Doug Pederson didn’t want to fire Mike Groh and Carson Walch after last season ended.
The coach told Groh shortly after the Eagles were knocked out of the playoffs in January that he would return as offensive coordinator. Pederson stood in front of reporters a few days later and even said, “Both those guys will be back.”
But less than 24 hours later, the Eagles announced that Groh and Walch were fired and Pederson released a statement through the team apologizing for “any confusion” he created during the previous day’s bizarre news conference.
“It was my intent not to comment on any of my staff during the ongoing evaluations,” he said then, “because I wanted to be able to go through the process and communicate any decision directly with the individuals.”
So why would he publicly give Groh and Walch, his receivers coach, votes of confidence, especially considering how much importance Pederson places on honest communications with his assistants?
Because he initially wanted to keep both and thought he had final say on his staff. Technically, he does. But at some point between the presser and the official team announcement, Pederson became aware that the Eagles front office wanted them gone.
And he became “irritated,” “frustrated,” “pissed off,” — descriptives used by sources to describe the coach — because he had already given Groh and Walch his word. But at some point over the next day, after meetings with owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman, “Doug suddenly became OK with firing both,” a source close to Pederson said.
The information obtained by The Inquirer on this subject and the Eagles’ offseason coaching moves came from team and NFL sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were either not permitted to speak publicly about team decisions or because they feared retribution.
It’s unclear what exactly occurred during those meetings with the GM and owner or what may have been revealed. Pederson, who declined to comment for this story, has previously denied that Lurie or Roseman influenced his coaching decisions. He has acknowledged that both are involved in the process, however.
“I … believe that a coach constructs his own staff,” Lurie said recently. “My approach has always been to have weekly dialogue, weekly involvement with all aspects of our operation, and at the same time have enough respect and trust in our head coach, general manager, to let them make the decisions.”
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But Lurie’s sway in matters relating to his team have at times been understated, and Roseman is often chiefly responsible for bringing in coaches to meet with Pederson.
Few Eagles fans would be upset if Pederson’s hand was forced. Groh had become, in many eyes, the face for the offense’s two-year regression and Walch for the struggles of the receivers. Lurie essentially felt the same way and by December of last year had told colleagues he wasn’t satisfied with either assistant, a source said.
“The last couple years we were all, as a group, not satisfied with our offensive production,” Lurie said on Aug. 30. “It didn’t stop us from making the playoffs. It didn’t stop us from making a postseason run. But we always have the belief as an organization — it’s part of our DNA — that you want to be a top-five offense to have your best chance of winning the Super Bowl.”
A peculiar construct
The dynamic among the owner, GM, and head coach has mostly worked. Pederson is considered by many in the organization, because of his congeniality, to be the glue that binds it all together. The Eagles’ success over the last three seasons — a Super Bowl title and postseason appearances each year — is matched only by the Chiefs and Patriots.
But they have taken a step back in each season, and if they were to again it might suggest that further changes are necessary. The Eagles still have one of the stronger teams in the NFL and returning constructs in coaching, scheme, and quarterback.
The continuity should help amid a pandemic that has already placed significant restrictions on teams, especially when compared with the coaching turnovers at all three of their NFC East rivals. But new faces were added to an offensive staff that is vast and peculiarly constructed.
Pederson will retain his authority over scheme, game-planning, and play- calling. But the Eagles won’t have an official coordinator. Quarterbacks coach Press Taylor had pass game coordinator added to his responsibilities. And offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will remain run game coordinator.
But Rich Scangarello, the most notable hire of the offseason, will have a voice as senior offensive assistant. And Marty Mornhinweg, formerly the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and a longtime Pederson confidant, will offer input as senior offensive consultant. Andrew Breiner was added as a nebulously titled “pass game analyst.”
Pederson has always fostered a collaborative environment, but he now has a staff with 14 offensive assistants, and a not clearly defined hierarchy after him. Taylor, though, has taken over several of Groh’s former duties, such as running offensive meetings and calling plays in practice.
“It’s been seamless. It’s been flawless,” Pederson said recently of the coaching dynamic. “It’s something that Press has done an outstanding job. He’s — for lack of a better word — coordinated the offense this spring, this summer, during training camp.
“He and Rich work side-by-side in putting things together.”
The same, of course, was said when Groh was on staff. It should be noted that the most cordial staffs aren’t always the most successful. And that theory can apply to how coaches relate to the quarterback.
The relationship between the quarterback and his position coach is a close one, but can Taylor juggle his new role with his old one without hindering his connection with Carson Wentz? And will there now be too many voices in the 27-year-old quarterback’s ear?
Groh and Wentz struggled to see eye to eye on the offense. While it’s unlikely that he lobbied for Groh to leave, Wentz’s uncertainty about their future together was known by decision makers inside the NovaCare Complex. But it wasn’t just their problems that led to his departure.
The Eagles, led by Lurie, wanted to bring new ideas into the building. They believed that Pederson’s West Coast scheme had become stale, and they wanted to tap into some of the newer offensive innovations, whether it be from the NFL or the college game.
Howie Roseman’s value to the franchise goes beyond the basic management of roster construction and contract negotiations. He is as plugged into league activities as anyone, and through his connections he has expansive intel on coaches, their contracts, and their availability.
When Pederson was hired, for example, it was Roseman who facilitated the recruitment of Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator. The coach has final say on hires, and he sets the parameters for what he wants, but “it’s mostly Howie bringing in guys,” a team source said.
The same approach applied to the search for Groh’s replacement. The Eagles knew they couldn’t acquire any big names because Pederson would still call plays, so they went for the next best thing: assistants who had worked under some of football’s foremost offensive minds.
They interviewed Southern Cal’s Graham Harrell, who came from the Mike Leach tree. They met with the Ravens’ James Urban, who worked with Greg Roman and was part of Lamar Jackson’s MVP sophomore season in Baltimore.
They tossed out feelers to the Chiefs’ Mike Kafka (Andy Reid) and the 49ers’ Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel (Kyle Shanahan), but were blocked from interviews. They had meetings with Clemson’s Brandon Streeter and Notre Dame’s Chip Long, among other college coaches, but not necessarily for the coordinator position.
The Eagles cast a large net open to an unorthodox structure. There was support for Taylor. He had an advocate in Wentz. But the Eagles didn’t want to make another internal promotion after Groh, and Taylor wouldn’t qualify as an outside perspective.
The 49ers under Kyle Shanahan, meanwhile, were blazing through the postseason behind a run-heavy offense that had confounded defenses with its play-action subtleties. If the Eagles couldn’t get Shanahan’s pass and run game coordinators, perhaps they could hire someone who had previously worked under him.
Scangarello had spent three seasons with him, first with the Falcons and then as his quarterbacks coach in San Francisco. The Broncos hired him before the 2019 season and Scangarello implemented the 49ers’ scheme. But Denver struggled offensively, for various reasons, and he was fired after one year.
Pederson typically knows upon first impressions whether he can work closely with a particular coach, and he connected with Scangarello almost immediately. But the 48-year-old coach wouldn’t fill the coordinator spot because he didn’t necessarily need that title if he wasn’t calling plays and because the Eagles didn’t want to slight Taylor.
Pederson’s base scheme wasn’t going away, after all. But they did want to incorporate Shanahan’s marrying of the run and pass and they needed Scangarello to decode any nuances that weren’t obvious to the naked eye.
“To be part of that process, you just learn details and intricacies that very few people know, that come from him ultimately,” Scangarello said last month. “People see it on film, and they think they know, but they really don’t.”
The opening for a receivers coach was easier to fill because the Eagles were looking primarily for a coach who had played in the NFL. Walch, who had worked with Groh with the Bears and then in the Canadian Football League, had difficulty earning the players’ respect because he didn’t have that pedigree.
Aaron Moorehead had not only five years of playing experience with the Colts, but he had caught passes from Peyton Manning and had done so alongside Indianapolis receivers Reggie Wayne and Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison.
Former Eagles defensive line assistant Phillip Daniels had a long and productive playing career and was as respected as any position coach. But he was outspoken about personnel and play time distribution and, partly because of that, ran afoul of the front office.
He questioned the drafting of Shareef Miller, for instance, and his candor eventually ended his tenure with the Eagles after one season in charge. Matt Burke, whom Schwartz added to the staff in a consultant role a year ago, replaced Daniels.
Pederson, of course, has to sign off on all coaching moves, but it’s fair to question whether his authority is undermined, and further, where loyalties lie if he wasn’t behind an individual’s hiring.
The addition of Marty Mornhinweg, who was brought back to the Eagles a month after the initial coaching hires were announced, was clearly initiated by Pederson. They have a relationship dating back to the former’s playing days in Green Bay. Mornhinweg’s role is only as a consultant, but could he garner more of the coach’s ear based on their past?
“Marty is another set of eyes for us,” Pederson said. “He’s a great sounding board for me with him being a former head coach and coordinator, somebody that Press can obviously talk to and lean on.”
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Lurie, because he isn’t as visible as, say, a Jerry Jones or Robert Kraft, may not get the proper credit for the Eagles’ successes since he became owner in 1994. But he’s an engaged owner who keeps tabs on everything from game plans to the draft.
Does that mean he’s drawing up plays or scouting prospects? No, but he will make suggestions, and when the owner chimes in, his voice obviously carries weight.
Lurie’s greater influence comes with big picture issues — such as the effectiveness of coaches — because he can offer a perspective the others can’t because he isn’t as immersed.
“These are questions and discussions that happen year-round,” Lurie said of the Groh and Walch firings. “It wasn’t about any particular people. It was, ‘These are our goals: What can we do to achieve, and were we stagnant in any possible way?’ Let’s be as self-critical as possible … in every way we can, because that’s what we’ve always done.”
When Lurie does get involved, though, it’s mostly on matters related to the offense. He has seen the NFL evolve to disproportionately favor that side of the ball. When the Eagles offense struggles, he takes it personally.
For instance, when the Eagles beat the Bears in the 2018 playoffs, his celebration was muted because the offense had scored only 16 points. And that can often place Pederson under additional owner scrutiny. But Pederson’s affable manner mostly makes it work. And the same could be said of his partnership with the type-A Roseman. Many coaches wouldn’t hear of a GM’s advice on game-day rosters, but Pederson embraces the weekly back and forth.
They have their disagreements, but that may be one reason their collaboration has been a winning one.
Pederson and Groh were close and their bond grew as they were able to salvage late-season playoff pushes the last two seasons. But the Groh-Wentz relationship was strained. They differed at times on how the offense should be employed. While Groh would script a game plan to attack a certain defense, Wentz would prefer an approach that played to his and the offense’s strengths.
“It’s not that they didn’t get along, they just didn’t see it the same way,” a source said. “It was tense sometimes. It was always, ‘I see it this way, you see it that way.’ But at the end of the day, Mike always did his best to understand how Carson liked it.”
Groh, now the Colts receivers coach, declined to comment for this story. He was hired by Frank Reich, his predecessor with the Eagles. Wentz and Reich had their clashes, as well, but the quarterback was still very much the pupil.
Reich also had gravitas, having been a former player who had many years of coaching experience. Taylor is only five years older than Wentz. He was merely a quality control coach when the quarterback was drafted.
While they may have more of a chummy relationship, Taylor is said to challenge Wentz when necessary. But increased responsibility will give him more authority and could distract from his positional duties.
Every offensive coach will have some interaction with Wentz, but the most prominent voice should often be the quarterbacks coach. There are five, past or present, on staff. The Eagles have to be careful to not inundate Wentz with varying instruction.
During training camp, Taylor and Scangarello spent the most time with Wentz during team drills, while Mornhinweg was often with rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts.
There will be a period of adjustment for all parties, especially after a truncated offseason. There is still continuity, but the Eagles didn’t fire Groh, to Pederson’s initial dismay, or hire Scangarello to be status quo.
“I think it’s fun when someone comes from the outside and gives you [a] fresh perspective on things,” Scangarello said. “Whether you agree or disagree, it’s always good to hear it. It has been very seamless and effortless in those ways communicating with each other.”
But how they navigate the ups and downs of a season will dictate whether the experiment succeeds.