BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Five days after Carson Wentz tore up his knee, Eagles coach Doug Pederson walked into one of the team meeting rooms at the NovaCare Complex and, in front of the entire offense, he kicked over a trash can.
“He was dead serious — his face, everything,” offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said.
“We were like all on edge,” quarterback Nate Sudfeld said. “Everybody was kind of unsettled like, ‘What did we do wrong?’”
The tension didn’t last long. A smile soon crept across Pederson’s face.
“And then he was like, ‘Ha, I’m just kidding,’” Sudfeld said.
It didn’t take long to get the joke.
“After a few seconds,” center Jason Kelce said, “it clicked in everybody’s brain.”
A day earlier during practice, Kelce had kicked a trash can in a fit. Reporters and cameras were there for his tirade and it briefly caused a stir on social media.
Did Kelce reinjure his ankle?
Was his outburst the manifestation of the Eagles’ frustration over Wentz’s season-ending injury?
It was neither. Kelce had accidentally been cleated by another teammate.
“It was just Doug making light of the situation,” Kelce said.
The room exploded into laughter.
“It was funny,” Stoutland said. “That kind of dissolved the whole thing. After that it was like, ‘OK, we’re all good. Let’s move on. Let’s get on with the game plan.’”
In the Eagles’ improbable run to Super Bowl LII, Pederson has pushed and pulled, twisted and turned, struck and, yes, kicked seemingly all the right buttons. While his Kelce impersonation was just a small example, the Eagles coach has a way of smoothing a situation that might otherwise derail his team.
It is, for his players, his assistants, and the many who have worked with him, one of the secrets to his success as a coach. If Pederson seems to strike the wrong chord, or if he does not carry himself in the self-serious way old-school coaches see fit, it doesn’t matter because he comes from an authentic place.
“Doug Pederson is just himself. And at times, that’s very humble, and at times, it’s just very real,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “At times, that’s very bright. At times, it’s tough. But he does it in a true genuine way, and I think players really respond to that in today’s world.”
Pederson, who turned 50 on Wednesday, takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously. He delegates. He gives his players leeway to express themselves. He is a former player — as he often likes to say – who still likes to hang in the locker room with the guys.
He isn’t a doormat, however. He can be demanding, not because it’s his natural disposition, but because the job requires it. It’s a tough love tactic he said he learned from his father, Gordon, his first coach.
But Pederson couldn’t have guided the Eagles past a five-game losing streak in his first year, through countless injuries in his second — including the one to Wentz that many thought would end the team’s title chances – and the typical ups and downs of a season without self-assurance.
“He’s got great confidence. Doesn’t get rattled. I think those are big things when you’re presented so many challenges over the course of a season,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “There’s going to be trying times and he’s got a good personality that way, and I think the team reflects that. The team doesn’t get rattled easily.”
The Eagles were underestimated heading into the postseason. Pederson knows the feeling. Many questioned his hiring two years ago. Just days before the season opener in September, former NFL executive Mike Lombardi called him one of the least qualified coaches he had ever seen. If true, one of the least qualified coaches is one win from doing what no other Eagles coach, including Pederson’s mentor, Andy Reid, and only 31 other coaches, have ever done.
“I’m sure there was — and there was — doubt, skepticism; call it whatever it is,” Pederson said last week before the Eagles departed for Minnesota. “First-time head coach. What does he know about running a team? And hopefully, I’ve proven people wrong.”
Pederson’s father taught him and his two brothers the game of football. He forced young Doug, who wanted to be a wide receiver, to play quarterback because he was the only one who could handle the snap. He was harder on his boys than on the other kids. If they didn’t do the right things, he’d let them know.
“He’d come right into my room after practice or a game and let me know about it,” Pederson said. “Good or bad.”
Pederson handles his team the same way. He praises the praiseworthy. But when the Eagles aren’t hustling or they’re sloppy, he makes it known. For instance, an early-season fumble was returned for too many yards against the Eagles because players failed to flip gears. Pederson brought the offense together and in an expletive-filled rant “nipped that whole thing in the bud,” Stoutland said.
“We’ll have practices where if the offense isn’t functioning well, or we’re doing some just stupid, dumb mistakes, he’ll start [cursing out] guys, quite frankly,” Kelce said. “I don’t think that’s what he wants to be. I think it’s just something he has to do to get guys to do what they’re supposed to do.”
The angriest Kelce ever saw Pederson was when rookie defensive tackle Elijah Qualls parked his car along a curb rather than in one of the spaces allotted to the players at the NovaCare Complex.
“He called me out specifically like first thing in the morning during the team meeting,” Qualls said. “I don’t know how he knew it was mine because like 15 people on the team have Chargers. I know he stresses the details. But it wasn’t even like most people would lose their temper. Doug’s mad is like most people’s irritated.”
Pederson “never goes over the line and he never loses his cool,” Sudfeld said. The same applies during the game and even in potentially stressful, late-game moments. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said that Pederson will sometimes say something into the headset that can be completely off the wall despite the circumstances.
“He’s just very comfortable and confident in who he [is] and take a moment like that and even joke around even in the intensity of the moment. It’s not too big for him,” Reich said. “It can sometimes be a little goofy. But that didn’t just happen once. That’s probably happened three or four or five times this year where you’re like, ‘Where did that comment come from?’ ”
Reich said that Pederson’s ease relieves the tension for the staff, and that in turn filters down to the players.
“It’s been good for me,” Stoutland said of Pederson’s composure. “We’ll have a flyover or something and he’ll say something like, ‘Wow, that was incredible. We’re ready to start the game and it just takes your attention off the thing for a second just to break it.”
When Pederson announced Dec. 11 that Wentz’s season was over, he projected an assurance during the news conference that was clearly intended to send a message to his players. Internally, he did allow himself a moment of woe.
“Maybe in here somewhere [points to chest], but not out here. I would never do that out here. I would never do that in front of the team and I would never do that in front of you,” Pederson said recently to a small group of reporters. “But inside you’re kind of going, ‘Dang, we got this thing going.’”
But it didn’t take long to “fire back up,” he said. Pederson has an infectious positivity fueled by a desire to win
“That’s why we get in this business. That’s the motivation,” Pederson said. “I want to see these guys succeed on the field.”
In Pederson’s career as a backup quarterback, his primary job was to help prepare the starter. During his first stint with the Packers, he had two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in Brett Favre and Jim McMahon whom he deferred to, and that meant having to host an Appleton, Wis., radio show.
Yes, Pederson did radio. Every Monday night, he did an hour on the air with a guest player or coach.
“Brett and Jim were too busy,” Pederson said. “But I loved it. We had a host. We had a limo that would pick my wife and I up at the house. … It was in a sports bar. You’d get a free meal out of it. For me, it was great because after the show we’d hang around, maybe have a couple of beers and sit and talk to the fans.”
Even then, Pederson talked of coaching someday, according to then-Packers offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. He would play 14 seasons total, briefly with the Eagles and Browns, and back at the end with Green Bay. When he retired, he become the head coach at Calvary Baptist Academy in Louisiana.
Doug Pederson’s Long
Super Bowl Journey
But he pined for the NFL. And when Reid called and offered him an entry-level job with the Eagles in 2009, “there wasn’t a lot of the twisting of my arm,” he said.
“There was not much discussion,” Mornhinweg said. “‘Oh, Doug. Does he want to do this? Oh, done.’ He fit right in. It was immediate.”
To Mornhinweg, now the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, there was no question Pederson would eventually become a head coach, and a good one. Joe Banner, then the Eagles president, didn’t see it quite that way.
“At the time, I would have said he’s got everything you’re looking for, but he needed to continue to grow as the leader, as the CEO of the organization,” Banner said. “It certainly appears he’s done that.”
His first season with the Eagles, though, was rocky. He won his first three games but lost seven of the next nine. Most of the games were close, but Pederson’s game management marred a few. Then came a few blowouts, and some fans and critics grew impatient.
Lurie and Eagles executive Howie Roseman did not.
“He acted the same way when we were 3-0 when we were 5-9,” Roseman said.
Pederson’s staff appreciates his consistency. He sets a schedule and doesn’t stray from it. When he holds coaches-only meetings at the start of each week, he goes around the room and asks each assistant, “What are your thoughts and how are we going to beat this team? ” running backs coach Duce Staley said.
“And he writes it down and he goes back and reads it,” Staley said. “And you know how I know? Because I see it in the game plan.”
Pederson isn’t tyrannical, which Staley said is difficult these days “because there are so many dictators, small countries” in the NFL. Schwartz has autonomy over the defense; Dave Fipp, over special teams. Reich handles the two-minute offense and will call plays sometimes in those scenarios. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo specializes in the red zone. And so on.
“Sometimes you see coaches have their offense and they’re going to run their offense. This is what they believe in. They have strong convictions,” Kelce said. “I think Doug has a little of that, but he continues to adjust, adapt, and innovate. … We’ve lost guys, and he designs and calls plays that work to his players’ strengths.”
The NFL is about the players, according to Pederson. He doesn’t suffer from delusions of coaching grandeur.
“Put 98 percent talent in a room and 2 percent coaching,” he said, “but the coaching needs to be 100 percent of the 2 percent.”
And a significant portion of coaching is listening to the locker room. Pederson created a nine-man leadership council during his first year that meets weekly for a sort of airing of grievances. Sometimes he’ll honor a request – such as when the players wanted to practice more in pads before the playoffs – and sometimes he won’t – as when they asked to fly first-class.
But most of the players said they value his openness to their self-expression.
“Even when he first got here, [he said] just let your personality show,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “I think you’ve seen that all year. Whether it be the celebrations or just the demeanor about which we go and play, guys have been able to kind of be themselves in a way that doesn’t step outside of the team, either.”
Pederson hasn’t changed an iota despite his success this season. While Patriots coach Bill Belichick wore a suit and tie Monday for media night, Pederson donned his standard jeans. His daily news conferences have been the usual mixture of cooperative yet nebulous, sincere yet jocular.
“I love ice cream,” Pederson said when asked for the story behind his habit for ending Saturday’s team meetings by telling his players that the dessert is waiting, and possibly melting. “Can’t you tell?”
He said there was no particular meaning behind the ice cream send-off. The same lack of pretense apparently applied to his kicking the trash can over in December.
“Oh, I set them up,” Pederson said. “I made sure the trash can was empty first. So I came into the meeting late and when I walked in I was like, ‘That practice was …!’ and I just booted the can across the room. And guys were like, ‘whooooaaa.’ And then I just busted out laughing.”
So why do it?
“To liven the room,” Pederson said. “I just wanted to have fun with the players.”
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.