Doug Pederson had 171 hours between the time he addressed a solemn locker room after the Dec. 9 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and the moment he walked into an overjoyed locker room in Los Angeles last Sunday and asked his players to give him a “hell yeah!”
During that period, the Eagles sat their franchise quarterback because of a back injury while Pederson offered an ambiguous public explanation. The Eagles faced long odds to reach the playoffs and needed to board a cross-country flight to play the top team in the NFC. If Pederson’s players started thinking about their offseason plans, it would not have lacked precedent.
Instead, the Eagles played inspired football and had their best game of the season, with Nick Foles at quarterback. They still have realistic postseason possibilities entering Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans.
Pederson is part of the reason.
So much attention goes to Pederson’s schemes and systems, his game management and roster management, and even his public comments. But a big part of Pederson’s job, and one he revealed that he takes particular pride in, is making sure the team is ready to play and keeping the players in the correct frame of mind entering a game.
“Sometimes I’m not the smartest guy, and probably not the best communicator all the time, but there are moments where maybe something I’ve read or something I’ve seen or something like that, that sort of sparks a little fire inside of me that says, ‘That’s something I need to share with the team,’ ” Pederson said.
“I think, too, I know what these guys are battling through each week. It’s tough to win games in this league and I’ve been there. I’ve been on teams that have done that. I think to show a little bit of care and concern and love for the players goes a long way, and they will respond.”
This is a Pederson who is often behind closed doors, although it helped him earn a Super Bowl ring in February.
Pederson understands the public nature of his job. But the amount of time he stands behind lecterns adds up to just more than one hour each week. The other 170 hours last week were spent much differently, and the time devoted to creating a message and an environment for the players and coaches is as fundamental to the job as devising a game plan.
In fact, when Pederson is making his public comments, he often has his players in mind the most. He’s cognizant of how an answer will play in the locker room. That factored into how he approached a news conference last Friday that incited talk radio discussion and social media buzz.
Yet despite the quarterback drama’s taking up much of the public discussion, Pederson had far more personalities to manage and players to inspire than simply Carson Wentz and Foles. He was trying to figure out how the players could rebound from a devastating loss to Dallas, the balance they needed between recovery and preparation, and how to ensure they were motivated for the Rams.
Of course, it might have helped Pederson that the Eagles were heavy underdogs. Pederson, who spent his playing career as an undrafted quarterback who squeezed 14 years out his ability, seems to relish playing that card. It helped him win the Eagles’ first Super Bowl last season.
The problem, of course, is when the team is no longer counted out. And the tenor from the fans was different this past week from what it was after the loss to the Cowboys. So what’s Pederson’s message when the approval rating ascends?
“I just tell them we're still counted out,” Pederson joked.
Pederson acknowledged players cannot escape the public discussion about the team, even though he always emphasizes that they must ignore the noise. And Pederson cannot ignore it, either. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Eagles are comfortable when their backs are against the wall, which is a message that Pederson has reinforced.
“A team can put sort of a heightened awareness, I think, when your back’s against the wall a little bit more,” Pederson said. “We talked last week about how we simplify the game plan as coaches to allow our players to play, and I think it helped us in the game the other night.”
In a typical week, Pederson will give a speech to the team on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, as he documented in his book, Fearless. The midweek speeches cover keys to the game. Saturday’s touches on the emotional aspects. But each speech intends to put the team in the right state of mind to play, and Pederson tries to make sure he has the pulse of the locker room.
“I think that’s where he excels, to be honest,” Jenkins said. “We know what it looks like when that’s not the case.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the players. They’re the ones who need to respond, and it’s the veteran leaders who set the tone as much as the coach. But tackle Lane Johnson said Pederson can read the body language of his players, which is why the players can respond to him so favorably.
“He knows how to motivate guys without crossing the line,” Johnson said. “He’s very unique with that. Having played the game for a long time, he’s really good at reading us.”
Actions resonate more than words, and Pederson scored points in the locker room with his adjustments to the practice schedule. The coach gave the players an extra day off three consecutive weeks. He took another step this past week by holding a walk-through on Wednesday instead of a full practice. That allowed them to prepare their plays – they can go through even more plays in a walk-through – but it doesn’t have the same physical toll as a practice.
The players didn’t ask Pederson for the change, and it was not a discussion in the leadership council. Pederson made the decision because he sensed how the players felt after an exhausting stretch. The Eagles didn’t just have a few physical games, they also had back-to-back trips to Dallas and Los Angeles. Those flights, and the lack of sleep from arriving home around dawn, require a period to recover.
“I need to make sure our guys are as fresh as they can be this time of the year going into the game,” Pederson said. “I just wanted to make sure that we have more of the mental preparation down [Wednesday]. That's why I backed off just a little bit and we'll do two extended, longer walk-throughs than we've done in the past. We can still get a lot of work done. We'll still have our meeting schedule and all that. Still want to make sure our guys are fresh for Sunday.”
Pederson looks for signs during practices and walk-throughs to see how the team is reacting. He was encouraged before flying to Los Angeles by what he saw, and he liked how the team responded Thursday after the extended layoff.
As impressive as Pederson was last week, he’s also fallen short at times this season. The Eagles are 7-7, which is far from the “new normal” that he preached during the summer. He tried saying the Eagles needed to “embrace the target,” yet the team struggled as a front-runner and fell into underdog mode. Pederson tried saying the pressure was off his players at midseason.
And the same praise that he’s getting for managing the players’ bodies in December could have been held against him when the team had lighter workouts in the spring and summer.
So Pederson is not immune from criticism. But he hit the mark last week when the season was on the line. He had his team ready to play – and ready to win. By 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, it will be apparent whether he did it again.