fourth year as an NFL head coach and didn’t reach a conference title game until his seventh year.

Don Shula didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth year as a head coach.

It took Dick Vermeil four years to win a playoff game, Dan Reeves six years, Tom Landry eight.

Heck, Pete Carroll didn’t reach a conference title game until his third head coaching stop, and Marv Levy didn’t even get to the playoffs until his eighth year as a head coach.

Just a little context.

Pederson has been magnificent this year, and out of everybody we talk about who’s played a role in the Eagles' success — from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles, Howie Roseman to Joe Douglas, Fletcher Cox to Malcolm Jenkins, Jim Schwartz to John DiFillippo, Jason Kelce to Alshon Jeffery — Pederson is the common thread that’s tied all of it together.

We saw last year that Pederson had a rare ability to keep a team together when faced with adversity. Whether it was the whole Sam Bradford situation before the season, Lane Johnson’s suspension, a couple arrests, two players publicly speaking out about mental health, or just keeping the thing on the rails after three straight late-season ugly losses, Pederson won over his players by confronting each issue openly and professionally and treating his players like grown men.

By the time the team training camp ended this past summer, Pederson had earned the respect of the veterans by preaching discipline without being over the top about it and by constantly keeping the lines of communication open with his players. 

Here’s a young, inexperienced coach who had a long but undistinguished playing career and no real track record or resume as a head coach trying to convince a locker room of Super Bowl winners and all-pros that he knows what he’s doing.

But he did that. Just by being himself. Tough, smart, open, honest.

And once you get guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Peters, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery to buy in, the younger guys just fall in line. 

And that might be the biggest challenge any head coach faces. Getting guys to believe in his message. To believe in him.

But Pederson has tremendous instincts when dealing with people, a real natural, honest way of getting his point across, and it enabled him to seamlessly win over the locker room. 

Once that happened, this team was built to withstand whatever challenge it faced. To withstand whatever roadblocks stood in its way.

And as it turned out, there were plenty of them. 

We don't have to run down the littany of season-ending injuries the Eagles faced, but what this team has accomplished without its MVP quarterback, its Hall of Fame left tackle, its best linebacker, its all-pro returner and its top special teamer is nothing less than astonishing.

Nick Foles is their quarterback and they're in the NFC Championship Game.

Think about the last month.

They came from behind in Los Angeles to beat the Rams after Wentz got hurt. They beat the Giants on the road. They beat the Raiders to clinch No. 1 seed. They "upset" the Falcons in a conference semifinal playoff game. 

For this football team to be one home win away from the Super Bowl after all it has been through speaks volumes about Pederson. He's guided this franchise through adversity that would have crushed some locker rooms, and he's done it in his second year as a head coach above the high school level.

Pederson found a way to get 53 guys to believe in themselves even when very few other people did. And they returned the favor by consistently playing smart, physical, disciplined football for him no matter who the opponent, no matter what the score, no matter how long that Injured Reserve list grew.

This has been a masterful year for Pederson, and anybody who can't see that just isn't looking very hard.

Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

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USA Today Images

Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

Jay Ajayi wasn't hurt Saturday night. So why did he barely play after a huge first quarter?

Ajayi dominated the first quarter of the Eagles' 15-10 playoff win over the Falcons at the Linc with seven carries for 49 yards. But after a one-yard carry a minute into the second quarter, he didn't touch the ball again until the third quarter.

After his hot start, he didn't even get on the field on the Eagles' last two drives of the first half.

LeGarrette Blount actually had more carries than Ajayi after the first quarter, but netted only 19 yards on nine attempts, although he did score the Eagles' only touchdown from a yard out in the second quarter.

Ajayi never got into a rhythm after his long layoff. He had eight carries for five yards after the first quarter and finished with 15 carries for 54 yards along with four catches for 44 yards, including a 32-yard catch and run that was the Eagles' longest offensive play of the game.

Head coach Doug Pederson said Monday he just wanted to get Blount some work. He also said he likes to go hurry-up after long plays and was unable to sub Ajayi while the offense was going with tempo. But there weren't any plays longer than 15 yards while Ajayi sat.

Pederson said the decision on which back to use rests with him and not running backs coach Duce Staley.

“I ultimately control the personnel," he said. "Duce doesn’t sub them. I’m the one calling the plays, so I call for those guys in particular situations, and a couple times when we broke off a long run or a pass particularly — it’s a good time to go a little tempo. So whoever the back is at the time on the field, I just kept him in there.

"And [Blount] was heating up a little bit and we wanted to get him going as well and it’s just the way it went."

Ajayi had 35 of the 86 net yards on the Eagles' only touchdown drive of the game.

After that second-quarter TD drive, the Eagles ran 15 times for 17 yards, not including three Nick Foles kneel-downs.  

Pederson said all the backs know all the plays, but he just prefers different backs depending on what the Eagles are doing offensively. 

Of the Eagles’ 67 offensive plays, Ajayi played 29, Blount 20, Corey Clement 16 and Kenjon Barner one (see Snap Counts).

"The way it is set up is by design, by scheme design, a particular back might be good at a certain run scheme so we put that back in for that particular play," he said.