PHILADELPHIA — Doug Pederson stood in the small hallway connecting his office to the locker room and tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field around 1 a.m. on Friday morning, no longer the coach of the Super Bowl champion Eagles, as he has been for the last seven months. Now, as he saw it, after a long, steamy night of work, Pederson was just the coach of the 1–0 Eagles.
And in an honest moment, after his team gutted out an 18–12 win over the Falcons in the first game of the 2018 NFL season, he was willing to admit that being back in this familiar place felt pretty good.
“The relief is getting past this first game, with all the hype pregame, getting past the Super Bowl and all that,” Pederson told me. “Now that it’s behind us, we can focus on the rest of season and, really, next week, heading to Tampa.”
Thursday wasn’t perfect for anyone. The Eagles stumbled on offense. The Falcons certainly didn’t get the best of QB Matt Ryan and the Atlanta defense crumbled late, giving up a touchdown with 2:19 left to play, after three-plus solid quarters. The refs threw almost as many flags (26) as there were points scored (30). And save for the drama at the end—a scenario eerily similar to last year’s divisional playoff—the league’s showcase opener looked sideways.
This game became about which team could wrestle its way out of all that mud, and Pederson got that sense of relief, the feeling of achieving normalcy again, because his team did. As usual.
“I really think this team doesn’t really care what we’re going through,” Pederson said. “And I say that in a way where they know, there’s no panic on the sideline, there’s no chaos. They say, ‘Let’s regroup. Defense, you keep playing the way you are. Offense, we’ll get this figured out.’ We were able to do that in the second half and take over the game with the running game a little bit, and then score.
“I don’t think the team worries too much about what’s going on early, knowing we’ll eventually get on track and we’ll fix it.”
You could point to individual things, “small things” that captain Malcolm Jenkins referenced in the locker room postgame, that made the difference on Thursday night.
It was Darren Sproles keeping his legs churning on a third-and-one from the Atlanta 22-yard line in the second quarter. It was Pederson reaching into the bag of tricks and pulling off a play similar to one that the Patriots ran on the Eagles (yes, the play when Tom Brady dropped the ball), with Nelson Agholor coming on a reverse and finding Nick Foles to convert a third-and-five on the Eagles’ first touchdown drive. It was even punter Cam Johnston coming through to set up field position in his first game as a pro.
But this wasn’t about that, so much as it was what Pederson said about the team—they don’t care about what they’re facing. A natural example here, or so I thought, would be how the players handled Carson Wentz’s torn ACL in December, and rallied to win a title behind Foles after that. But Jenkins corrected my view of that premise. Last year’s title run, he said, didn’t make the Eagles who they are. It just revealed that so many of their guys have those qualities to begin with.
“It’s more the guys we have in the room,” Jenkins explained. “It’s more about belief in the guys next to us, that we’re prepared, that we can win matchups. It’s one of the reasons why, as the game went along, we’re not double-teaming Julio Jones. Everybody knows that’s where the ball’s going but we’re going to play our defense because we trust Ronald Darby.
“We trust our line and their rush. We trust guys like [new starting linebackers] Kamu [Grugier-Hill] and Nate Gerry to come in and play roles, because they’ll be prepared. We trust it’s going to work out, and most times it does.”
And while that belief was most apparent to the rest of us on the last play of the game, when Darby shoved a leaping Jones past the boundary before the Falcons’ receiver could get his feet inbounds to seal the Eagles’ victory, it was probably most needed even before the start of the game.
A number of external situations—the strings attached to the Super Bowl celebration and the weather: the triple-digit heat index in Philadelphia that day, the storm which pushed kickoff back 45 minutes, the oppressive humidity that followed—could have shaken the Eagles’ focus before they even took the field. Both teams were forced to sit and wait for an opening game for which each team had spent months preparing, but Philly didn’t blink at the situation. Instead, Zach Ertz got a little extra treatment. Jenkins dozed off for a few. Other guys took to Twitter for updates.
Pederson barely told his players anything while they were waiting, other than some variation of, “Stay ready, we’ll keep you posted,” which says a lot about what thinks of his team.
“He trusts us,” Ertz said. “That’s what we love about Doug, he always says let your personality show and that’s a testament to how much he trusts the players to be in line, to hold guys accountable, and we’ve got a veteran team, a lot of veterans on this team that know how to go about their business the right way, hold guys accountable and that’s what we did.”
Once the game kicked off, the Eagles were outgained in total yards by the Falcons 113-0 through the first quarter. But the defense got a turnover on downs on a fourth-and-goal at its own one-yard line on Atlanta’s first drive, and forced a field goal after the Falcons drove inside the Philadelphia 10 on the next possession. That bought time for the offense to come around—just like the offense bought time for the defense to come around in January. Jay Ajayi put a pounding on Atlanta defense in the second half with 12 carries for 51 yards, and that impact was obvious on an eight-play, 54-yard, go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter.
“We could’ve gave the game away a few times with some of the mistakes we made, but we just have poise,” Jenkins said. “And we move on to the next play and figure out a way to win. So it’s not always perfect, but at the end of the day we’re gonna keep fighting and eventually we keep punching long enough, we know one of them will land. And when it does, we’ll take control.”
They most certainly did in the end.
“You just have to score one more point than the other team,” Ertz said. “Guys understand that. It’s not a beauty contest. We’re just focused on winning football games. And we’re pretty good at that.”
Sure, this game was a little different—it sure wasn’t the shootout that Super Bowl LII was. For Pederson, it was a turning of the page and an acknowledgement that this is a new team.
But like Ertz said, the result was all the same. And came for a lot of the same reasons we saw on display last year. So if Pederson yearned to get back to business as usual, this very different night did have plenty of that.