By Peter Gleason
Newbie Eagles coach coach Doug Pederson has taken his knocks, mainly based on the fact that he has never been a head man before.
And that he is seen as an Andy Reid-knock0ff — a former Kansas City offensive coordinator who never called plays!
A little more than three months after accepting his first NFL head-coaching job, Pederson was confronted with a mini-crisis that which undoubtedly induced eye-rolls when he looked into the mirror while brushing his teeth at the Courtyard by Marriott near the Eagles’ training facility on that late-April night.
Sam Bradford (above with Pederson), the team’s incumbent starting quarterback, had demanded a trade less than two months after having re-signed with the Eagles for $36 million over two years. Upset by the Eagles’ April 20 trade with the Cleveland Browns to acquire the second overall pick of the 2016 draft — one which, eight nights later, Philly would use to select former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz — Bradford now wanted out of Philly.
“Sam’s a competitor, and he wants to go someplace and know he’s the man,” Bradford’s agent, Tom Condon, explained in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio. “He doesn’t want to be there holding the place card and then wondering where he’s going to go at the end of the year.”
The way Pederson navigated the controversy, ultimately bringing Bradford back into the fold as his presumptive No. 1 quarterback with no apparent hard feelings and minimal internal drama, tells us a lot about the 48-year-old rookie head coach’s forthright, guileless and — thus far, at least — well-received leadership style.
Pederson, after all, spent his entire 12-year NFL playing career as a quarterback facing far shakier employment circumstances than Bradford, and holding the place card could be a separate category on his résumé.
Most notably, Pederson started the first nine games of the 1999 season for the Eagles until rookie Donovan McNabb, selected second overall the previous April, took over the position for the next 10 seasons.
Pederson wasn’t in position to raise a stink about that place-holding stint, nor did he complain the following season when he spent eight games as a fill-in starter for injured Cleveland Browns quarterback Tim Couch, the first overall pick of the 1999 draft.
“You look at my career, everywhere I went — Miami, Green Bay, Cleveland, Philly — they were always bringing in draft picks and former first-rounders and guys with free-agent deals to take my job,” Pederson recalled in an interview last week at the team’s NovaCare Complex. “And in the end, an undrafted free agent (from Northeast Louisiana) beat all those guys out.
“It’s no different than what I went through here in ’99. Believe me, I was handed nothing.”
In other words, having been handed a potential quarterback controversy — something most established NFL head coaches strive to avoid like West Coast “Game of Thrones” viewers evading social-media spoilers on Sunday evenings — Pederson isn’t shaking with fear, and he certainly hasn’t fumbled.
“I’ve learned in this league that things sort themselves out,” Pederson said. “I just try to be open and honest with (the quarterbacks), and all the players, so at least they know where they stand. Players are smart. That locker room knows. So don’t hide anything. Eventually, the dust is gonna settle.”
In the meantime, Bradford is back with his teammates and finishing out theEagles’ offseason program atop the depth chart. Eighth-year veteran Chase Daniel, who followed former Chiefsoffensive coordinator Pederson to Philly from Kansas City (and scored a three-year, $21-million free-agent deal in the process), is Bradford’s backup. And Wentz, the franchise-QB-in-waiting, is being eased in as the No. 3 QB, at least until inertia pushes him up the pipeline.
In the event that Bradford hasn’t completely embraced the challenge of trying to be Drew Brees to Wentz’s Philip Rivers, or Kurt Warner to his Matt Leinart … well, he probably shouldn’t look to his head coach for sympathy. Consider that when Pederson inked a deal with the Miami Dolphins after going undrafted in 1991, his mood was only slightly less sunny than that of Jimmy Stewart in the final scenes of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“My first signing bonus was 3,500 bucks,” Pederson said. “I bought speakers and a five-disc carousel CD changer. Dude, I thought I was the wealthiest quarterback around. I was in camp with Dan Marino, and Scott Mitchell had just been drafted the year before … I was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’ ”
Suffice it to say that Pederson takes nothing for granted. He was released by the Dolphins after training-camp stints in 1991 and ’92, with a spring fling for the New York/New Jersey Knights of the now-defunct World League of American Football sandwiched in between. He finally stuck as Miami’s third-string quarterback in 1993, and when future Hall of Famer Marino and Mitchell went down with injuries, Pederson finished out an historic November victory over the Eagles at Veteran’s Stadium — the 325th of legendary coach Don Shula’s career, breaking a tie with George Halas atop the all-time list.
Pederson was feeling pretty secure about his status heading into the 1995 offseason, even after the team signed Dan McGwire, a former first-round pick who had flamed out with the Seattle Seahawks. McGwire, the brother of four-time single-season home-run king Mark McGwire, was the league’s tallest quarterback at 6-foot-8, but as training camp progressed Pederson believed he stood taller on the depth chart.
“They brought Dan McGwire into that training camp for he and I to compete, and at the end of camp I had a pretty good feeling,” Pederson said. “All the players were coming up to me saying, ‘You’re on the team. You had a great preseason.’ I felt everything was right. But when they went to 60 (players), they cut me. I was really frustrated … even though I ended up going to Green Bay, which turned out to be the best thing.”
Pederson ultimately had two stints with the Packers, from 1996 to ’98 and from 2001 to ’04, backing up and growing close to another future Hall of Famer, Brett Favre. Pederson returned to the NFL in 2009 as an offensive quality-control assistant for Eagles coach Andy Reid, who had once been his position coach in Green Bay, spending two seasons in that role before being promoted to quarterbacks coach.
After Reid was fired following the 2012 season and was hired by the Chiefs shortly thereafter, he enlisted Pederson as his offensive coordinator. Three years later, Reid, who still maintains a strong relationship with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman, highly recommended Pederson to succeed the fired Chip Kelly.
And while Pederson insists the popular depiction of him as a Reid clone is a vast oversimplification, he’s not spending a ton of energy protesting.
“That’s a good thing,” he said of the Reid comparisons. “It could be worse. I think that’s the easiest thing, to say I’m like him. They lump you together initially; after a full year, let’s see where we are and then they can weigh in.”
More important, given the fractious nature of Kelly’s departure — and Lurie’s decision to dismiss the once lionized coach with a week remaining in the 2016 regular season — Pederson is garnering favorable comparisons to his predecessor. Though Lurie and Roseman each made a point of refraining from directly criticizing Kelly, both cited Pederson’s ability to relate to players — Kelly’s most glaring shortcoming — as a huge positive.
“He’s just a very genuine communicator,” Lurie said of Pederson. “He communicates in a very direct, strong and personable way, with players and coaches. He says what he means. He’s a good listener. And he’s very comfortable in his own skin. That’s what allows him to be genuine, and it allows people around him to be who they are.
“And whatever happens, happens. There’s no preexisting agenda. It’s about him maximizing the skills of those around him, and at the same time trusting and relying on those around him.”
To Pederson, getting to know the men he coaches is a no-brainer.
“The guys here are having fun again,” he said. “When I get a chance to walk around and talk to veteran guys, you hear that they’re having fun … that the excitement’s back a little bit. You feel like you’ve made a connection with the players. That’s been the best thing — changing the culture, and just showing the players you care about them a little bit.”
Even veteran tight end Brent Celek, who was perhaps Kelly’s most staunch supporter in the Eagles’ locker room, has been struck by Pederson’s people skills.
“He gets it,” Celek said. “I don’t know how else to say it. He knows how to treat guys. He knows how to handle players. And he played for so long, and has been around so many situations, that he just doesn’t get fazed.”
The first test came during Pederson’s introductory press conference in January — “Third question,” Pederson recalled, laughing — when he was asked about the Chiefs’ anxiety-dream of a final drive in their 27-20 playoff defeat to the New England Patriots three days earlier. His attempt to explain Kansas City’s deliberate march downfield while trailing by two touchdowns (he said he feared giving the ball back to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and instead hoped that the Chiefs could recover an onside kick) cried out for criticism.
In retrospect, Pederson — who, in fairness, may have been taking the heat on Reid’s behalf — wishes he’d simply said, I goofed.
“Would I do it differently? Yeah, probably,” he conceded. “But those are all things you learn from. These are teachable moments for coaches, too. Those are things I’ve talked about with (new Eagles offensive coordinator) Frank Reich; these moments are rehearsals for what we do in game situations, and we study them like everything else.”
As for reacting to Bradford’s trade request — well, Pederson’s delivery was far smoother. He publicly reiterated his support for the quarterback, stuck up for himself when necessary (saying he’d made it clear to Bradford the team had planned to draft a quarterback long before the trade with the Browns) and gently applied pressure (saying Bradford was “losing valuable time” by staying away from offseason workouts) after a couple of weeks.
If he was overly stressed about the situation, he didn’t show it — and the people around him noticed.
“He handled that situation exceptionally,” Roseman said. “Being able to confront it directly was a big part of that, and also his history as a player: Saying, ‘I’ve dealt with the same thing’ gives him enhanced credibility.”
Added Lurie: “I knew how he would handle it — he genuinely wants Sam to be very successful and to be the starting quarterback. And he made that clear, and the results were great.”
Sure enough, when Bradford withdrew his trade demand and returned to the fold in the second week of May, Pederson confronted the situation head on and quickly diffused the tension.
“I wanted to talk to him and clear the air — and tell him he was still my guy,” Pederson said. “I told him that nothing has changed with me and just reiterated the point that he was my guy and that we’re moving forward.
“He’s been rocking and rolling ever since.”