At halftime of the Eagles-Redskins game last Sunday, Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz met in the FedEx Field visitors locker room and went over possible plays for after the break.
“It was, ‘Hey, here are a couple of the ones I really like,’” Wentz recalled.
Pederson had two play-action passes that he favored, but he wrote a star next to one on his call sheet. Coach and quarterback were simpatico.
“We were both thinking the exact same [thing] … and he looked at it and he liked the one,” Pederson said.
Faced with a second-and-10 late in the fourth quarter with the Eagles up two points and near midfield, Pederson looked at the play-action portion of his sheet and called the play next to the star. Wentz faked the handoff, took a deep drop, and fired a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
The Eagles advanced into Redskins territory and five plays later went ahead 22-17 after Caleb Sturgis’ 37-yard field goal.
It isn’t unusual for a coach to take a player’s advice, especially at quarterback. It’s difficult to say if Pederson is more receptive than most other coaches. But he certainly has been willing to incorporate Wentz’s voice increasingly into game-planning and play-calling in their second season together.
“He’s the one out there pulling the trigger,” Pederson said, “so I want to make sure he’s comfortable.”
Which is what you might expect a former-quarterback-turned-coach to say. Pederson’s NFL playing experience is the No. 1 reason cited by his players and others when asked why he will succeed in coaching. It’s possible that having once been in Wentz’s shoes helps his play-calling.
But ample questions remain about Pederson’s ability to administer an offensive game plan. He had some strong moments in the Eagles’ 30-17 opening day victory in Landover, Md. – as the above anecdote illustrates – but he also made some head-scratching calls.
Pederson returns Sunday to where his NFL play-calling career began – however odd it was – to face his former team in the Kansas City Chiefs and his former mentor/coach/play-calling guru in Andy Reid. While the two men won’t go head-to-head per se, their offenses will be stacked up against each other.
Play-calling has never been considered Reid’s strongest suit. But he may have his most explosive offense this season, as evidence by the 42 points Kansas City posted on the defending Super Bowl-champion Patriots Two years ago, Reid’s Chiefs stumbled out of the gate and scored fewer points in four successive games as they went 1-5.
Needing to shake the order up, Reid had Pederson call the offense in the second half of games.
“First of all, I thought he was good at it,” Reid said Wednesday when asked why he went to his then-offensive coordinator. “He gave me an opportunity to step back and evaluate a few things.”
Reid had intermittently given up play-calling responsibilities to Brad Childress and Marty Mornhinweg with the Eagles. But never in such a contrived way. He didn’t have Mornhinweg follow him to Kansas City because he said he wanted to take back play-calling full time.
But the Chiefs were sputtering in early 2015 and Reid handed second-half duties off to someone who had never called an offense in the NFL. Kansas City won its next 11 games, including in the first round of the playoffs.
“We got on a roll and he was a big part of that,” Reid said of Pederson. “He did a real nice job with it.”
Quarterbacks Alex Smith and Chase Daniel have also commended Pederson, even if the Chiefs’ final drive of their second-round loss to New England took awkwardly long. But the change in play-calling wasn’t apparent to every player.
“I’m not going to lie, I have no idea,” tight end Travis Kelce said Wednesday during a conference call. “I didn’t even know they switched play-calling.”
Kelce’s comments could be construed as just another example of Reid and Pederson’s similarities in play-calling – good or bad. Both have struggled with game management. But given extra time for preparation, Reid, who has an additional three days before Sunday’s meeting, can be masterful.
“He’s going to obviously exhaust the tape,” Pederson said. “He prides himself on tendencies and personnel groupings. And he prepares and studies that way. And then just early in games being able to keep defenses off balance, moving guys around.”
Pederson said that, like Reid, he scripts roughly the first 15 plays. Wentz isn’t in the room when he and offensive coordinator Frank Reich organize the game plan, but the quarterback’s preferences are taken into account.
“We talk so much during the week that he knows what I like for the most part, and I know kind of what he’s thinking,” Wentz said. “And as we see the game obviously through different sets of eyes it’s good to still be on the same page.”
An unexpected kick return may be all it takes to blow up the first scripted play. But at some point, Pederson will call the game situationally. Reich is on the headset aiding as positional coaches give player updates or information. And Wentz will often confer with Pederson during breaks to discuss the next drive.
“He’ll come over and say, ‘Hey, what are you thinking?’ And I’ve circled … two, three, four plays on my sheet,” Pederson said. “Then I ask him, ‘What do you like here in this situation?’ And he’ll give me a couple ideas.”
Wentz said that he and Pederson communicate more in Year 2, which isn’t a surprise as they both mature into their jobs.
“He’s always composed,” Wentz said. “Whether it’s a good play or bad play, he’s onto the next.”
Pederson has used similar language in the past in describing Reid. There are parallels between both coach-quarterback relationships. But there are many differences between the coaches despite the narrative of their similarity.
Reid never played in the NFL. Reid listened to his players, but he never gave them – at least in Philadelphia — as much ownership over decision-making as Pederson has seemingly already done.
“It’s the only way you can be successful,” Pederson said, “is listen to your players.”