That’s tough. Just two teams interviewed Doug Pederson for their head coach vacancy last offseason — the New Orleans Saints, who went with Dennis Allen instead; and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who Pederson rallied to upset the Los Angeles Chargers after falling behind by a 27 points on Saturday night. It’s a brutal look at what-could-have-been for New Orleans had they hired the Super Bowl winner and proud Louisiana-Monroe product.
Sure, having Trevor Lawrence at quarterback certainly helped. But Pederson deserves a ton of credit for settling Lawrence down after the second-year quarterback threw four interceptions to open the game; he made things look easy with intelligent play designs and effective running from Travis Etienne Jr. (who averaged 5.5 yards per carry). Lawrence completed touchdown passes to four different receivers and scored a crucial two-point conversion to cut into the Chargers’ deficit.
But the biggest play of the night wasn’t the game-winning field goal as time expired. It’s what happened immediately beforehand. Facing 4th-and-1 from the Chargers 41-yard line with a minute and a half left in regulation (while trailing by two points), Pederson dug into his bag and came up with a gutsy play. The Jaguars have had success this season sending Lawrence on a dive up the middle in these short-yardage situations, and the Chargers defense knew it. So Pederson bunched up the formation with several running backs surrounding Lawrence in the backfield, positioned as if to push him forward.
And the Chargers took the bait. The ball was snapped, L.A. bit on it, and instead of diving forward Lawrence turned on his heel and handed the ball off to Etienne, who flowed untouched out wide around the formation and into the open field for a gain of 25 yards. That got the Jaguars into field goal position, stunned the Chargers sideline, and burned a lot of time off the clock. A couple of timeouts and procedural runs later, Jacksonville celebrated its win while the Chargers gathered for a long flight back to Los Angeles.
This is what the Saints have missed under Dennis Allen’s management of the team (among other things). Pederson has a background coaching strong offenses and taking an aggressive approach to put his players in position to win, creatively designing plays and adapting to the skill sets available to him. And when faced with an opportunity to put the game away like this, he didn’t hesitate or settle for kicking the ball away and giving his opponents a shot at coming back. He went for the kill, and he was rewarded for it.
We didn’t see that kind of ambition from Allen in 2022. The Saints faced a fourth-and-short (needing 1 to 3 yards to convert) situation from inside the opposing 41-yard line on 24 occasions this season, and Allen chose to punt the ball away 20 times. That’s not to say Allen doesn’t have the chops to make a call like this, but we didn’t see it in 2022. Maybe he needs a quarterback he can trust to show us something special. Finding a passer and a play caller who can get the most out of them (not to mention talents already on the roster like Alvin Kamara, Chris Olave, and Rashid Shaheed, among others) has to be New Orleans’ highest offseason priority.
And it’s still frustrating to see Pederson as the one who got away. He probably would have experienced many of the same struggles as Allen as Saints head coach, sure. He can’t control injuries or poor quarterback play from a couple of players who already washed out of their last teams. But it sure feels like a better play caller could have averaged more than 19 points on the season and more than 13.5 points per game in the last six weeks. It’s a shame the Saints didn’t hire Pederson when they had the chance. Instead, he’s guiding his team into a surprise playoff run while New Orleans’ brass are watching them from the couch with the rest of us.