One by one, the Eagles’ players approached the door to the visiting locker room of the Superdome on Sunday night, their helmets in their hands, their heads hanging, the finality of their 20-14 playoff loss to the Saints just starting to sink in. As they passed through the doorway, their head coach slapped their shoulder pads and their backs and hugged them and whispered in their ears. Doug Pederson stayed there until all his players had entered the room, and only then did he follow them inside. There wasn’t one on whom he failed to lay a supportive hand.
It was a small thing, but it was a big thing, too, a revealing scene, a reaffirmation of a term that once earned Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie rolled eyes and ridicule but now seems a glorious insight. Pederson, Lurie said when he hired him in early 2016, had the “emotional intelligence” to be a successful NFL head coach. After the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory last year and their late-season surge to the NFC semifinals this year, it’s difficult to dispute that Lurie saw in Pederson the proper proportion of the qualities necessary to pull off maybe the toughest trick in coaching: to earn pro athletes’ support and respect, to get them to play for you.
Yes, Pederson showed relatively quickly that he could design an offense that kept pace with the trends throughout the NFL: the rise of run-pass options, the creativity in formations and schemes that has spilled over from the college ranks. Yes, Lurie hoped that Pederson’s experience as a longtime NFL backup quarterback would give him a built-in credibility with whomever the Eagles’ QBs were — Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, as it turned out. But to his credit, Lurie also sought a coach who could reach and relate to the entire locker room. He prioritized that skill.
There’s a lesson there for other owners and executives around the NFL. But based on the recent spate of head coaching hires and the reasons offered for some of them, you have to wonder whether they cared to learn it. The Arizona Cardinals, for instance, hired Kliff Kingsbury, 39, the former head coach at Texas Tech. The Cardinals have a young, developing quarterback in Josh Rosen, whom they selected with the 10th pick in last year’s draft, and in explaining why the franchise settled on Kingsbury, Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said: “When you look at the output of his offenses, both when he was a coordinator in college and as a head coach, it’s really impressive, the amount of points he puts up, where he positions his offenses, and you look at the six quarterbacks that he tutored and coached [who] have come into the National Football League.”
Similarly, the New York Jets traded up last year to pick Sam Darnold at No. 3. And based on comments earlier this week from their CEO, Christopher Johnson, they based their decision to hire Adam Gase, 40, as their new head coach almost exclusively on their belief that he — more than, say, former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy — was the best choice to groom Darnold.
“Seeing how Adam has gotten the best out of quarterbacks in different stages of their careers is vitally important, no question," Johnson said. “It’s not that there was anything wrong with McCarthy or any of the other guys. They were fantastic, but Adam took it to another level."
As for the Packers, they hired former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, 39, to replace McCarthy. In introducing LaFleur, Packers president Mark Murphy said that there are always two keys in hiring the right candidate for a job: (1) “Make sure they’re a great fit;” and (2) “You want somebody who is genuinely excited about the position.” The fact that LaFleur fit the same general profile of Kingsbury and Gase — a relatively young coach who had made his bones as an offensive mastermind — was apparently coincidental.
Of course, it wasn’t. There was an obvious template for these hires: Sean McVay, 31, who already over his two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams has shown himself to be a wunderkind. By all apparent evidence, these franchises were looking for pro football’s next big brain — just as Lurie was when he hired Pederson’s predecessor, Chip Kelly. But McVay is more than that. As the Eagles’ players do with Pederson, the Rams’ players appreciate McVay’s transparency and honesty, his openness to them and their ideas, and his willingness to accept blame when something goes wrong. There’s more to the Sean McVay model than just Jared Goff’s development and some pretty play-calling.
“When you really look at that ownership that our players have on just the way we operate, that's the most important thing," McVay told ESPN last year. “That's really where the true power comes in, because they're the ones out there making plays.”
That sounds an awful lot like Doug Pederson. That sounds an awful lot like a coach who has emotional intelligence. Perhaps Kingsbury, Gase, and LaFleur will bring that quality to their new teams, too, but if they do, the men who hired them will have stumbled into success.