There are quiet moments when Eagles coach Doug Pederson sits in his Moorestown, N.J., home with his wife and there is no practice to plan or speaking engagement to fulfill or interview to finish, and he stops and realizes his new life. He understands the exclusive fraternity he joined by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy as a head coach, which has been done by only 32 coaches in NFL history and only seven others who will roam a sideline this season.
“You kind of sit back, my wife and I might have a conversation like, ‘Man, this is kind of cool,’ ” Pederson said during a wide-ranging June interview. “It is cool to be mentioned that way. For a guy that didn’t have probably a lot of support coming into this job initially. To be on the other end of that spectrum is cool. But I know what it took for me to get here. And I have to continue that for myself.”
There’s a before-and-after in Doug Pederson’s life. There was all that came before Feb. 4, 2018, and all that has and will come after. Pederson insisted that, as hard as it might be to believe, he doesn’t view himself any differently than he did before Feb. 4. But he also knows how the world around him has changed. A date night at Barone’s two days after the Super Bowl drew a congratulatory welcome line, and the requests for photos and autographs haven’t stopped since. He’s now an author, a banquet headliner, and an unforgettable part of Philadelphia history.
He doesn’t shut the door on what happened — who wouldn’t like to be introduced as a Super Bowl champion? — but he refuses to become absorbed by its trappings. And even if he doesn’t say it himself, he’ll hold his first training camp practice on July 26 viewed as one of the NFL’s best coaches.
“I think that is for sportswriters to talk about and put me in that spotlight,” Pederson said. “And that is fine. That is great.”
It beats the alternative. During the same roundtable interview one year earlier, Pederson spoke about the need to show improvement in 2017. He admitted that, even though it was his second season, coaches are not afforded as long of a leash as in previous decades. He did not put himself on the hot seat, but he knew a five-month plan would be more prudent than a five-year plan.
That was the tenor entering his second training camp with the team. Sure, there was optimism — Pederson went as far as to say the Eagles had as much talent as his Super Bowl teams in Green Bay, a claim that proved more clairvoyant than preposterous — but there was also the reality that he needed to win, and he needed to win fast. The skepticism reached a crescendo when, before the season, a former NFL executive called Pederson the least qualified coach he had ever seen.
“That article would not come out now,” tight end Zach Ertz said.
The reputation of Pederson has shifted so much that he can now be considered a significant asset. He won a Super Bowl without his MVP-caliber quarterback, his future hall-of-fame left tackle and his defensive signal-caller. His creative play-calling and fourth-down aggressiveness allowed him to outduel Bill Belichick, perhaps the best coach in NFL history, on the sport’s grandest stage. By doing so, he joined Belichick, Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, and Mike Tomlin as the only head coaches in the NFL who earned the “Super Bowl-winning” prefix to head coach. And Pederson’s coaching acumen stands tall in that group.
“I think when you win the Super Bowl, it’s really hard for people to say you’re not capable,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Last year at this time, we were dealing with people saying he wasn’t a good coach, that he didn’t deserve to be a head coach. I think he’s obviously, since then, proved not only that he can be a head coach, but that he’s probably one of the brighter coaches in the league right now.”
In his final meeting before he sent the players away for a five-week break this summer, Pederson’s message to the team was about sacrifice. He told them how nothing would be handed to the Eagles this year, that the target is bigger and that the resilience that became a hallmark of last year’s group doesn’t automatically translate to this year’s team. It must be built.
He wants his players to “rip off the dog masks and no longer be the underdog.” Because no matter how much spin might be heard, they’re not underdogs anymore. They can’t claim disrespect.
Winning presents its own unique challenges. Former NBA coach Pat Riley once wrote how the “Disease of Me” contributed to the downfall of teams. The ego of individuals can erode the fabric that makes a team special. A player or coach might feel underappreciated; yearn for more money, playing time, or statistics; or seek more recognition.
Pederson plans on reminding his players of his mantra during the Super Bowl run: “An individual can make a difference, but a team can make a miracle.” It will be a theme in Pederson’s messaging during the 2018 season.
“Are you a reason we won or are you the reason we won?” Pederson said. “We’re all the reason. We’re all in this together. You’re not singled out. And so, for me, it is a challenge.”
Around the league, there will be intrigue about how the Eagles respond to being the frontrunners. Former Giants coach Ben McAdoo told the New York Post last week that “I think they’re gonna have a hard time handling success.”
The Eagles’ spring workouts encouraged Pederson. He liked how the players handled their work after a short offseason period and appreciated the attendance. Other than Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett, two established veterans who have missed voluntary workouts in past seasons, the Eagles had a full locker room throughout much of the spring.
“I think this team is different [than others],” said Ertz, explaining why he doesn’t think the Eagles won’t become afflicted by internal strife. “It’s been harped on a thousand times that we didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver, we didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher on this team last year. I think that speaks volumes to how this team acts. Obviously, guys were close — Alshon [Jeffery], me, [Nelson Agholor] — we could have been selfish. …A lot of it stems from Doug, the selflessness he wants us to focus on.”
Even players who could be in line for more money have resisted making it an issue because of the team dynamics. Brandon Graham, who is entering the final year of his contract, admitted that in a different situation he might be more inclined to fuss about the desire for long-term security. But he believes the Eagles have a chance to win the Super Bowl again, and he doesn’t want to create a problem.
There’s also the idea in the locker room that winning together benefits almost everyone individually. Ertz noted how Trey Burton earned a lucrative contract in Chicago after the Super Bowl. Patrick Robinson and Beau Allen found riches elsewhere, too.
The same can be said about the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich became a head coach in Indianapolis. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo was named offensive coordinator in Minnesota.
One challenge that successful coaches encounter is rebuilding a staff. Pederson has tried to create a pipeline of young coaches in the building so that when one assistant leaves for a promotion elsewhere, there’s a position coach in line for a bigger role or a quality coach control ready for more responsibility. That’s what happened this offseason. Mike Groh, who was the wide receivers coach, replaced Reich. Press Taylor moved from quality control coach to quarterbacks coach. The most notable outside hire was Gunter Brewer at wide receivers. His previous experience has been in college.
All three ascended to the most prominent jobs of their coaching careers. When Pederson first assembled his staff, it was a credentialed group that had held similar jobs elsewhere. The coaches in the pipeline are inherently indebted to Pederson, and it could become harder to challenge a championship-winning coach.
Aware of this shift, Pederson has tried to promote healthy disagreement among the staff. He wants different viewpoints and spirited conversation. He also wants to walk out of the room “united.” And, of course, Pederson has the veto power on everything.
“But listen: I’m in that learning boat with everybody else,” Pederson said. “I don’t have an ego. I check it at the door. I’m rolling up my sleeves and learning just like they are. If I have something, I’ll say it. And if they have something, they’ll say it. We have those healthy conversations.”
But Pederson is still there, and that should be a reason for confidence. It all starts with the head coach. Even if the roles are different on the offensive staff, Pederson is still calling the plays. He oversaw an offense that averaged 365.8 yards and 28.6 points per game with one of the best third-down conversion rates in the NFL and the most fourth-down conversions in the league, too.
More important than what Pederson does on game days might be what he’s created behind the scenes. When Jenkins assessed Pederson entering Year 3, the veteran safety focused on how Pederson understands locker-room dynamics and developing a culture, which the nine-year veteran suggested is “something that not many teams have the luxury of having.”
The coaches hailed as the best in the NFL might give their team an advantage on Sundays with schemes or decision-making, but to hear players explain it, any assessment of Pederson must take his culture-building into consideration.
“A lot of coaches know Xs and Os. A lot of coaches can run a meeting,” Jenkins said. “But can you develop culture that sticks regardless of who comes in, who comes out? You’ve only seen that with a few franchises in the league. I think Doug has been able to do that in a short time.”
Same old Doug
Pederson likes to cast himself as just a normal guy who coaches football. He can play the “aw shucks” role well, too. His hope is that he doesn’t change, even if the perception of him has reversed since training camp one year ago and his profile has mushroomed since the February night in Minneapolis.
“I don’t want it to … define me,” Pederson said. “I think it’s an honor, obviously. … I hold it in a high esteem but it’s a great accomplishment … for what we do, but it doesn’t have to define me as a person. Take football aside and put it over there somewhere.”
Football coaching is not a 9-to-5 job. It becomes an all-encompassing endeavor, one that holds significant public interest and can yield the scrutiny he experienced a year ago and the adulation he’s experienced the past few months. So if reaching the pinnacle of the profession does not define Pederson, what does?
“I think the things that can define me is that I’m going to be honest, I’m going to be transparent, I’m going to be as open as I can,” Pederson said. “I’m sort of a father figure to a lot of these players. … There’s no fluff anywhere.”
Pederson believes a team takes on the personality of its coach. He has seen that in the first two years, and his easygoing demeanor and allowance of letting personalities show has fostered a harmonious locker room. Pederson went as far as to say his own spirituality is something that has permeated into the locker room, too.
But ultimately, Pederson is judged by where the Eagles place in the standings — and now, the banners that will hang at Lincoln Financial Field. When he arrived for the first day of training camp last season, he had a losing record to his name and his leadership style couldn’t sell books. He’ll arrive for training camp next week with a new Super Bowl ring in his possession.
Pederson no longer encounters skepticism. Only photo and autograph requests.
“It’s probably going to be that way forever,” Pederson said. “I think when they are not talking about you, you’ve got problems.”
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