Doug Pederson was the last head coach hired in the 2016 cycle, the Philadelphia Eagles' third choice after Ben McAdoo decided to stay with the New York Giants and Tom Coughlin decided he couldn't make it work there. Pederson watched as McAdoo and the Miami Dolphins' Adam Gase reached the playoffs in 2016 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Dirk Koetter got close. Pederson's Eagles started 3-0 but fizzled out and finished 7-9. And while rookie quarterback Carson Wentz showed flashes, it's fair to say Pederson's was far from the splashiest debut season.
How's that looking now?
Pederson has steered the Eagles into their bye week with a league-best 8-1 record and a seven-game winning streak, and at midseason, he's the front-runner for NFL Coach of the Year.
The coach of the year award is often misunderstood -- even by its voters. Too many times, the award goes to the coach of the team we didn't see coming -- the team that outperformed consensus preseason expectations and made the playoffs unexpectedly. The problem with that is: What if the consensus was wrong? Are we rewarding a guy whose roster was more talented than our own flawed analysis realized, while some other coach who's dragging a lousy, aging or injury-ravaged roster to 9-7 or 10-6 might be doing a better job? And on the flip side, isn't going 14-2 or 15-1 a rare and sufficient enough accomplishment -- even with a strong roster -- to reward? Shouldn't Bill Belichick always be a candidate?
So when I say Pederson for coach of the year, I'm not just saying that because I didn't think the Eagles would be this good this soon. I like to look for coach of the year candidates whose teams (and whose teams' success) seem to clearly reflect the coach's influence. The rapid development of Wentz, who leads the NFL with 23 touchdown passes midway through his second season, is a huge plus in Pederson's column there.
Former NFL quarterbacks themselves, Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich have masterfully overseen Wentz's transition to the NFL. They eased him in last season, feeding him bits and pieces of their West Coast-style NFL offense while working to incorporate enough college spread concepts to maximize his strengths. They brought him back in this year with a beefed-up receiving corps and fed him more, testing his understanding of the offense against every possible coverage in training camp practices, stressing him in an effort to see how quickly he was learning. Not even they thought it would come this quickly, but it has. And while Wentz's ability and strength of character are to be praised, kudos to Pederson for constructing an environment in which they've been able to flourish.
But that's not the only reason Pederson is coach of the year so far, and because this is a "What We Learned" column based off Week 9, it's important to mention what Pederson the offensive playcaller just did to the Denver Broncos. Playing their second straight game without injured potential Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters, the Eagles hung 51 points on a Broncos team that was allowing 21 per game coming in. They ran for 197 yards against a team that was allowing 73 rushing yards per game. Pederson's game plan featured tricky, read-option stuff that helped neutralize the Broncos' pass rush and Von Miller, and it featured enough creative route concepts to scheme open Alshon Jeffery and a group of tight ends that was playing without Zach Ertz.
Philly's success, should it continue, is of the sort that changes lives and careers. If they keep rolling, grab a No. 1 seed and make a deep playoff run, Wentz could be MVP, Reich and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz are going to interview for head-coaching jobs and the fans will be dreaming dreams the size of which they haven't dreamt since Andy Reid was winning the division there every season. The man at the front of this might not have been the hottest name on the 2016 coaching carousel, but a year and a half in, he's the one having the most fun. And he's the leader in the coach of the year race.
Here's a look at the rest of the candidates for that award at this point, and what we learned about them and their teams in Week 9:
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
You'd have to call this a two-man race right now between Pederson and the 31-year-old McVay, who's 6-2 with the quarterback who went one pick ahead of Wentz at the top of the 2016 draft. At the time of that selection, McVay was the offensive coordinator in Washington, and he had no relationship with Jared Goff when he was hired to coach the QB in January. But what McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur have done is create an environment in which Goff can have enough success that the impact of his flaws and failures are minimized. Goff isn't always the most accurate thrower at this stage in his career, but by running play-action on first down and incorporating route concepts that offer Goff multiple choices on a large percentage of their plays, the Rams are getting the most out of a guy on whom some around the league were ready to give up after his rookie season. The zone-blocking concepts McVay and LaFleur brought with them have their roots in the Mike (and now Kyle) Shanahan playbook, and they're paying off thanks to the brilliance of Todd Gurley, who also spent last season in quicksand.
Los Angeles has a lead in the NFC West on struggling Seattle and a chance for the Rams' first winning season since 2003. They showed Sunday they can be a top-of-the-league-style bully, wading into the swamps of Jersey and hanging 51 on a listless Giants team. After Houston next week, the Rams' schedule looks daunting -- at Minnesota, home versus the Saints, at Arizona, home versus the Eagles, at Seattle and at Tennessee before finishing up with the 49ers at home. But these Rams can score, and with McVay having wisely given over the defense to veteran coordinator Wade Phillips, they can win games a few different ways.
Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Had we done this column a month ago, Reid likely would have been the easy call for the top spot. But the Chiefs are 1-3 since their 5-0 start, and the offense didn't click Sunday against Dallas. Reid coached Sunday's game like a man who doesn't trust his defense, and to be fair, the absence of Eric Berry and the fragility of guys such as Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali at this point in their careers could have that effect. But the loose, dynamic feel that the Kansas City offense had for the first part of the season was not in evidence in this one. The Chiefs ran just 55 plays, and only 19 of them were running plays against a team trying to play ball control. Not Reid's finest hour, but this season has had more than a few of those. He has Alex Smith playing quarterback at a high level, and speedy young playmakers such as Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill seem (or seemed, until this week) to have rejuvenated Reid as a playcaller. He has built his offense around its explosive capabilities. And recent cold streak aside, he has a 6-3 record and a two-game lead in the AFC West.
Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
His case was stronger a week ago, before the Bills committed 11 penalties and doubled their season turnover total with three in a Thursday night loss to the Jets. The strength of McDermott's case for coach of the year lies in the fact that he has overseen so much dramatic turnover since he got there and is having success anyway. Trade Sammy Watkins in camp? Trade Marcell Dareus on the Friday of Week 8? McDermott has his players' attention, and the Bills are 5-3 and a game behind the New England Patriots as they try to end a 17-year playoff drought. What this week showed us was that it won't always be easy for McDermott, and the way the Bills come out in Week 10 after their mini-bye and against the red-hot Saints will help us decide how much more to make of McDermott's case for this award. So will the two games the Bills still have to play against the Patriots, who are 29-5 against them during that aforementioned 17-year drought.
Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
The Saints' 2017 draft class is an absolute smash, with cornerback Marshon Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara, tackle Ryan Ramczyk and safety Marcus Williams all smack in the middle of New Orleans' surprising resurgence. Payton deserves credit for the ability of all those rookies to incorporate quickly and for steering the team out of an 0-2 ditch into their current six-game winning streak. What the Saints showed us in Week 9, in a 30-10 victory over a Bucs team going nowhere, is continued diversity in ways to win on offense. It was the Kamara show on Sunday, but that doesn't mean it won't be Mark Ingram's game to carry the load next week, or that there's not a week coming up in which Drew Brees will have to throw for 500 yards to win it. Payton has long been regarded as one of the game's great playcallers, and the options at his disposal this year -- not to mention a rejuvenated defense that isn't giving away games anymore -- are highlighting that once again.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars' next win will be their sixth. They haven't won six games in a season since 2010. Marrone deserves a mention here.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers: Rivera is dealing with a lot in Carolina, from his quarterback's off-field news conference issues to an offense that's still struggling to establish an identity. But he's 6-3 with defense and his usual steady hand, and he just won a big division game Sunday against the Falcons.
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks: Carroll is the main reason the Seahawks and their fans have faith even when things don't look right. Seattle is 5-3 and lost inexplicably to Washington, but few are better at solving in-season problems than Carroll and his staff are.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers: Tomlin has been doing some coaching in Pittsburgh, what with players asking for trades and quarterbacks wondering whether they have it anymore.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings: Zimmer might have the best NFC team this side of Philadelphia, and the Vikings literally have no idea who their quarterback will be from week to week.