Doug Pederson pointed to a room of familiar reporters, none as imposing as the pass rushers he prepared for during a decade as an NFL quarterback or as challenging as the head coaches on opposing sidelines last year.
Yet this room is what Pederson identified as the biggest difference entering his second season as Eagles head coach.
“Going into the second year, going into situations like this are not as intimidating as they were a year ago, quite honestly,” Pederson said. “It’s part of … being in this position.”
The comment might seem as an attempt at humor or flattery, although earlier in the spring former Eagles coach Andy Reid offered a version of Pederson’s answer when recollecting the transition from the first to second season in Philadelphia. Pederson begins his second training camp next Monday.
The answer describes more than the second-guessing that Pederson endures. It speaks to the unique setting Philadelphia provides for a football coach, with a fan base that examines third-and-8 as closely as tax deductions and despises division rivals more than visits to the dentist.
The challenges Pederson faces in 2017 go well beyond the Monday press conferences or talk-radio criticism. As a rookie coach in 2016, he led the Eagles to a 7-9 record in a turbulent season that provided on-the-job training that seven years as an assistant coach could not mimic.
His starting quarterback was traded one week before the season, and he introduced a rookie quarterback who had not yet taken a first-team snap as the opening-day starter. His starting right tackle was suspended for 10 games after the first month of the season. His starting wide receiver suffered a crisis of confidence, leading to a public benching. He navigated through multiple player arrests. He questioned his players’ effort. He went for more fourth downs than any other coach in the NFL, and lived through the praise and criticism as aftermath.
During a wide-ranging roundtable interview in June, Pederson described how he’s different this season. It stretches from setting the offseason calendar to a more nuanced understanding of game management to incorporating advanced metrics into his coaching. He’s working to create his own identity as a coach in a market that associates him with Reid. He wants his voice to carry most with his players, but he’s also aware that he’s one of the faces of the organization and needs to be comfortable in the public setting, too.
“Just all falls under the umbrella of having more confidence now,” Pederson said.
Expectations shift into a higher gear in 2017, and rightfully so — the Eagles invested in upgrades at notable positions such as wide receiver, and Wentz has a full season of experience. So do Pederson and his coaching staff, for that matter. The Eagles believe Wentz is the franchise quarterback they’ve sought since trading Donovan McNabb, and owner Jeffrey Lurie is determined not to waste this lottery ticket. The public message of the front office is one of patience, but in professional sports, front offices are afforded the long view more than head coaches. The long view of a head coach often extends until the clock expires on the next game.
It is premature to put Pederson on the hot seat, but speculation about his future if the Eagles toil through another losing campaign would not be unwarranted. Two of the five head coaches fired last year lasted two or fewer seasons. Remember Reid’s five-year plan? It’s from a dial-up era. Here’s a secret: Management often has as much patience as those who fill its seats.
“I would agree that the window is probably shorter, which after a year or two or three, sometimes when you’re building a roster, teams that get to that Super Bowl, it takes three years, four years, five years in, and if you constantly change, I don’t see how you can get there,” Pederson said. “Now with that being said, there has to be consistency and there has to be improvement this year. I get that. I’m not naïve to that or anything. … I’m not going to worry about next season, my job.”
When asked if he believes he must win this year, Pederson said, “You have to win every year,” but wouldn’t put a number on it because there could be unforeseen dynamics. What if Wentz suffers an injury? Pederson didn’t want to set a win total as a benchmark, although more than seven might be a good place to start.
On talent alone, Pederson is bullish. He stacked the Eagles’ talent up with teams that earned him a Super Bowl ring in Green Bay. He also noted the 2010 Eagles had a loaded roster, “and where did that get us?”
“There has to be a combination of blending all of this talent with a coaching staff, with my ideas and philosophy, to bring all that together, with the egos aside,” Pederson said. “And just go focus on winning this game that we have in front of us. I’m a big believer that if you do that, then you look back at the end of the season, and you’re probably going to be where you want to be, and that’s playing in the postseason.”
Pederson’s claim of more confidence and comfort entering his second year is common for coaches in that position. It doesn’t always lead to better results.
After making the playoffs in his first season in 2013, Chip Kelly spent the following spring and summer revealing how much smoother the operation would be in Year 2. The meetings could be shorter, the individual sessions in practice could be more advanced, and the pace of play could be quicker.
Another 10-6 season finished without a postseason bid, more tinkering took place the next year, and Lurie gave his own version of a three-and-out when he fired Kelly. Pederson offered familiarity because of his Reid-era connections, and much of what took place last year was organized like Reid’s Eagles. Now that he has the year of experience, Pederson assessed ways he could be different.
“I find myself, as I go every day and really, month to month, finding new ways to do something,” Pederson said. “I’m a big believer that you don’t change just to change. It’s got to benefit the team, and it’s got to help you win games. So everything I’ve done and the changes that maybe you’ve seen this offseason are all to help us win games. It’s a little bit more my personality, and also, I want to hear from the players, too. You keep your eyes and ears open. You listen to the guys. You listen to what other teams might be doing from around the league.”
Among the changes have been competitions introduced throughout offseason training to try to tap into players’ competitive wiring. The best weight-room performers earned the parking spots closest to the front door. There were tug-of-war competitions and tag-team races. One practice session was canceled and replaced with a paintball excursion.
Pederson also splits the roster during situational drills in practice so down-the-depth-chart players work against each other, ensuring they’re competing instead of observing during practice.
“I think competition, as they say, iron sharpens iron, and your senses are on high alert, the juices are flowing, it makes you better as a football team,” Pederson said. “It takes the grind of practice away, and it makes it fun for them.”
Pederson said he’s also devoted time this offseason to learning more about advanced metrics and how analytics can benefit his coaching. He wants to use them to help his decision-making on game days, such as going for fourth downs and how to manage two-minute situations and timeouts.
The Eagles attempted 27 fourth-down conversions last season, which led the league. They were successful on 48.1 percent of the attempts. He said he’s taking input from Alec Halaby, the vice president of football operations and strategy, along with others. Pederson conceded that relying on the numbers goes against the traditionalist ethos from his playing career.
“There’s more technology, more data available today than when I played,” Pederson said. “I think there’s a balance … because you can get bogged down with numbers and I don’t want to get bogged down with it, but if it can help us on game days …but yes, it has changed.”
All of this combines to make a coach whose feet are underneath him entering 2017. Pederson emphasized growth in knowing how to manage the game-day roster and understanding the dynamics that go into having the offense, defense, and special teams prepared for Sunday. He’s also confident in how he conveys a message to the team, a sentiment shared by the other side where players touted the trust that has developed with Pederson.
“You have to be honest. You have to be transparent. You have to be upfront. There has to be tough love with the players. They have to see that you care,” Pederson said. “You can’t be a phony standing up in front of the room. I’ll shoot them straight. That’s just the way you get through that stuff. They have to see that, as a head coach, you go through those tough moments, but on Monday or Tuesday when you stand in front of that team, it’s chest up, shoulders back and let’s go to work this week.”
Ultimately, Pederson’s second season will be determined by whether the record improves. A rookie coach can go 7-9 and claim he’s building. If the win total doesn’t increase in 2017, it’s hard to call it progress.
“If we go 8-8, is that a successful year?” Pederson said. “I don’t coach to be average — I’ll tell you that.”