Dave Murphy: Benching Carson Wentz for Jalen Hurts might be the only thing that can save Doug Pederson's job

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Olivier Vernon #54 of the Cleveland Browns sacks Carson Wentz #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 22, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. - Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America/TNS

Twenty-four hours after the latest fireable offense, it still wasn’t clear if Doug Pederson understood the gravity of the situation. For the third straight game, the Eagles’ offense had taken another step down on its linear path away from respectability. Yet, for a third straight week, an air of unjust persecution permeated Pederson’s words and mannerisms.

“In this city, it’s all about the QB and the head coach,” the head coach said. “Everybody else can almost go by the wayside, I guess.”

Granted, he isn’t wrong. Not in his words, and not in his intent. The Eagles could take the field with a quarterback and 10 Pop Warner players and the No. 1 topic on the radio after the loss would be the quarterback’s inability to win a game. That’s probably true in most NFL cities, but it is especially true in Philadelphia, where the only quarterbacks who deserved the job were Norm Van Brocklin, Nick Foles, and whoever happened to be backing up the rest. As for the head coach, well, if Pederson wanted to live forever as a hero, he should have turned the reins over to Frank Reich and taken the Colts job himself.

Instead, Pederson increasingly looks and sounds like a man who is determined to fulfill his own prophecy. Long before his job was in serious danger, he was talking and coaching like a man who’d had enough of it. From his uncharacteristic game-flow decision-making – punting for a tie, gift-wrapping the Cowboys a field goal at the end of the second half – to his hard-headed red-zone play-calling, to his shrug emoji usage of Jalen Hurts, Pederson often looks like a man whose head is somewhere other than the sideline.

Pederson has always struggled to disguise his disdain for the public-facing parts of the gig, but at least he would try. Lately, though, even the most innocuous press conference questions will summon an attempt at a smart-aleck retort for which he simply is not equipped. Lacking the means to execute in such situations, the result is more often than not a verbal jab to his own face.

The most recent example came early in Monday’s press conference when a reporter relayed Miles Sanders’ postgame assessment that the Browns linebackers had played “more downhill” in the second half, and asked the coach what he personally had seen on the film. After slowly slackening his face to make it clear what he thought of the question, Pederson responded, “Their linebackers coming downhill.” Next question.

I’m generally of the opinion that you can’t judge a coach by his press conference performance. Pederson would probably tell you that he treats these media sessions with as much sincerity as they are worth. He holds himself accountable to his bosses, and his coaches, and his players. Everything else is just the fulfillment of an obligation. And he would be correct, more or less.

With all that in mind, it is entirely possible that Pederson understands the predicament that he is in: that the joke is shaping up to be on him and not us; that the standings are the only thing that consider the Eagles a first-place team; that a simple playoff berth will not overshadow the glaring structural problems with his offense; that the only possible avenue for substantive change is a change at head coach.

If he does understand all of that, then he should understand this: He is guaranteed six more games as Eagles head coach. The only way he can justify himself another season is by using those six games to show that he can run a competent offense with the talent at his disposal. It’s not his fault that the talent is lacking; that the offensive line does not appear capable of doing things the way they’ve been done in the past; that the wide receivers are replacement level; that the quarterback looks like he is in the midst of a season-long acute stress reaction. But it is tough to fix any of those things in a single offseason. And before the Eagles blow the whole thing up, it would make sense to find out if a different offensive mind can fix it.

This is especially true with regard to the quarterback. Carson Wentz isn’t going anywhere. Nor should he. The only thing that Wentz has proved with his struggles is that he is not among the small handful of quarterbacks whose performance is situationally independent. He’s had plenty of moments that show he has the same physical tools he had in his first four seasons. Players like that are too hard to find to give up on without giving them a chance to respond to a new situation. If a quarterback and offense are struggling, the obvious first move is to change the offense.

In a weird way, the argument for sticking with Wentz beyond this season is an argument that Pederson should seriously consider replacing him. If the offense really does find its legs with a new guy under center, that would be a reason to reconsider the Wentz-Pederson calculus this offseason.

On Monday, Pederson shot down such talk, reiterating that such a move would be a sign of panic.

“Right now, we are still in the hunt,” the head coach said. “We are still leading the division. We have a lot to play for.”

A more objective person would undoubtedly conclude that, actually, no they don’t. If you can’t beat Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield or Daniel Jones and Jason Garrett in back-to-back weeks, your future has been written. For Pederson, then, it is well past time to panic. Personally, I think it’s foolish to assume that a rookie second-round draft pick is the answer. History says Hurts has a much better chance of being DeShone Kizer than Russell Wilson. If that’s what Pederson has seen in practice, then you’d understand his terse dismissals. But maybe this is one of the situations where it would benefit all parties involved to let everybody else see it.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer