On the nights before Eagles games, coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich meet for up to 90 minutes to discuss the game plan. They dissect the play-call sheet, including the first 15 scripted plays.
There’s a running joke between them about how good those 15 plays might be. Pederson introduces them, then offers the plays he might substitute. On Saturday night, before the Eagles’ 38-7 NFC championship game win, Pederson confided with Reich about his directive with the game plan to clinch a Super Bowl berth.
“Be aggressive, keep them off balance, use all the little things that we have, do the unexpected,” Pederson said that night, according to Reich.
The result was 456 yards against the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense and 10 of 14 third-down conversions against the best third-down defense in at least two decades.
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The credit goes mostly to the players – Nick Foles excelled at quarterback, the offensive line played perhaps its best game of the season, and the skill-position players exhibited playmaking ability. But a big factor in the offense’s success was Pederson’s play-calling, which has been one of the revelations of the season.
The next challenge
It will be tested in the Super Bowl in a chess match against Patriots coach Bill Belichick, perhaps the finest coach in NFL history, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who is expected to be the next Detroit Lions head coach.
When Pederson became the Eagles’ head coach in 2016, he had never been a full-time play-caller in the NFL. He built a staff that included two former offensive coordinators with play-calling experience, yet Pederson refused to cede those duties to an assistant. He admitted last summer that selfishly, he would not give up play-calling, noting that it allows him to control the game like he did as a quarterback.
Reich said Pederson is a “little bit more unorthodox at times in a good way” as a play-caller, citing the back-to-back screen passes that Pederson called in the divisional round. Reich added how “unique” some of Pederson’s calls can, hearing the plays through the headset and thinking it might not have hit his brain that way.
“And many times, those things have worked out,” Reich said.
“I think you either have it or you don’t,” Pederson said. “If you just look at what I’ve done in two years, you’d probably call me unorthodox with some of the decisions I’ve made on fourth downs and going for it, two-point conversions, things like that. And I’ve told you guys this before that sometimes you just don’t do the norm, just don’t do what everybody expects to you do and sometimes that can help you. I’m calculated by it but at the same time, I’m going to make sure that I’m putting our guys in a good position.”
Andy Reid influenced Pederson, but he’s also pulled out from some other coaches he’s worked with and played for during his career. When he played for Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, he learned about the motions, shifts, and quick-passing game that were hallmarks in the West Coast offense. When he played for Mike Sherman in Green Bay, his thoughts on the run-game evolved and he learned creative ways to utilize personnel, such as an extra lineman lining up as tackle-eligible tight end.
As offensive coordinator in Kansas City, he was first exposed to run-pass options after the Chiefs acquired quarterback Alex Smith and they studied how Smith was used in San Francisco. That continued when he arrived in Philadelphia and worked with some of the holdovers from Chip Kelly’s coaching staff. All of those experiences have foundations in the plays design, and he blends together his personnel, the game situation, and the opponent when determining the play call.
“Nothing just comes out of thin air, just off the top of my head,” Pederson said. “Everything’s out of the game plan, everything is things we’ve repped during the week. And it just comes down to film study, just like the players and I’m no different. I’ve got to study the tape and understand situations, understand down and distance, and what the defense might be trying to accomplish and try to put our players, offensively, in the best position on that particular play to be successful.”
As creative as Pederson has been this season, he hasn’t unleashed any trick plays or gadget plays – until Sunday. The Eagles called a flea-flicker for a touchdown. It’s been in the offense all season, but during the Saturday night meeting, Reich had a feeling Pederson would call it for the first time.
Pederson said he wasn’t saving it and added “there’s got to be a reason for running a gadget play.” He thought the formation and situation allowed them to attempt it at that moment. Torrey Smith said the Eagles have practiced it, but it has worked to varying degrees. When Foles heard the play call, he tried to conceal his smile.
“I played for some amazing coaches, and Doug is an unbelievable play-caller,” Foles said. “He’d probably tell you, too, that we have a great staff that works with him to create these game plans. He does a great job of deciding when to call each thing, but our staff is unbelievable at game planning and putting us in position.”
Pederson is the first to include Reich when discussing the offensive game plan each week. Reich, who doesn’t boast about his role, said Pederson “literally put together the best staff that you can possibly imagine and that’s how we work.” So Reich coordinates with the other coaches to narrow down the ideas for Pederson. Their meeting on the eve of the game helps organize the plan. But when it comes to sending the plays into the quarterback, it’s a one-man job.
“It’s Doug calling the plays,” Reich said.
That’s a big reason they’re playing in the Super Bowl.