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Doug Pederson: The great unknown

One of the potential annoyances of being a first-time head coach - especially one who has as little NFL coaching and play-calling experience as Doug Pederson - is that each of your limited on-record decisions will be scrutinized with Zapruder-like precision.

One of the potential annoyances of being a first-time head coach - especially one who has as little NFL coaching and play-calling experience as Doug Pederson - is that each of your limited on-record decisions will be scrutinized with Zapruder-like precision.

When Pederson took ownership of the play-calling on the Chiefs' final possession in their playoff loss to the Patriots, the time-consuming drive had already been dissected. But it was assumed at the time that Andy Reid, who had authored his share of snail-like marches, was the source of Kansas City's lack of urgency.

He ultimately bore responsibility as head coach, and it's likely his fingerprints were all over management of the Chiefs' final plays. But Pederson's judgment suddenly came into question, along with his explanation.

The new Eagles coach said that the No. 1 reason the Chiefs milked the clock - despite trailing by two scores with less than six minutes remaining - was to keep the ball out of Tom Brady's hands. Never mind that Kansas City had three timeouts remaining and attempted to keep the ball out of the Patriots quarterback's hands with an onside kick after a 14-point deficit was trimmed to seven points with a touchdown-scoring drive that took five minutes and 16 seconds.

Brady, of course, converted the lone first down that he needed to burn the clock, and the Chiefs' season was over. It was a forgettable sequence and an equally forgettable elucidation, both of which Pederson admitted last month to the Inquirer that he regretted.

"I mean, if people are going to hang their hat on that, as far as decision-making, my career, whatever," he said. "But I think from my standpoint you learn from that and you just say, 'You know what, if that's the case, then you try to score as fast as you can and see what happens.'"

Those five minutes offset, on paper, what was a successful first foray into play-calling for Pederson. He said he called the second half of games starting with the win against the Steelers - and from that week on the Chiefs won 11 straight.

But why give Pederson only one half, especially if the team was having overall success? Could it be that the Chiefs averaged 14.8 points and 191 yards in the first half vs. 13.2 points and 117 yards in the second half over that span?

Is it even fair to judge Pederson based on a small sample of what was an unusual distribution of play-calling responsibilities?

"He hasn't been a head coach yet, so I don't think it's fair to assess it yet on how he's going to do in that department," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "To me, it was weird when the whole thing was being described that one of them was calling the first half and one of them was calling the second half."

Every first-timer faces a certain level of uncertainty, but Pederson walks into a lion's den of doubt about his readiness. Some of it may be based on paper-thin evidence - the memory of his disastrous season as Eagles quarterback, the anxiety that he will have only Reid's negative traits, and, of course, that ill-fated final drive against the Patriots.

But what else is there to go on? Pederson played under great coaches and alongside great quarterbacks. He had a successful four-year stint as a high school coach. He had a rapid climb through the coaching ranks - from quality control to offensive coordinator in just seven years. And he has the word of countless coaches and players who have worked with him.

But as far as first-time head coaches go, his resumé may be one of the shortest ever. Can anyone be blamed for underestimating his chances of succeeding in Philadelphia?

"That's OK. I'd rather go in that way, then be as successful as you can on the field," Pederson said. "My concern is the locker room. I don't necessarily put a lot of weight or external value on what people are going to say. It's their opinions. I can control that locker room and the things that are in my grasp."

Reid, similarly, was hired with low expectations. And, for the most part, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie got that one right. So he had earned the right to gamble on another unknown.

But a gamble of another kind - bringing in a college coach with zero NFL coaching experience - blew up his face. Chip Kelly became, in part, a victim of his own success. He went 10-6 and won the NFC East in his first season. Reid went 5-11, but won 11 games in each of his next two seasons and then at least 12 in his next three.

The Eagles spent in free agency this offseason and retained quarterback Sam Bradford and aging left tackle Jason Peters. So they aren't in complete rebuilding mode, but Pederson has rookie quarterback Carson Wentz in the barn, holes on the roster at key spots, and a low bar.

Natural progression

Pederson isn't looking for built-in excuses, though. In fact, he made the claim that the Eagles' current roster is stronger than the one that Reid inherited that had Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Tra Thomas, Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, et al.

"This team today is better than that team," Pederson said. "I just think that we're in a better position. As far as time, you know, I don't think there's time. I'm going to coach to win every game now."

But can he coach? As quarterbacks coach with the Eagles, he oversaw Michael Vick and Nick Foles during Reid's final two years in Philly. Vick had regressed from his career-best 2010 season, and Foles was inconsistent as a rookie. But how much credit or blame can be pinned on Pederson?

He followed Reid to Kansas City and was promoted to coordinator, but Reid returned to play-calling after a long absence as Pederson continued his apprenticeship. The Chiefs added more to his plate with each season, and while their offense never finished higher than 21st in yards, it did finish in the top 10 in scoring in two of three seasons.

Chase Daniel, who was the Chiefs' backup quarterback for those three seasons before signing with the Eagles this offseason, was by Pederson's side throughout.

"I think there's a natural progression and I think this is his next step," Daniel said. "There's always going to be skeptics in any line of work. But he called some really great second halves that put us in position to win the game. In terms of that small case study I think he's ready.

"Obviously, you'll never know until you're out there in the heat of the battle. But he's preparing every single day to home in."

Daniel admitted to being initially confused by the Chiefs' reluctance to use their two-minute offense against the Patriots. He said that Reid and Pederson later explained the Brady factor, along with the fact that outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tambi Hali were out and receiver Jeremy Maclin was hindered.

"I was wondering, 'Hey, why aren't we going fast?'" Daniel said. "But once Andy came in and Doug came in and explained it to the team that, 'Hey, we didn't want to give Tom Brady the ball back.' Well then I'm like, 'That's very true.' So I understand both sides of that."

Could Brady have scored had Kansas City given him more time? The Patriots had netted three touchdowns and two field goals in their eight previous possessions. But Kansas City had forced a three-and-out on New England's last drive and the situation would have warranted conservative play-calling.

Pederson has said he has no plans to split play-calling duties with Frank Reich, even though the Eagles' offensive coordinator has more experience. What will happen - as it did in Kansas City, per Pederson - is that he will call the play, and Reich will hear it on the headset and then relay it to Bradford.

Isn't that too cumbersome, especially in hurry-up situations? Why not just call the play yourself?

"You're only allowed two channels on your headset, so if you're a head coach and you have offense, defense, quarterback, you have one that's got to go," Pederson said. "So you can't go directly to the quarterback if you have offense, defense. You have to go through someone to get it, or you just turn it over to your coordinator and let him call it."

But two former NFL coaches, who requested anonymity, said that head coaches can have all three channels, and in fact, most do. Pederson is simply following the template set by Reid, which he, in turn, took from Mike Holmgren.

There could be a number of variables for why Reid's career has been plagued by game management problems, but the unnecessary go-between in play-calling could be the chief explanation. Pederson was asked to alleviate concerns that he will have the same problems.

"This comes back to learning from your own mistakes and things you've done in your past to learn from those," he said. "But there are so many people you rely on on game day. There [are] coaches in the box, coaches on the sideline. There's your quarterback on the field. There [are] situations that come up that you rely on other people."

Dive in there

Pederson has seemed willing to accept that he can't do it all by himself, or that he already has it all figured out. It's virtually impossible for a coach to control all aspects of a team. Even Bill Belichick has to be willing to cede some control.

"He doesn't have very much of an ego and he's open-minded when it comes to a lot of different things," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "The same thing goes with players. I see him talking to players all the time and getting their input on things. I think that's all important. He's going to make his own decisions. He's his own man, and he's going to have to find his own way."

But Pederson doesn't have final say over personnel - during both the offseason and in-season - and he has granted Schwartz autonomy with the defense. Reich will be involved in scheming, and assistant John DeFilippo will helm the quarterbacks, but the offense will be Pederson's baby.

And he will, of course, personalize the culture of the team with his handling of the locker room. This is where Pederson's "emotional intelligence" - Lurie's phrase for one of the main characteristics he was looking for in replacing the aloof Kelly - is supposed to come in handy.

Pederson spoke last month of how often he was already text-messaging players or having them call him to give feedback. He said he tried to walk through the locker room at least once a day during the offseason and will permit his assistants to make appearances. Kelly was the opposite and wanted the players to have their own domain.

"I'm going to dive in there with the players because I know exactly how they're thinking," said Pederson, who played in the NFL for 12 years. "And I know when it's time to give the players a break. That's the beauty, I think, in having been a player. You know when enough's enough, and you go, 'Hey, I've got to pull back here.' "

But will he pull back too much? Kelly's tenure was devoid of off-the-field problems. Nelson Agholor was cleared of sexual assault charges after a June incident with a stripper, but it had to be upsetting to Pederson that the receiver would place himself in such a predicament just a few hours after minicamp had ended.

Kelce said that he was initially "nervous" when he heard that Pederson was hired because, emotionally, he was Kelly's opposite.

"You want the coach to be respectful of what the players want. You want the coach to be a player's coach. But you don't want him to be soft on the players," Kelce said. "That's the last thing you want, in my opinion. It's better to be to hard on players than to be too soft."

Pederson drew praise for his support of Bradford after his trade demands and of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox as he negotiated a new contract, but he has yet to have to dole out discipline in a public setting. He has, according to Kelce, pushed the players where it counts the most - on the practice field.

"I think Doug has done an outstanding job with staying on top of guys, making sure they were disciplined, making sure they were running from drill to drill, taking charge, being the head man," Kelce said. "He's not letting guys take advantage of him or take it easy."

There's a fine line. The dustbin of failed coaches is full of ex-players who were unable to balance having their players like, respect, and fear them all at the same time. Kelly was notorious for bypassing players without a word even if they walked past him in one of the NovaCare corridors.

Pederson, who showed up with his wife and three sons to defensive end Connor Barwin's charity concert in June, said that he has taken a different approach.

"You're always going to say, 'Hey, what's up?'" He said. "That type of dialogue - 'I heard you had a baby last week,' or, 'How's the mom doing?' Or asking them about their family. It doesn't just have to be about football."

But his tenure as coach will be judged strictly upon football. He endured the barrage of criticism and boos - along with D batteries, beer, and spit, he said - during his one season as an Eagles player.

"I've slept since then," Pederson joked.

He's under a stronger microscope now.