On the morning of Dec. 5, four days before the 13th game of the season, the Eagles learned they would practice in full pads that afternoon. No discussion. No negotiation. Just put 'em on and pound, boys.
The locker room recoiled. They were the third-oldest team in the NFL, just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl title, and Doug Pederson was treating them like unaccomplished kids. Cast as a players’ coach, Pederson had canceled the weekly meeting with the players’ Leadership Council because he didn’t want to hear them complain, and then he dropped a training-camp workout on them.
Captain Kirk turned into Captain Bligh.
“People were expecting us to have a lighter-load week, like normal," said Nigel Bradham, a 30-year-old, eight-year veteran who has been playing on an injured foot all season. "It was later in the year, when we kind of de-load on the pads. For him to do that was an eye-opener for the team.”
It was risky.
It was brilliant.
The players grumbled. They closed ranks. And they produced. The Eagles won their game against the Giants on Monday Night Football, then won in Washington six days later, then beat Dallas on Sunday evening. A win Sunday at the Giants will win them the NFC East title at 9-7, earn them a third straight playoff berth, and will validate Pederson as a masterful motivator.
“Veteran locker room -- there weren’t a lot of smiles on faces,” said backup quarterback Josh McCown, who is in his 17th season, with his ninth team. “It was smart on his part to read the team and feel like it needed to be done. A lot of times when you’re in leadership and have a vision, you have to step into some moments that may not be popular.”
Pederson was even less popular the last time he made his players this angry.
That was 2016, Pederson’s first year as head coach. The Eagles had lost Game 12 to Cincinnati, in which tight end Zach Ertz and safety Rodney McLeod avoided contact. The next day, Pederson admitted that “not everybody” played hard. The day after that, at the weekly meeting with the Leadership Council, the players were incensed that some rookie head coach had betrayed them.
It was entirely unintended, but it was a sea change. The players became more accountable. The team won two of its final four games. Most significantly, the culture for the 2017 Super Bowl championship run was established.
Pederson acknowledged the similarity between putting on the pads in 2019, and calling out his players in 2016.
“It think so. The sense of urgency has picked up [lately]. Maybe it has stemmed from that week,” Pederson said Thursday. “I go back to my first year. You saw the team hang together and stick together, and we carried that into the ’17 season.”
Pederson often points to that game in Cincinnati as the moment when the locker room began to police itself. The padded practice resurrected that sentiment.
Asked Sunday night whether Pederson had inspired their play before that must-win over the Cowboys, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox afforded his coach no credit.
“We put it on the leaders of this team," Cox replied, pointedly. "It’s on the guys with the C’s on their jerseys to keep everybody focused, to keep them away from distractions.”
So, are Pederson’s gambits premeditated? Is he a master manipulator? That’s hard to believe.
I’d suggest that his actions are more instinctive than ingenious. He played pro football for 13 years. He knows how players think. He takes off his gloves, yes, but without a clear vision of what the fallout might be. He only knows that those actions are the right thing to do at the time. That’s generally how Pederson lives his life; he does what he thinks is the right thing, and then deals with the consequences.
Twice, the consequences have been astoundingly favorable.
“He does a good job of noticing what’s going on with the team and knows how to make us react certain ways,” Bradham said. “He knows what position to put us in to make us be, like, ‘Let’s get a lot more serious.’ ”
Now they’re serious. Now, Captain Kirk is back. Practices were easy last week. The players did not work on Christmas Day.
“He’s cool like that. He’ll pull the pads off and let us rest a little bit,” Bradham said, “Knowing we’ll keep that focus.”