Egoless Doug Pederson and His Evolution to Top-Tier NFL Head Coach
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — For nearly two decades Philadelphia had grown accustomed to head football coaches craving power.
"If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells famously once said.
Both Andy Reid and Chip Kelly obviously subscribed to that theory and it can be argued that the constant jockeying for power was the reason for the demise of each coach with Philadelphia, although the end of Reid's far longer and more successful tenure with the organization was more nuanced.
The Eagles enter Year 4 of the Doug Pederson era when training camp kicks off on July 24 and there are no signs that Pederson, a Reid acolyte, is going to fall into the same trap which helped doom his mentor and predecessor.
"Listen, I was hired to be the head football coach, not the general manager," Pederson told reporters, including 973espn.com, in a wide-ranging sitdown last month. "I was hired to teach football. Howie [Roseman] was hired to do the job that he does."
A TRADITIONAL SETUP
Once upon a time in the NFL that was the traditional setup where the general manager handles talent acquisition and gives the players he assembles to the coach. The better personnel evaluators, however, have always been ever mindful to provide the types of players that the mentor wants and when each is on the same page, special things can happen.
In Philadelphia that was highlighted by the Eagles' Super Bowl LII win back in February of 2018.
"There has to be great communication and great dialog between those departments -- coaching and scouting," Pederson surmised. "That’s the one thing, when I was [hired] in 2016, [personnel is] not my expertise. I can sit here and watch tape and write a report, and say this guy can do this, this, and this. And until we get him in the building and coach him up, you just don’t know. You lean so much on our scouting department."
Almost every coach parrots that viewpoint when first hired but many also get lost in their own egos the minute they see even the slightest vacuum. The best example locally was Kelly, who claimed all he wanted to do was coach until the siren's song of power overtook him, but more recent coups in New York with the Jets and Houston where GMs lost to coaches are also evidence.
COLLABORATION AND COMMUNICATION
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie laid down an edict before Roseman was given back the reigns in football operations for the Eagles back in 2016 after the failed Kelly experiment, one that stressed collaboration and communication.
"With Howie, that’s probably the biggest thing, communication. It’s been transparent. It’s been open," Pederson explained. "... We don’t have to agree on every player, right? But we can have constructive conversations and talk openly about certain guys and how well they can fit our system."
As for fighting for the final say, something that is overrated anyway, Pederson has kept his ego in check.
"It's pretty amazing when [coaches] fall into that trap," a former league executive told 973espn.com. "During the most uncertain year you might disagree on maybe three bottom of the roster guys and those kinds of players aren't going to matter when it comes to the bottom line [winning.]"
A DIFFERENT AVENUE
Any coach's shelf life is ever-evolving but for Pederson, the itch of personnel still hasn't arrived.
"For me, that’s just not the avenue that I want to go down as a coach," he insisted. "I’m a part of it. And I want my coaching staff to be a part of it. But I want to coach. I want Howie to bring the players in, and give us the talent that we can go and develop, and win games.”
Some who were weaned on the years of Reid and Kelly, see that as a sign of weakness from Pederson, almost universally dubbed a "good guy" from the players on up the ladder at the NovaCare Complex. When he first arrived and took the back seat to Roseman and later Joe Douglas on draft weekend, he was even labeled as a ficus plant by one area columnist.
Pederson, however, bristles at any intimation of being a road apple as Roseman barrels down his own highway.
“If you’re saying I’m a ‘yes man’, that’s a no,” the coach bristled. "... as I mentioned before, we can have these conversations [on players] and we can disagree about certain players. Whether I agree with it or not, I still have to coach the team and there’s probably has not been a case in the last three years, even this offseason, where there was such two ends of the spectrum on a player that we both just 'there’s no need to bring this guy in.' I can’t think of one instance where we’ve done that. But it’s healthy conversation and it’s conversation that has to take place."
And when those conversations are done, they're done, according to Pederson.
"Listen, bottom line is we have to walk out of that room united — whatever the arguments are — and agree because once that person becomes a Philadelphia Eagle then it’s my job to coach them,” he explained.
SUPER BOWL SWAGGER?
That frame of reference isn't rare but when the ring is slipped on the finger, it can turn to a more heavy-handed approach. With Pederson's Super Bowl success, the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history and something Reid, one of the greatest coaches of the generation and likely Hall of Famer, and Kelly obviously never produced, Pederson has more than enough cachet to throw his weight around.
He has made a calculated decision not to do that.
“Again, it goes back to the conversations. I think that’s one of the things we do really well here. We turn over every stone about players, and we do our due-diligence with players, whether there are character issues, or on-the-field issues, or whatever they might be," Pederson said. "Honestly, I can’t think of a time in the last three years, going on four, where I’ve just said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to have this guy, or not this guy.’ I just don’t think it works that way. But I can have strong opinions, one way or the other, good or bad, for players. And I think that’s very helpful.”
Perhaps staying grounded for Pederson is easier because the chip on his shoulder remains from his genesis as a head coach. He was the Eagles third or fourth choice depending who you talk with back in 2016 and was infamously called "the least prepared" head coach in history by former league executive Mike Lombardi.
“I think a lot of times, people’s egos get in the way and they feel like they’ve got to have their hand in everything,” linebackers coach Ken Flajole assessed. “That’s not Doug. ... His ability to put his ego in his back pocket and put the team ahead of power struggles, or however you want to say it, is probably a pretty good reason why he’s been successful.”
Pederson has proven all his detractors wrong to date and continues to grow as a coach, now almost universally regarded as top five in the profession.
SHARPENING THE JOB DESCRIPTION
Sharpening his own job description remains the focus, however, not adding to it.
“I think there's a lot of areas that I think I've grown," Pederson said when asked about his evolution as a coach.
Becoming an NFL head coach is sort of like a scaled-down version of the presidency. You can talk about experience like a governor's mansion or a senate seat but once you get the big chair, the learning curve is steep and you're doing it by the seat of your pants. For Pederson, it was long-time quarterback to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and then into the fire.
When asked about his own improvements as a coach Pederson began with what defines him on the field -- situational football.
"In the last three years [situational football] has really been a top priority of mine," the coach admitted. "I think I've learned a lot from in-game decisions and different third-down decisions, fourth-down decisions, when to go for it on two-point conversions, things like that. And listen, I've got help in that area, but I think I've become better educated, I've studied that a little bit more, I've grown in that area, quite a bit."
Pederson's biggest strength according to many around the league, however, is his ability to manage personalities and keep everyone on the same page, fighting for the same goal.
"I think just overall managing the football team with a lot of the different personalities that kind of come and go with your team and, you know, being able to handle the LeGarrette Blounts and Jay Ajayis and now DeSean Jackson back on your team and guys that are unique personality types and profiles," Pederson said. "I mean, just being able to manage all that and listen to the team, I think I've had a pretty good handle on just listening to the guys and understanding where they are."
The final trait Pederson identified was staff building in the wake of the early success which led to his two top offensive lieutenants during the Super Bowl season -- Frank Reich and John DeFilippo -- leaving for higher-profile positions.
"Coaches are going to come and go, and being able to replace them with quality guys and teachers [is important]," Pederson said. "And I think that's another area where I've gotten better in the last four years.”
It's all added up to two consecutive playoff seasons, four postseason wins, that trophy which calls South Philadelphia home and the raised expectations which always accompany success.
Not bad for the good guy who was supposed to finish last.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen