The situation set up nicely to play it safe. The Philadelphia Eagles had dominated the first half of the NFC Championship Game, so why risk making a mistake with a backup quarterback against the NFL’s top-ranked defense and change momentum right before halftime?
Doug Pederson doesn’t coach scared. He smelled blood.
The Eagles led the Vikings 21-7 when they got the ball at their own 20-yard line with 29 seconds left. They already were getting the ball to start the second half, so take a knee and go to the locker room in good shape, right?
Boring. Pederson went with his gut and trusted his players to prove him right.
The Eagles completed three consecutive passes and kicked a 38-yard field goal with no time left to extend their lead. Pederson added a cherry on top by calling a flea-flicker that resulted in a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half.
“It builds confidence in you whenever a guy makes a decision to be aggressive,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “You wouldn’t be trying to do a two-minute drill with 29 seconds left.”
That sequence demonstrates Pederson’s personality and coaching style in guiding the Eagles to Super Bowl LII, despite losing quarterback Carson Wentz because of a knee injury in mid-December.
Pederson turned 50 on Wednesday and celebrated with a destination bash. Ten years ago, he was coaching high school football in Louisiana. On Sunday, in only his second season as an NFL head coach, he faces five-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick.
Few predicted this outcome after Wentz’s injury. The Eagles looked cooked. But Pederson’s calm demeanor and aggressive nature became a galvanizing force inside the locker room, enabling the NFC’s No. 1 seed from feeling all was lost.
“He’s super even-keeled, doesn’t panic,” defensive end Chris Long said. “That helps a lot in an NFL season because a lot goes wrong sometimes.”
Pederson’s 12-year career as an NFL quarterback provided valuable perspective. He played for Don Shula, Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid and backed up Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Brett Favre. He won a Super Bowl with the Packers, and went 1-7 as the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in 2000. (His lone victory came against Belichick and the Patriots.)
Pederson also played one season in Philadelphia under Reid. His quarterbacks coach was Brad Childress, later the Vikings head coach. Reid brought Pederson to Philadelphia because of his familiarity with his West Coast system from their stint together in Green Bay.
“When it was being installed,” Childress said, “you could probably make the argument that Doug knew more about it than me.”
After retirement, Pederson coached high school football to see if that sparked a passion. That spark ignited a booster rocket trajectory.
He left after four seasons for an entry-level position on Reid’s staff in Philadelphia in 2009. In 2013, Pederson became Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City. In 2016, the Eagles hired him to replace Chip Kelly as head coach, largely because of his association with Reid.
Pederson’s inexperience did not alarm Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who spent time talking to players before making the hire. Lurie sought a coach with “emotional intelligence.”
“I thought what was really needed was a kind of leadership that leads with a genuineness,” he said. “And Doug Pederson is just himself. At times that’s very humble. At times that’s just very real. At times that’s very bright. At times it’s tough. But he does it in a true genuine way.”
Some fans and media, however, called the hire a reach. Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, now a media member, ruffled feathers with biting comments about Pederson’s credentials.
“Everyone knows Pederson isn’t a head coach,” Lombardi said in September. “He might be less qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in the NFL.”
Lombardi has since apologized for that critique. Leading a team to the Super Bowl is a perfect rebuttal that will earn Pederson Coach of the Year votes.
“He reminds me of a young Gary Kubiak,” Eagles Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks said. “He’s a player’s coach. He was a QB in the league. Both were really special as offensive coordinators and then became head coaches and continued that trend.”
Pederson is known for being ultra-aggressive and a creative play-caller. In Philadelphia’s playoff opener against the Atlanta Falcons, he devised a game plan loaded on quick-hitting passes. He took Mike Zimmer’s defense to school with a different script in the NFC Championship Game. He allowed Nick Foles to throw deep, which made Vikings defenders look bamboozled.
“[Peterson and his coaching staff] go into the lab and draw up stuff that I never even thought was possible,” tight end Zach Ertz said.
The Eagles finished second in the NFL in fourth-down attempts this season with 26. They also had the third-best conversion rate.
Kelce said players know better than to start jogging off the field on fourth-and-short.
“You just have to be prepared for whatever he throws at you,” he said.
That kind of trust in players builds equity inside a locker room. Even if something occasionally fails, players appreciate when coaches show faith in them.
“That inspires the team,” Long said.
Childress worked with Pederson as a player and coach, so he’s not surprised by his approach as a play-caller or his style in managing personalities.
“The quarterback in him, he wants to wing it coming off the bus,” Childress joked. “I hear some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth and it’s almost identical to Andy [Reid]. Some of the catchphrases, I’ll go, ‘OK, I’ve heard that before.’ But I think he’s putting his own edge on the thing as well.”
His personality is laid-back. He doesn’t scream much. And he knows how to relate to players and understands their perspective.
“To have someone there who has done it, it means a lot to players,” safety Corey Graham said. “You take it more to heart.”
That’s not to suggest he’s an old softie. Pederson occasionally breathes fire to get his point across. He manages to walk that line between firm and friendly.
“Oh, he’ll definitely chew you out,” Brooks said. “I think a lot of times when you hear ‘player’s coach,’ you think he’s super relaxed, super chill and laid-back. Although he is laid-back and he is a player’s coach, if you do something out of line, he will chew you out.”
Pederson pushed all the right buttons this season, especially after Wentz’s injury. The outside perception was doom and gloom. Pederson didn’t flinch. That’s not his nature. He doesn’t coach scared.