It’s the most important time of the season, but Jason Peters missed work all last week. He was gone again Friday. So was Derek Barnett.
They are in Texas and Tennessee, with their coach’s blessing. Peters is dealing with an ongoing personal issue. Barnett and his family are coping with the death of his older brother, David, 33, who was killed by an allegedly drunk driver Tuesday.
Doug Pederson would have it no other way. It is a measure of his “emotional intelligence.”
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie coined the phrase in 2016 when he hired Pederson to replace Chip Kelly -- a coach long on intelligence but not the emotional sort. Since his hiring, Pederson has faced several tricky issues. He might not always do the right thing, and the scale slides from player to player. But Pederson always acts with his heart.
“It’s one thing to, I think, lose a football game, but life goes on outside of this building,” Pederson said Friday. “What you see with wildfires and shootings, and what life has sort of -- what our lives are now, it puts things into perspective. And so, yeah, we know we didn’t play well [in New Orleans]. But you know what? We have players on this team that their lives are affected by having family members around the country that have to go through life struggles."
He took a breath and continued to preach.
“I know I’m kind of going off on a tangent,” he said, "but it’s just a football game. We do everything we can to win the game, but life is a lot more important than winning a football game.”
This was true when Pederson’s team was building toward a Super Bowl title in 20016 and 2017. It has been true in the three weeks since his team was blown out by 41 points by the Saints. Knowing that the coach really cares can keep the ship afloat, and it has since they fell to 4-6 in New Orleans. Now, they are 6-6 and rejuvenated entering Sunday’s game at Dallas.
Credit their talent, and credit their health, but credit their boss, too.
“You’re not going to see anybody quit," said linebacker Nigel Bradham, the Eagles' impish idiot. “Sometimes you see that. I’ve seen plenty of teams quit. You’ll never see us quit. I don’t care if we’re losing by 40 or if we’re up by 40.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with legal issues, like Bradham, or with other problems.
In 2016, receiver Nelson Agholor suffer a crisis of confidence that led Pederson, who once described himself as “the father of the house,” to bench Agholor for his own good.
“He was fatherly, and brotherly,” Agholor said. “Just family-oriented. That’s his whole M.O. He’s a family-oriented man. He definitely has the ability to sympathize with players going through things. That’s respected.”
As a result, when the team finds itself two games below .500 and nearly out of the playoff picture with just six games to play, the players dig a little deeper for a guy who has their back.
“One hundred percent. Nobody’s checked out here," Agholor said. "At the end of the day, you love your coach because you know what he’s put into you each day.”
When your daily demeanor affects 73 players, 24 assistant coaches, and about 50 other support staff, every decision matters. Natural disasters, mass shootings, family problems, vehicular homicides -- all might hit home with someone at the NovaCare Complex, Pederson said.
It is a reality that he did not anticipate when he was hired, but it is a responsibility he is equipped to handle, especially since he has seen life affect players from the inside of the locker room, too.
Pederson spent 12 years in the NFL as a quarterback, which helps him understand how illness and death and stress can affect a player’s performance. Sometimes, he knows, it’s better for a player to be absent, because he’s not completely present anyway.
“He gets that, having been a player,” said Lane Johnson. “He’s seen teammates go through situations and not get time off.”
Pederson has also seen players forced to take time off, too. Johnsonserved a 10-game suspension in 2016 that likely cost the Eagles a playoff berth. Pederson, a rookie head coach under tremendous scrutiny, never chastised the offensive tackle.
“He was positive. Made sure I could stay on top of things while I was away, and was ready to play when I returned,” Johnson said. "To be honest, I think I was more disappointed in myself than he was in me."
Simply put, Pederson stays steady. That’s true if you test positive for performance-enhancing drugs a second time, or if you put your foot in your mouth for the first time. When Kamu Grugier-Hill this past week said the Cowboys “always choke,” Pederson called the statement “unfortunate" but wasn’t too harsh with his second-year linebacker.
“I did step out of line, with disrespect toward Coach,” Grugier-Hill said. "He wasn’t happy about it, but he just said, ‘It is what it is, and this is what we’re going to do. Let’s roll with it.’ "
Pederson doesn’t always roll with it.
In November 2016, Josh Huff, a starting receiver and primary kick returner, was pulled over and arrested on gun and drug charges. Pederson’s initial reaction the next day, when asked how he deals with players accused of misdeeds: “I’m going to wrap my arm around them and love on them and try to show them the right direction."
Later, Pederson and the Eagles' front office discovered Huff had lied to them. They cut Huff the following day.
So, why didn’t they cut Bradham after he’d been arrested twice in 2016, first for hitting a hotel attendant, then for trying to get a gun through airport security? In part, because Bradham was more important to the team; it’s a sliding scale, remember. But also, in part, because Huff lied to Pederson and the front office when they asked him what happened. Bradham didn’t.
“He told me, ‘As long as you tell me the truth about everything, make sure everything is straight-up, I’ll have your back,’ ” Bradham saod.
Bradham entered a deferred prosecution program to address the assault charge. The gun charges were dropped. He was suspended for the first game of this season by the NFL.
There have been plenty of other incidents. Agholor was accused of sexual assault at a strip club in the summer of 2016, though no charges were filed. Free-agent guard Brandon Brooks got so anxious before games that he was physically ill, which cost him two starts in 2016. Over the last three seasons, safety Malcolm Jenkins and several teammates assumed the lead role during player protests during the national anthem.
Pederson could have abandoned any of those players. He did not. He counseled them. He advised them. He helped. Agholor, Bradham, Brooks, Johnson, and Jenkins had career years in 2017 as the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.
Every situation is different. Peters is a 15-year veteran headed for the Hall of Fame, and Barnett is injured, so his absence isn’t critical. That wouldn’t matter. If he was a starter with 15 sacks, Barnett would still be in Tennessee. He’d be there until the ball was kicked off at 4:25 p.m. Sunday, if necessary.
“Most coaches don’t do this," Bradham said. "You might see it every now and then, but there aren’t too many who understand how stuff like this impacts people’s lives.”
Emotionally intelligent coaches understand.
It can pay Super dividends.
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