PHILADELPHIA — Eagles players and coaches usually spend Saturday nights going over the game plan. Eagles executives usually spend Saturday nights at dinners and parties, entertaining all sorts of NFL brass.
Not this past Saturday. This Saturday, it was must-see TV. Former Eagles coach Doug Pederson and his ragtag Jacksonville Jaguars had a chance to make the playoffs if they beat the Tennessee Titans. The Birds were glued to the tube.
“I watched,” admitted Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie after his team won Sunday. “I watched, and I was rooting so hard.”
Full disclosure: So was I.
The Jaguars beat the Titans, 20-16, took the AFC South title, earned the No. 4 seed, and will host the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night. They did it with a fine performance from second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence early and a pick-six to ice it late.
“I watched that game. Had to. It was incredible,” said left tackle Jordan Mailata, a former Australian rugby player who learned the game on Pederson’s watch. “What a comeback! That [stuff] was insane. To do what he did, to turn that franchise around? And to do what he did with Trevor? It’s awesome.”
After Lawrence’s disappointing rookie year, one of the brightest spots on Pederson’s resumé was how he helped mold Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts from project QBs into NFL starters. Pederson also supervised the quick assimilation to the NFL of Miles Sanders, who put together two strong seasons under Pederson before the coach was fired.
“I was rooting for him, too,” Sanders said. “Doug is a great guy, most importantly, but a great coach, too. A guy who believed in me from the jump. I’ve got all the respect and excitement in the world for him. I just hope he goes a long way — on that side of the playoffs.”
Worst to first
What Pederson did in Philadelphia in 2017 was remarkable — an underqualified second-year NFL head coach won the Eagles their first Super Bowl with career backup quarterback Nick Foles and Jim Schwartz as his defensive coordinator.
But what Pederson did this season on the First Coast is just short of miraculous. The Jags were the worst team in football the last two seasons, but the rot went far deeper: They were 15-50 since 2017. Incredibly, they reached the AFC championship game after the 2017 season.
If they’d beaten the Patriots in that title game, they would have faced Pederson’s Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
Neither franchise prospered afterward. In fact, Lurie fired Pederson three years later.
Pederson spent 2021 on his fishing boat in Jupiter, Fla., 250 miles south of Jacksonville, watching the circus that overmatched college coach Urban Meyer created with the Jaguars and wondering if he’d ever coach in the NFL again. Then, after interviewing to replace Meyer in late December, Pederson spent more than five weeks waiting for an offer as the Jags interviewed nine other candidates.
Lurie was always in his corner, just as he has been for Pederson mentor Andy Reid.
“I always root hard for Doug. And I root hard for Andy. I’m personally close with both of them. I’ve known them for 25 years,” Lurie said. “I couldn’t be happier for him.”
The Jaguars lost five in a row, sat mired at 2-6, and, well, Doug was ... Doug. According to Lawrence, he told the troops:
“I’ve got a crystal ball. This thing’s going to come down to Week 18, and we’re going to have a shot.”
For better or worse, intentionally or not, Pederson’s six-year career as a head coach has been full of catchphrases. He was hired because of his Emotional Intelligence.
He treated bored players with Häagen-Dazs.
He promised that championship appearances would be the Eagles’ New Norm, after his audacious second-quarter call in Super Bowl LII that baffled Bill Belichick, the Philly Special. Or Philly Philly. Or whatever.
Now: Crystal Ball. Foreseeing the future.
Then again, Pederson wasn’t the only one who saw this coming.
Leader of men
Pederson has always been an excellent quarterbacks coach and he has become a fine offensive strategist, but his greatest gift lies in his ability to make players believe in themselves.
Consider T.J. Edwards, an undrafted linebacker out of Wisconsin in 2018. He started 16 games for Pederson the next two seasons, and he has been the Eagles’ leading tackler the last two seasons with 289.
“Doug treated me with nothing but respect and love,” Edwards said Sunday. “I had no doubt he could turn that thing around and get those guys to believe, for sure.”
Even at 2-6?
“Them boys didn’t start off as good as they wanted to, but I know Doug as a coach and as a person,” said defensive end Brandon Graham. “Him staying the same, win lose or draw — Doug is Doug. I feel like sometimes, when a coach starts panicking, players feel that. Doug doesn’t panic.”
Center Jason Kelce certainly didn’t worry about his former coach’s new team, even after the Eagles sent them into a five-game tailspin in Week 4 with a 29-21 win.
“If you look at that roster — they have good players. I really did feel like even then, talking to Doug after the game, they had a chance to be pretty good this year,” Kelce said.
Subtracting Meyer and adding Pederson turned out to be the perfect formula for a turnaround.
“It felt like, the previous year, it was a broken team. There was one guy who ruined the whole thing for the whole locker room,” Kelce said. “If you want a coach who’s going to be able to make it fun again, and bring guys together, Doug’s about as good as you’re going to get.”
Of course, the Jags got Doug, 2.0. Doug, refreshed. Doug, older, and wiser, and more focused on football than ever.
“Him having that break — it gave him the clarity he needed,” Mailata said. “He came back. Wanted it more. It showed. And then the team had to buy into what Coach Pederson was preaching. They obviously did. I’m really happy for him, but I’m not surprised. It’s something I would expect from Doug.”
As Mailata indicated, Pederson wasn’t perfect in Philadelphia. A player’s coach, to be sure, he wasn’t a pushover, either. To this day, said Sanders, when he hears Pederson’s name he hears a voice screaming in his ear:
“MILES! Get vertical! Stop dancing! Hit the hole and get vertical!”
Eventually, every coach runs his course with a franchise. These days, even Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin look like they’re another poor season away from a new job. Pederson made the playoffs in Philly three years in a row, but he was a double-doink field-goal miss in Chicago from consecutive first-round exits. Wentz regressed. Pederson’s staff eroded, and the replacements struggled, and Lurie had seen enough, so Pederson was gone.
They still correspond, Lurie said, usually when one experiences a success. Lurie said Sunday that he planned to text Pederson congratulations this week — and perhaps next week, too, assuming Lawrence and edge rusher Travon Walker, the No. 1 picks of the past two drafts, continue to play to their pedigree.
“He’s in a very good situation,” Lurie said. “He has an excellent young quarterback. And the rookie defensive end is great. Just happy. So happy.”
The Birds are the NFC’s top seed. They have a bye. That means Lurie will be free to watch Pederson this Saturday night, too.
So will I.