Plane rides home are a little less comfortable for Lane Johnson this season.
Johnson skirted the edge of Doug Pederson’s “no-jeans” dress code last year, when Pederson was a rookie head coach and less diligent about discipline. Johnson is 6-foot-6 and weighs 317 pounds. For a guy that size, a poly-cotton blend is a lot less binding than worsted wool. His game-day outfit was more Tom Watson than Tom Ford.
“Usually I’d just wear khakis and an Eagles polo shirt,” Johnson said.
That was before Pederson made it clear in August that his attitude toward discipline was about to change, and that painful fines would follow. Johnson took heed.
“I actually got a suit,” Johnson said. “Didn’t have one before, but I have one now.”
Make no mistake; the atmosphere at NovaCare has changed. It’s not Mayberry anymore. Pederson 2.0 is a lot more like Andy Reid than Andy Griffith.
“Coach Reid mentored him,” reasoned Jason Peters, who played for Reid and recognizes the behavior.
“A lot more strict. Some guys would wear what looked like jeans to me. They come up with them this year, they get fined. There’s a lot more enforcement going on,” Johnson said. “It makes you more accountable. A lot of guys listen when you start hitting them in the pocketbook. That’s true with weigh-ins, too. Being on time for meetings. Everything.”
Jeffrey Lurie hired Pederson because, in the wake of a chilly autocrat like Chip Kelly, the franchise needed more “emotional intelligence,” as Lurie put it.
In the wake of a 2016 season that began with promise but finished 7-9; included the 10-game PED suspension of Johnson; featured the midseason arrest and dismissal of wide receiver Josh Huff; and saw Pederson publicly question his players’ effort after a December loss at Cincinnati, Pederson has become more of a father, less of a brother.
After 18 games in the big chair, Pederson is more direct, less deflective. He self-evaluates but he doesn’t self-doubt. Witness his ceaseless defense of his seemingly indefensible 101-33 pass-run ratio through two games, made starker by the 56-13 disparity in last week’s loss at Kansas City. He won’t back down on being pass-happy, but you get the feeling he might one day acknowledge some measure of error, as he did this spring, when he spoke about his fourth-down calls in 2016.
“I feel like, too, that I’m still learning a little bit,” Pederson said. “I have to be critical of myself. I’ve got to see if I’m putting our team in a good situation by play call and the decisions that I make during the game. But at the same time, I just — I had just that great feeling.”
Pederson passed again and again against Kansas City, he said, because big targets Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz created matchup advantages in the passing game. Also, he wanted to avoiding the Chiefs’ imposing front seven.
He spoke with similar conviction when, just before the season opener, a story surfaced that suggested defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had Machiavellian designs on Pederson’s job; Pederson said he embraced Schwartz’s “swagger.” Similarly, Pederson was asked last week if he worried that starting running back LeGarrette Blount might be upset that Pederson called no running plays for him at K.C.
Last season, Pederson might have said that he would discuss the matter with Blount. Last week, he said he’d be worried if Blount wasn’t frustrated.
Pederson recently has become prickly when reporting health and depth-chart status; frankly, it’s kind of adorable. His starchier public presentation doesn’t change behind closed doors, either. He has found his voice and his footing.
“He’s gotten more and more comfortable,” said center Jason Kelce. “He has his ways he wants to do things, and he’s open to the players. But at the same time he understands that, being the head coach, he has to be the one who makes the final decisions. It’s been a process for him to develop as a head coach. He’s more comfortable in team meetings here at the facility, and when he talks to the team nights before the game in the hotel.”
So far, Pederson’s firmer hand has created a sharper, more professional team, which Johnson credits to Pederson’s emphasis on accountability. Yes, the players should be more familiar with the schemes in his second season, but the team underwent considerable reconstruction. There is a marked improvement in pre-snap organization, alignments, and assignments.
The stricter regime doesn’t mean Pederson’s high EQ is diminished. He developed that Emotional Quiotient as he played professionally for 14 seasons and saw teammates chafe under dictatorial coaches. This season, to ensure the players have a consistent voice, he had them elect permanent captains, whom he treats like lieutenants.
“We have meetings with the captains, giving him our feedback, what we hear around the locker room,” said left tackle Jason Peters, who is one of the captains. “Sometimes he adjusts the schedule. Cuts a couple of reps back. He definitely listens to us when we give him something.”
Pederson also believes in competitions and incentives, from team-building games to keeping score at practices to weight-room performance (http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/eagles/Philadelphia-Eagles-Pederson-ramps-up-competition-during-team-workouts.html). He installed two arcade-style pop-a-shot basketball hoops at the far end of the locker room. These are professional athletes, true, but they’re also young men who are clocking long days. Hey, it works at Google. Small distractions can translate into better focus on Pederson’s messages, which have gotten clearer.
“In team meetings, catching the team’s attention, I feel like he’s been more vocal this season than last season,” Johnson said. “I think he’s finding his bearings.”
That’s reasonable. Pederson got the Eagles’ top job after just seven years as an NFL assistant, but his players are willing to endure his growing pains — even if that means throwing the ball every single play.
“It’s his second year. He’s learning as he goes. He’s getting stronger and stronger every game,” said Peters, who has played under five head coaches in his 14 seasons. “We’re going to ride with Doug, whether people are saying he’s calling a bad game or we’re not running, or whatever.”
“It’s all about attention to detail,” Johnson said, and shrugged. “That suit, I mean, it doesn’t even fit me, really. But I wear it anyway.”