By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Every single weekend when they take the field, the New England Patriots own a distinct advantage over their opponent in terms of coaching. The only debate is the degree to which Bill Belichick is better than his counterpart on any given Sunday.
So it’s not an insult to say that second-year head coach Doug Pederson doesn’t quite stack up to Belichick in this year’s Super Bowl matchup of head coaches. No NFL coach can really compare at this point in time.
How good of a coach Pederson is or will be cannot yet be known. He’s led the Eagles to a 20-12 record over two years, and he’s had the team ready to go for a pair of impressive home playoff wins as an underdog over the last two weeks. And if Dan Quinn can come razor-close to beating the Patriots in a Super Bowl in his second year as an NFL head coach, then surely Pederson has a chance to do so with his Eagles.
That being said, there is a reason that Quinn didn’t win that Super Bowl, just as there’s a reason that Doug Marrone is sitting at home today eating bologna sandwiches instead of game-planning for the Super Bowl. There’s a reason Andy Reid doesn’t have any Super Bowl rings, and why Pete Carroll is not a two-time champion.
The reason is simple: When going up against Belichick and the Patriots, opposing coaches tend to commit a devastating gaffe or two that ruins their entire season. It might happen early, but it usually happens late. And the Patriots always seem to take advantage.
Though Pederson has no experience against Belichick as a head coach, he did serve as Reid’s offensive coordinator for the 2015 Chiefs. And in that role, he committed what could be considered to be a dreadful decision which contributed to his team losing a potentially winnable playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
(Was it his “greatest goof”? To be completely honest, I can’t say for sure. I don’t have a catalog of Pederson’s lifetime list of goofs. But you have to admit, “Greatest Goof” made for a great headline.)
Among the postseason victories in the careers of Tom Brady and Belichick, the divisional round win over the Chiefs was rather unremarkable. And considering the Patriots lost the following week in Denver, it’s not really remembered as anything special.
But it was a huge game for the Chiefs, who were coming off a 30-0 thumping of the Texans in Houston. And the confident Chiefs did a good job of hanging with the Patriots, cutting New England’s lead to eight points late in the third.
But a pair of Stephen Gostkowski field goals extended that Patriots lead to 14 points with 10:24 to play. The Chiefs would need two touchdowns just to tie the game. Time was tight.
And the Chiefs showed some desperation when they decided to go for it on a fourth-and-10 near midfield with 7:38 to play.
Clearly, Kansas City needed to score. The urgency was evident.
But that fourth-down attempt didn’t work, and the Patriots took over. The Chiefs lucked out a bit, as the Patriots’ offense decided to go with three passes. On second and third down, Brady threw incomplete, stopping the clock. Then Ryan Allen punted into the end zone.
The Chiefs took over at their own 20-yard line, trailing by 14 points, with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter. They had all their timeouts.
The strategy of most coaches would be to try to score as quickly as possible, trust the defense to make a stop while using timeouts, then go for the game-tying score while running a two-minute drill.
But Pederson’s play calling at that point in the game was … unique.
The Chiefs embarked on a 16-play, 80-yard marathon drive, one that took 5:16 on the clock and left just 1:18 to play after the touchdown to cut the lead to seven points.
Here’s how the drive went:
–Alex Smith looked deep, but decided to tuck it and run for a two-yard gain.
–The Chiefs then allowed 23 seconds to tick off the clock before their next snap.
–Smith threw incomplete 20 yards up the right sideline, broken up by Malcolm Butler.
–Smith completed a pass to Chris Conley on a deep out for 16 yards.
–Conley failed to get out of bounds, despite standing upright about a foot from the boundary, and the Chiefs let another 25 seconds tick off the clock.
–Smith overthrew a deep shot to a well-covered Albert Wilson
–Smith scrambled and threw to Conley for a gain of just two yards.
–The Chiefs let another 20 seconds tick off the clock before their next snap.
–Smith stood in the pocket, had nobody open, escaped pressure, and threw the ball away.
–On fourth-and-8, Smith completed a pass to Jason Avant for 13 yards over the middle of the field.
–The Chiefs let 19 seconds run off the clock before their next snap.
–Smith scrambled for a gain of nine yards and got out of bounds.
–Smith completed a pass for six yards over the middle to Charcandrick West.
–The Chiefs let 25 seconds roll off the clock before their next snap.
–Smith scrambled for a gain of six yards, getting out of bounds.
–Before a second-and-4 from the New England 26-yard line, the Patriots called timeout. Presumably, the Chiefs could get a few plays together to try to score quickly and preserve what could be saved of the 3:30 left on the clock. They did not.
–Smith ran for a six-yard gain but did so up the middle. The clock remained running.
–The Chiefs let another 24 seconds roll off the clock before their next snap.
–Smith completed a 15-yard pass to Albert Wilson at the 5-yard line. The receiver decided to go for a touchdown instead of stepping out of bounds. Butler stopped him on the 1-yard line.
–The Chiefs allowed another 20 seconds to tick off the clock before their next snap.
–West was stopped in the backfield for a loss of a yard.
–The Chiefs allowed a ridiculous 28 seconds to tick off the clock, running it down to the two-minute warning.
–Coming out of the two-minute warning, Eric Fisher committed a false start, pushing the Chiefs back to the 7-yard line.
–On second-and-goal, Smith completed a pass to Avant … for just four yards. Over the middle. The clock continued to run.
–The Chiefs inexplicably stood around, looking to the sideline for a play, before they settled down and actually huddled. They allowed a whopping 28 seconds to tick off the clock.
–Smith threw to the front of the end zone, and Avant drew a pass interference penalty on Logan Ryan. The well-coached Ryan likely recognized in the moment that the clock was a much bigger factor than the points, so a penalty if beaten by the receiver was a better choice than giving up the touchdown.
–Smith threw an incompletion out of the end zone that had no chance of success.
–With 1:18 on the clock, West took an option pitch from Smith off the right side and finally, at long last, crossed the plane of the end zone.
And so concluded one of the most preposterous drives in the history of American football.
The Chiefs didn’t recover the ensuing onside kick, the Patriots picked up a (very lucky) first down, and then Brady took three knees to drain the clock to zeros. The Chiefs never got their chance to even try to tie the football game. (But they did get to call two timeouts before kneeldowns, which was cool.)
While the world sat back and laughed at Andy Reid, you couldn’t help but wonder what the heck Pederson was thinking on that drive by allowing a total of 3:32 to drip off the clock between plays on a drive that took about … 3:32 too long.
Well, a few days later, when Pederson was introduced as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he explained why his offense ran such a deliberate drive while trailing by 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“It took so long because number one, we did not want to give Tom Brady the ball back,” Pederson said. “We knew we were gonna score. We knew we had timeouts and time. We were also limited with the number of receivers. We had Jeremy Maclin out of the game at the time. We were down numbers. We felt like at that point not to give the ball back to Tom Brady. We still had timeouts and time even with the onside kick to put ourselves in a position to tie the football game.”
There’s only one reaction to this explanation:
Give Pederson credit for admitting it publicly, I guess. But he was really banking on recovering an onside kick? A play that has at best a 20 percent chance of succeeding? He was resting the entire Chiefs season on a belief that his team would benefit from a fortuitous bounce?
In watching the drive over again a couple of years later, it’s perhaps possible that Pederson didn’t want to throw Smith or Reid under any buses. Smith looked very limited and shaky as a passer and instead looked much more comfortable when scrambling for short gains or firing bullets over the middle for five-yard gains. And Reid was in full control of calling a timeout whenever he saw fit to do so. It sure looked like he wanted to pull the trigger here:
But still. Pederson’s offense did not appear to be well-coached at all for that scenario.
Instead of just stepping out of bounds here, Conley decided to cut back to the field to gain an extra … two yards:
The clock ticked and ticked and ticked.
Minutes later, Wilson caught the ball like this, with absolutely no momentum taking him toward the goal line:
Going for a touchdown wasn’t a terrible idea in and of itself, but the coach should have pounded into the heads of all his players that they need to get out bounds if possible. Instead, Wilson lost the fight for the goal line and the boundary line:
And the fact that the Chiefs never seemed to have more than one play at the ready at any given time made the entire drive a bit of a slow grind. That was particularly egregious when, prior to the clock getting under 5:00 for the game, the Chiefs went out of bounds three times. The clock stops after these plays but runs once the ball is set. That generally provides an ample window for coaches to call plays and quarterback to run those plays without wasting more than a few seconds on each snap. Instead, the Chiefs let 1:08 waste away after those three plays.
Plus, this image of the Chiefs huddling while the clock was running inside of two minutes is insane:
It would be wrong to hold the offensive coordinator at fault for everything. When you have a quarterback who’s not in complete control of the offense, receivers who have poor situational awareness, and a team that wastes multiple minutes just to get plays called, there’s clearly a lot of dysfunction across the board. But you’d like to think the offensive coordinator has something to do with a few of those areas, at least.
Now of course, this was two years ago. Perhaps it was a tough learning experience for Pederson, who was relatively inexperienced as a play caller at the time. In that introductory press conference with the Eagles, he revealed that he was only calling plays on his own in the second halves of games, beginning in Week 7 of that 2015 season. So when he called the plays for that 316-second drive in Foxboro, he had been calling plays for one half of half of a season.
His Eagles looked pretty darn good this year, ranking seventh in yards and third in points despite losing Carson Wentz for the final three weeks. And Pederson has Nick Foles looking pretty good through two playoff games, too.
So in no way does this bit of history eliminate Pederson from being capable of leading the Eagles to a win over the Patriots next Sunday in Minneapolis.
It’s just that … more often than not, opposing coaches tend to make terrifically terrible decisions late in close games against the Patriots. Pederson’s recent history of letting the mystique of Tom Brady impact his play-calling so severely should at the very least be noted.