Doug Pederson watched the Minnesota Vikings’ miraculous win in his office at the team facility Sunday night. When Stefon Diggs sprinted toward the end zone, Pederson finally knew his conference championship game opponent.
Then, all his attention was devoted to Minnesota as he began the biggest week of his coaching career.
The Eagles coach has earned praise for his work this season, going from hot-seat lists in the preseason to coach-of-the-year lists in the postseason. His finest work might have come during the last two weeks, when Pederson’s players lauded him for pushing the right buttons leading up to the Eagles’ win over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday. Whether it was the intensity of practices, the messaging inside the building, or the play-calling and game management, Pederson led the Eagles’ to their first playoff win in nine years.
Now, he needs to regroup and find a way to do it again.
“That’s the challenge, in probably our case and in the Vikings’ case, is coming off these emotional, close victories, and then having to turn around and do it again,” Pederson said. “I’ve just got to make sure that I continue to stay aggressive with the week of practice and prepare the guys just like we have the last couple of weeks and just try to stay in our lane and try to block out some of the noise.”
Pederson said the players know what’s at stake, and they don’t necessarily need the motivation this time of the year. But Pederson didn’t mind if they felt disrespected last week, if they heard how they were underdogs, or if they knew of analysts picking against them. There were signs around the team facility indicating such, and the players were even shown a video on Friday night reinforcing it. Those dog masks that Lane Johnson and Chris Long wore were ordered for a reason.
“To have a lot of sort of people not having a lot of confidence in us and yet to find ways to win just makes it that much more special for this group, and they understand where we are,” Pederson said. “I’m sure Minnesota is the same way. They understand where they are, as well, and the things they’ve heard all season long, too. This is a special time of the year with a special group of men, and yeah, we still have one more game this weekend, and we’ll see what happens.”
Pederson’s coaching success went well beyond the messaging. The Eagles had light practices late in the season, and players asked to ramp it up during the bye week. Pederson complied, and players compared the intensity of the sessions to training camp. That’s rare for January.
When Pederson became the head coach, he wanted to call plays. He insisted after his first season that he had no plans to give up play-calling, saying it was like being a quarterback touching the ball on every snap. Throughout the season, Pederson has been tested with the loss of quarterback Carson Wentz, who was the keystone of the offense; left tackle Jason Peters, who could anchor the line and didn’t require blocking help; and running back Darren Sproles, who was his most versatile weapon.
“Doug is one of the best play-callers I’ve ever been around,” tight end Zach Ertz told reporters Saturday after the game. “He always seems to know what buttons to push and when to push them.”
Pederson was imaginative as a play-caller against the Falcons, including a third-down jet sweep to Nelson Agholor that he had not called this season that resulted in a 21-yard gain. Pederson said it was in previous game plans this season, but the Eagles were waiting for the right situation.
In the second half, he called back-to-back screen passes to Jay Ajayi. The second one went for 32 yards, and Pederson seemed proud to call upon the second screen when it wasn’t expected.
“Sometimes you can catch a group off guard when they don’t expect two screens back-to-back,” Pederson said. “I’ve done it one other time, in Kansas City, with success. It’s just something that you just kind of get in the flow of the game, get in the feel of the game.”
Pederson has also quieted any concerns about his game management. The Eagles were the second most aggressive team in the NFL this season on fourth downs, and Pederson kept his offense on the field for a fourth and goal from the 1-yard line on Saturday to score seven points instead of three.
He bypassed a fourth and 1 from the 3-yard line in the fourth quarter to take the field goal and make it a five-point game instead of trying to make it a nine-point game. Pederson vacillated about that decision, knowing that a successful conversion could have ended the game. But if the Eagles didn’t convert, Atlanta would have needed only a field goal on their final drive and could have taken the lead. Instead, the defense’s goal line stand preserved the win.
Pederson also successfully challenged a call, and his clock management helped the Eagles get points before the half. There could be debate about using a timeout before the last field goal or not challenging a play before Atlanta’s first field goal, but the overall marks should be high for Pederson’s coaching job.
Now, he must do it again. He doesn’t have two weeks of practice this time, and even though the Eagles are underdogs, there will likely be fewer critics to use for motivation. His play-calling will be tested Sunday against the NFL’s top-ranked defense, and with more tape of Nick Foles in the Eagles offense. And his decisions could decide whether the Eagles make the Super Bowl or lose a conference championship game at home.
“You don’t do anything crazy as far as just do the things that got you in that position and got you there in the first place,” Pederson said. “Once you get into the flow of the game, it’s football. You sort of block out all the peripheral stuff, whether it be the noise or the score, time of the game, wherever you’re at, and you just try to execute and try to help your team win the game.”