Doug Pederson meets with the Eagles’ leadership council of select players once every week. But this week’s meeting wasn’t held.
The abnormal schedule because of a Monday night game might have had something to do with the cancellation. But several players made the link between Thursday’s full padded practice — the first in months — and Pederson’s calling off the weekly conference.
“There was no leadership council meeting. There was no talking about that [stuff] today,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “It was just going to be pads, and that’s what it was going to be. There was no talking him out of it.”
Some veterans, such as defensive end Brandon Graham, center Jason Kelce, and Brooks, said they accepted Pederson’s decision. Tackle Lane Johnson said he even welcomed the physical practice. But it didn’t go over well with others, Graham confirmed, particularly because there wasn’t player input.
“Well, yeah,” he said, “but still they had a good practice.”
Safety Malcolm Jenkins, maybe the most outspoken on the leadership council, was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the chain of events. Jenkins delivered four straight I don’t knows when asked why he thought Pederson went with pads, if he agreed with the decision, why they didn’t have the council meeting, and if he thought there was a correlation.
Pederson’s job, of course, isn’t to always make the players happy. But going with pads so late in the season was a bold move for someone who often has been described as a “players’ coach.” The 5-7 Eagles, Pederson said Thursday, are in a “must-win situation,” although it’s felt that way for most of the season.
Will dialing up the intensity pay off against the 2-10 New York Giants? Only time will tell.
The same could be said of whether Pederson still has the locker room in his corner. The NFC East title is still within reach, especially after the 6-7 Cowboys lost Thursday night, and the best way for players to show they still support their coach is to win. And at the very least play hard.
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While Pederson’s job is seemingly secure two years after the Super Bowl victory, and a year after the team reached the second round of the playoffs, players, perhaps more than anyone, understand that the NFL is a performance-driven business.
“The best thing you can do for a coach you like is win games to keep him here,” Brooks said. “But dudes love playing for Doug. I’m not saying that just to say it. Guys have been to other places. Guys understand.
“There’s no division in the locker room. Guys are still going out there and busting their ass. Obviously, our record doesn’t quite show that. But our approach and what we do every day hasn’t changed.”
Pederson’s emotional intelligence has long been cited as one of his strengths. He listens to his players, gives them freedom to show their individual personalities, and often knows when and whom to rule with an iron fist.
But messaging hasn’t been a strong suit. He went on the radio the morning after Sunday’s disappointing 37-31 defeat to the Dolphins and said that the Eagles didn’t play as hard or want to win as much as their opponents. Pederson later clarified his comments and said he wasn’t questioning effort, but his initial statement became the day’s headline.
Two days later, during the first full team meeting of the week, he challenged his leaders.
“He said, ‘Come on, get these boys going. Let them know. You all been here before. You still in this thing,’ ” Graham said. “I don’t think nobody took it a certain way because he didn’t approach it in a way like, ‘Where are my [expletive] leaders at?’ or something like that.
“It’s the way you talk to people, too, and I think he does a great job with just letting people know that he’s serious.”
Locker room limbo
He was clearly serious because when the week’s schedule came out, the word “pads” was next to the practice start time. The Eagles had been wearing pads for just the first-team period during “Wednesday” workouts. But they hadn’t kept them on for an entire practice since September, several players said.
The collective bargaining agreement restricts the number of padded practices during the season and after a certain point. It’s not as if Pederson can have the players in pads every session. The players actually asked for more padded practices two years ago because they wanted to remain sharp between the end of the season and the start of the postseason.
“From Doug’s point [of view], he want to see something,” Graham said. “I think he wanted to see the reaction if somebody was going to start bitching. And if you give him that reaction, he’s proven. But it’s good. We’re here to win. Whatever he feel he got to do, because he is in control, he got to do.”
Fans might champion physical practices or want coaches to call out individuals publicly, but an aggressive approach can have an adverse result with today’s NFL player. Pederson came out strong during his weekly spot on WIP-FM and said that the Dolphins “played harder than we did. … They wanted this game more than we did.”
He softened his tone later in the interview and even more so during his news conference later that day.
“I don’t want to be misunderstood when I make that statement,” Pederson said. “What I mean by they want it more, there were certain plays in that game where, obviously, they made the play; we didn’t. So, in that case, yeah, they wanted that play a little bit more than we did.
“As a whole, as a game, the effort, the energy level, all that was there in the game.”
Kelce said that he didn’t take offense to Pederson’s original statement and that his later clarification carried more weight. The film has shown many things, the All-Pro center said, but a lack of effort isn’t one.
“Maybe you see a lack of emotion,” Kelce said. “But that comes when you’re not having success. I think the reality is that we have a lot of guys out there playing their asses off.”
Pederson had questioned effort in public before, although it took some prodding from a reporter for the coach to criticize his players after a blowout loss at the Bengals in 2016. The leadership council addressed his comments two days later, but the players came away satisfied with the coach’s explanation.
The Eagles lost their next two games, but by only one-score margins. And victories in the final two games further amplified that Pederson had the ear of the locker room. The team has repeatedly shown resilience, in terms of overcoming injury and losing streaks, under him.
But the Eagles have lost three in a row for the first time in three years and a season that some analysts believed could end in the Super Bowl has gone awry. Pederson said that the locker room was still with him, though, because he could feel the energy of the players this week.
“We’re all disappointed and we’re all sick to our stomach, but they also understand we have done this to ourselves obviously and they’re ready to go back to work,” Pederson said. “I sensed that yesterday and I sensed it again today. … But, yeah, these guys are with me.”
Nigel Bradham has as much reason to support Pederson as any player. The linebacker had multiple scrapes with the law before he even had played a game for the Eagles, and yet his coach stood behind him.
In August, Bradham wasn’t on the bus to the final preseason game, against the New York Jets. He wasn’t going to play, but he was still required to be at the stadium for a pregame workout. No one knew where he was, and some coaches wanted him released.
Bradham later told the Eagles, after they finally contacted him, that he had a stomach illness. Pederson accepted his excuse and the only discipline he handed down was a fine for not communicating his sickness to the team.
About three months later, Bradham again didn’t show when required — this time a scheduled treatment of his injured ankle the morning of Nov. 20. The Eagles, again, didn’t know why. And some staffers, again, initially wanted him cut, team sources said.
“He took it upon himself — ‘I’m good, like I’m physically ready to go’ — so he felt like he didn’t need to come in,” Pederson said. “But the problem was he didn’t communicate back to me or to the trainers that he wasn’t coming in. So I was under the assumption that he just blew off treatment.”
Pederson said he fined the linebacker. Bradham said that wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, he was at his locker stall later that afternoon, at practice the following day, and on the field for that Sunday’s game against the Seahawks.
“Once he saw that I was a full participant [at practice], it was, ‘OK, why would he go to treatment if he’s practicing?’ ” Bradham said.
Bradham, despite his various transgressions, has been a player Pederson can trust on the field. He plays hard and plays through injury. Bradham said there is mutual respect.
“He actually cares about his players,” Bradham said. “I’ve been on teams where coaches, they just want to win, and if they’re not winning, then they don’t care what the situation is with their players, how the locker room is carried. He’s passionate about his players.
“When you get a coach like that, you obviously want to do everything you can to keep him for a long, long period of time.”
Pederson isn’t inflexible in the ways many coaches are. For the second year in a row, for instance, he gave everyone off on Thanksgiving. He’s been particularly understanding of Brooks and his ongoing struggles with an anxiety disorder, which recently caused him to miss another game.
And Pederson isn’t dogmatic about his players’ personalities.
“One thing he always says, and you respect it, especially as an older guy who’s been in different systems, he says, ‘Let your personality show,’ ” Brooks said. “Basically, be who you are. If you get up for a game one way that’s completely different than another, whatever that is, just be that.
“A lot of places aren’t like that. They’re like, ‘We want you to be this. And this is what you’ll be.’ ”
Pederson, though, has to be careful to not let the players walk all over him, which could explain his unilateral decision to practice in pads.
“Even though he’s a players’ coach, he’s still the head coach,” Brooks said. “He can make decisions without having input from players. If that’s what he thinks will get us to execute better … that’s what any coach would do.”
Whether it works remains to be seen.