Jeffrey Lurie spent nearly 42 minutes Monday evening explaining how he came to fire Doug Pederson, the only Eagles coach in franchise history to win a Super Bowl championship.
The upshot, in the team owner’s view: The Eagles are entering a retooling period (as they said they were a year ago, as well). Pederson’s vision, coming out of a bad year, was too tightly focused on 2021 and securing his own future. Pederson did not deserve to be fired, Lurie said, but the decision wasn’t about that, it was about “whether ... moving forward, our best option is to have a new coach.”
Lurie expects Pederson to continue to be a successful NFL coach, who might even get another job “later this week.” (With Joe Douglas and the Jets?)
Earlier Monday, 1,072 days after Lurie and Pederson embraced around the Lombardi Trophy under a blizzard of green, silver, and white confetti at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Lurie met with Pederson in Florida. It was their second meeting since the conclusion of a dreadful 4-11-1 2020 season. Lurie set up the session after a previous get-together, last week in Philadelphia, left him uneasy about the coach’s plan for getting the team back on track.
News that a second meeting was needed seemed ominous, and sure enough, it was.
“I guess the meeting didn’t go well,” defensive end Brandon Graham said after the news broke. “I am surprised. He gave me my first championship; he’s always going to be remembered here, for winning that Super Bowl.”
Graham said players would remember Pederson for “his humility, and for every day being the person he is.”
Graham said he thought running backs coach and assistant head coach Duce Staley would be a good choice to lead the team forward. Lurie said Staley would be a candidate, but he also said there was no rush to make a decision -- even though other teams have been meeting with top candidates since the season ended.
As owner, “you have to make tough, tough decisions,” said Lurie, who again will lead the head coach search committee. “After talking to Doug again today, it just felt that the path forward was best for us to part ways.”
Lurie said he thought the decision was “better for the organization and for Doug.”
Sources told The Inquirer that last week that Pederson proposed promoting quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Press Taylor to offensive coordinator; making passing game analyst Andrew Breiner the quarterbacks coach; replacing retired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz with either defensive line coach Matt Burke or former secondary coach Cory Undlin; and retaining special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, whose units endured their worst season since Fipp’s 2013 arrival.
Lurie pressed Pederson for some outside candidates who might provide fresh ideas. Taylor, 33, has been under scrutiny as the coach most responsible for developing quarterback Carson Wentz the past three seasons, in which Wentz rarely has approached the level he consistently reached in 2017. After the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis Colts hired away Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich as their head coach.
Lurie confirmed Monday that the staff was an issue in his decision. He declined to go into specifics.
If Lurie wanted an offensive coordinator from outside the organization -- a year after convincing Pederson he had to fire offensive coordinator Mike Groh, though Pederson had publicly said Groh would return -- that might have forced the issue. In his New Year’s Day media session, Pederson spoke of how the offense needed to reflect his voice.
“At the end of the day I want to make sure there’s one voice, and that’s my voice, that’s heard offensively, and nobody else’s,” Pederson said.
Pederson was 42-37-1 in five seasons, and 4-2 in the playoffs. Lurie hired him after firing Chip Kelly in the final week of the 2015 season, beginning a quest for a coach with more “emotional intelligence.” Pederson had been an Eagles quarterback under Andy Reid in 1999 and a Reid coaching protege in Philadelphia and Kansas City, and he was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator when the Eagles hired him. Other candidates at the time included Ben McAdoo, who was then hired and quickly fired by the New York Giants, and Adam Gase, who has been hired and fired by both the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets in the intervening five seasons.
Pederson seemed the perfect antidote to Kelly’s uncommunicative persona around the team; he was empathetic, often relating a player’s struggle with an injury or a benching to his own experiences as a journeyman quarterback for Miami, Green Bay, Carolina, Cleveland, and the Eagles. He took pride in fashioning a team of players who played for each other, rather than in pursuit of individual goals.
You could argue that Pederson took the fall for general manager Howie Roseman, who has drafted one Pro Bowl player — Wentz, taken second overall in 2016 — since 2014, and whose free-agent signings since the magical Super Bowl season of 2017 have been largely disastrous. But even if Roseman hasn’t done a good job lately, the Eagles’ offense was unimaginative and unproductive in 2020; it has declined each year since 2017, and Wentz, considered to be among the top handful of quarterbacks in the NFL just a few years ago, ended 2020 on the bench.
Lurie strongly defended Roseman, his closest confidant, asserting that the process of decision-making has been good, even as the team has declined. He said a lot of the talent decline was the inevitable result of short-term decisions made to win the Super Bowl, and then to try to remain in the hunt for the next few seasons. He touted Roseman’s ability to surround himself with top personnel talent. Lurie projected that there are five future NFL general managers on Roseman’s staff.
“You’re going to see highs and lows of drafting, you’re going to see highs and lows of free-agent acquisition” over the long haul, Lurie said. “You’re going to have to make your own determination” about whether the team has the wrong evaluators, or it just hasn’t, say, been positioned well enough in the draft to succeed. “I have to be much more in-depth and complex about the analysis. Luckily for me, I get to sit there and see what took place and takes place. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about it, but you can’t really talk publicly about what could have been, and all that.”
As the season ended, there were reports that Wentz felt his relationship with Pederson was beyond repair, and that he would ask for a trade. Obviously, Pederson’s firing might head off a crisis with Wentz, but sources close to the situation have emphasized that the Lurie-Pederson disconnect was about more than just the quarterback. Trading Wentz this offseason would incur a $34 million dead cap charge, the highest in NFL history.
Lurie said the decision to move on from Pederson wasn’t “based on a quarterback.” He didn’t declare Wentz the starter over Jalen Hurts -- Lurie suggested that both could be stars, and that “someday” the team might trade whichever one of them doesn’t end up starting -- but his words about Wentz seemed revealing.
Lurie called Wentz’s first four seasons “in many ways elite, and comparable to some of the great quarterbacks’ first four years in the league.” He said there were “probably multiple reasons” for Wentz’s dramatic falloff in 2020. “This guy is tireless. He has his heart in the right place. He’s really dedicated, offseason, on-season. He’s just what you want. It behooves us as a team with a new coach, new coaching staff, to be able to really get him back to that elite progression.”
He called Wentz “very fixable.”
Pro Football Focus tweeted Monday the Eagles’ offensive EPA (expected points added, a measure of offensive efficiency) since the team finished fifth in that category in 2017. In 2018, the team was 13th. Then, 16th, and finally, 29th. The offensive crisis was something players knew could generate big change, despite their general support for Pederson. Lurie is all about offense and innovation, going back to the Reid and Kelly hirings.
“If you want to be a dominant team, you need to be a top offensive unit,” Lurie said. “And I didn’t see -- it’s hard for me to project that, at the moment.”
As the season drew to a close, Pederson was asked several times about his job security. He had two years remaining on his contract; no head coach in the last quarter-century has been fired within three years of winning a Super Bowl. There was speculation as the final days of the season wound down that Pederson had been assured that he would return.
“As far as the reassurances go, listen, I expect to be here in 2021 until something else happens,” Pederson said two days before his last game, Jan. 3 vs. Washington. “But that’s the confidence I have in my ability.”
Monday evening, Pederson released a statement that thanked Lurie and the organization, his players, coaches, and the fans. “Although I’m disappointed that this chapter of my career has come to an end, I am extremely proud of what we accomplished together,” Pederson said. “Through all the ups and downs, one thing remained constant about our team -- an unwavering commitment to battle through adversity and achieve our goals, not as individuals, but as a collective unit. There is no better example of that than when we celebrated the first Super Bowl championship in Eagles history together with our city. That is a memory we will all cherish forever.”
Pederson and Wentz arrived the same year, with Wentz hailed as the future of the franchise, after Roseman engineered two trades to move up from 13th in the 2016 draft to eighth and then to second. Those moves were masterstrokes of Roseman’s tenure, a big part of how he won the league’s executive of the year award after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, with Wentz playing at an MVP level until tearing two knee ligaments in the 13th game. Backup Nick Foles outdueled New England’s Tom Brady on Feb. 4, 2018, and the confetti rained down on a franchise that hadn’t won an NFL championship since 1960.
Four days later, Pederson spoke from a platform erected in front of the Art Museum steps, on a bitter cold but brilliantly sunny day, fans chanting “Doug! Doug! Doug!” at the coach who had adroitly plucked beer cans tossed to him during the just-concluded parade up Broad Street.
“This is our new norm! This is our new norm, to be playing football in February,” Pederson told the crowd.
Turned out, it was not.
The next two seasons, the Eagles went 9-7. In 2018, Foles again replaced an injured Wentz for the playoffs, and they beat the Bears before losing to New Orleans. In 2019, Wentz played the whole season and got the Eagles into the playoffs, leading them to four successive victories in the final month, but Wentz left the playoff game against Seattle in the first quarter after suffering a concussion, and the Eagles lost.
Then came 2020. Pederson’s players still played hard for him, though the perception that he and the organization tanked the season-ending loss to Washington — rookie Hurts was lifted in the fourth quarter for Nate Sudfeld, who hadn’t played in two years — caused Pederson to lose ground with both the team and the fan base.
Lurie said the tanking controversy did not play a role in Pederson’s demise.
Jeff McLane contributed reporting to this story.