ORLANDO – Almost every weekday morning this offseason, Doug Pederson has met with his coaching staff and begun crafting the Eagles’ 2018 offense.
“We start 8:30 in the morning, run until about noon, 12:30, about four hours a day,” Pederson said Tuesday. “There are times when we double dip and come back in the afternoon. But right now, we’ve got coaches on the road [scouting for the draft], so it’s hard.”
Some of the faces in the room are new. Some of the old ones have new roles. But Pederson is still at the head of the table, and if the Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning 2017 season revealed anything about the coach, it’s that he’s amenable.
Pederson’s egoless approach to leading, game planning and play calling was one of his strengths. How else could the Eagles have won a title without their MVP-caliber starting quarterback? But Pederson must adapt after the departure of his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and the changes in player personnel that occur every offseason.
Frank Reich and John DeFilippo left for the Colts and Vikings, respectively, and Mike Groh and Press Taylor, formerly the Eagles’ wide receivers and assistant quarterbacks coaches, were promoted in their places. Gunter Brewer was hired to replace Groh, Carson Walch was hired to assist Brewer, and promotions were handed out at the quality control level.
“We’re still working through our scheme,” Pederson said during the annual coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings. “I’ve got two new offensive coaches in Gunter Brewer and Carson Walch, getting Press Taylor comfortable in his new role and Mike in his new role.”
Pederson doesn’t care where a concept or play comes from, it just better be good. The West coast-based offense he learned from Andy Reid and brought with him from the Chiefs has evolved to include the many backgrounds of his staff. But Pederson has also culled ideas from researching other offenses.
“As we study these college kids, we’re always looking at the college world a little bit,” Pederson said. “So we’ll pull some stuff from there. We just break it down by situation — who’s the best third-down offense? Who’s the best red zone offense? Who’s the best short-yardage goal line offense?
“We just kind of pick a couple and see if there’s anything unusual that they did, maybe a formation or a personnel group, something that might benefit us, and see if we can incorporate it into our system.”
Pederson’s openness to outside input extends also to his players. Carson Wentz suggested a red zone play early last season that he ran at North Dakota State and the Eagles ran it successfully several times throughout the year. On Tuesday, Pederson revealed the source of a mesh/wheel route concept that Nick Foles had hit on many times.
“We had nine of those plays in the game plan in the Super Bowl. Nine different formations. Same play, nine different ways,” Pederson said. “We ended up calling it like four or five times in the game. But that was actually a play that Sam Bradford brought to us that he ran in Chip Kelly’s offense.”
How many head coaches would divulge the origin of the play, let alone give credit to a quarterback not on the roster and the coach who preceded him? Not many. Pederson said that he had a different version originally in his playbook, but that he preferred the Bradford-Kelly take. The Eagles didn’t call the play often in 2016, but it resurfaced last season at the request of the quarterbacks.
Pederson and his coaches have yet to draw up plays based on personnel, in part because the Eagles aren’t done constructing their roster, and probably also because they don’t yet know who will start at quarterback on opening day. Wentz’s timetable for return from his knee injury is unknown and Foles will take most of first team snaps in the spring and likely throughout training camp.
“Now’s not the time to create packages and who’s going to be where,” Pederson said. “Now’s just the time to go back and make subtle changes in your offense or remove stuff that you only ran once or how do we make this play just a little bit better from a route standpoint?”
But the Eagles have already made several significant changes in personnel, particularly at the skill positions. The offensive line remained untouched. Tight ends Brent Celek (released) and Trey Burton (free agency) are gone, as are receiver Torrey Smith (traded) and running back LeGarrette Blount (free agency). The only addition on offense thus far has been receiver Mike Wallace, who signed a one-year contract last week.
“He’s an excellent slant runner. He’s got speed to burn,” Pederson said of the 31-year-old Wallace. “The biggest thing now is just getting him in here and getting him caught up in the offense. But very similar role that Torrey had.”
Pederson said that he also saw the possibility of an increased role for second-year receiver Mack Hollins behind Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor. The Eagles don’t have an heir to Celek and Burton waiting in the wings. Pederson mentioned youngsters Billy Brown and Adam Zaruba as possible backups to starter Zach Ertz, but he didn’t rule out free agency, the draft, and even a possible Celek return should he not sign with another team.
Pederson also didn’t rule out bringing running back/returner Darren Sproles back. He said that the 34-year-old free agent wants to keep playing and “I want him to be an Eagle.”
Sproles, via text message, said that he has yet to make a decision about where he wants to play next season.
“My rehab is going really well,” Sproles said. “Back cutting and sprinting.”
Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement are penciled in as the top two running backs, but if Sproles were to follow Blount out the door, either Wendell Smallwood or Donnel Pumphrey could move up the depth chart.
“I like Wendell,” Pederson. “I think it was just a situation where we brought in Jay and Wendell was the guy we had to put down each week.”
Pederson is taking a similar approach to the most popular play in Eagles history – “Philly Special.” He said that he won’t be dressing the Foles-suggested trick play that netted the Eagles a fourth-down touchdown in the Super Bowl next season.
“There’s no way you can call that again,” Pederson said.
But like any flexible coach, he wouldn’t bury “Philly Special.”
“He hasn’t put in his papers yet,” Pederson said. “He may retire and come back.”
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