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The Unbelievable Legend of Doug Pederson

How Doug Pederson went from unwanted backup to Andy Reid 2.0 to Super Bowl–winning, aggro play-caller

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Don’t tell our boss, but the Philadelphia Eagles aren’t too far away from becoming the modern NFL’s model franchise. From the unbelievable rise of Doug Pederson to the incredible comeback of Nick Foles, we’re spending today celebrating the defending Super Bowl champs.

Philadelphia is not a cool place. It has its merits, of course: food, history, art, and architecture to rival all but a handful of other North American cities and at a fraction of the cost of living of places like New York. The city is huge but compact enough to be knowable. Ancient but far enough off the cultural beaten path to develop its own unique identity and language, like the Basque Country of the mid-Atlantic. That identity is the kind of charming weirdness younger cities like Austin and Portland aspire to, but it was cultivated naturally over centuries rather than dashed on in a generation of migration by twee try-hards. It’s the difference between slow-cooked barbecue and a splatter of liquid smoke.

But Philadelphia isn’t cool. It’s a place where people grow up, rather than a place like Washington, New York, or Los Angeles, where people go to become something—or to try to convince people that they’ve become something. Even though Philadelphia sits almost directly between New York and Washington, the road between the two most important cities on the East Coast doesn’t pass through our nation’s first capital.

One upside to not being cool is that you can want things—openly, earnestly, in an ugly and needy way—without ruining your image. And over the past 50 years, this multitude of vowel-distorting weirdos has wanted few things more than a Super Bowl title. That pretty much makes the man who finally brought them one, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, the city’s supreme potentate.

After a 57-year title drought, it’s hilariously unbelievable that Pederson was the man who finally broke through.

Before Pederson, the most successful coach in Eagles history was Andy Reid. A laconic offensive mastermind from Los Angeles, Reid was not always a popular stylistic choice in a city that still reveres the wanton cruelty of Buddy Ryan, but the man won a lot. In 14 seasons with the Eagles, Reid made the playoffs nine times and won at least one game in his first seven trips to the postseason, including five trips to the NFC championship game. Reid won more than twice as many games as any other coach in franchise history, and the three-point loss in Super Bowl XXXIX was the closest the Eagles came to a Super Bowl before this past February.

For as much as Reid’s going to be remembered for presiding over the prosperity of the 2000s, he’ll also be remembered as a coach who could never quite put it all together. Yes, he made five NFC title games, but he lost four of them. Yes, he put together some of the league’s best offenses, but he struggled with short-yardage play calls and clock management. Reid did the hard parts of his job so well it almost made it more frustrating that he was so inept at the easy things. After leaving Philadelphia for Kansas City, Reid has similarly brought an era of ruthless regular-season competence to the Chiefs, leavened by a string of frustrating playoff losses. Reid will probably become the eighth NFL coach ever to win 200 regular-season games and could finish among the five winningest coaches in history by the time he retires, but that’s not what he’ll be remembered for.

Reid was an unheralded member of Mike Holmgren’s coaching staff in Green Bay when he came to Philadelphia in 1999, and while his tenure will forever be linked with Donovan McNabb, Reid’s first starting quarterback was Pederson, who came with him from the Packers.

Pederson played 12 seasons in the NFL, almost exclusively as a backup. In his single season in Philadelphia, Pederson made nine of his 17 career starts and threw 227 of his 522 career passes. He was terrible: 119-for-227 for 1,276 yards, with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Eagles went 2-7 in his starts.

McNabb, the no. 2 overall pick in that year’s draft, took over and led the Eagles to the bulk of their success under Reid, but was somewhere between controversial and reviled among Eagles fans the whole way. McNabb’s career is marked by persistent calls for him to be benched in favor of a less talented white backup. Those backups’ names are like mile markers: Koy Detmer, A.J. Feeley, Jeff Garcia, Kevin Kolb. But not Pederson—Pederson was so bad the fans called for him to be benched so McNabb could play. There might be no greater condemnation of an Eagles quarterback.

After his retirement, Pederson once again caught on with Reid, first as an assistant toward the latter days of Reid’s Eagles tenure, then as his offensive coordinator in Kansas City. After a dalliance with Chip Kelly, the Eagles went back to what worked and made Pederson their head coach before the 2016 season.

It was the closest they could’ve come to rehiring Reid without actually rehiring Reid, and their more-than-20-year professional relationship was just the beginning. Just as Reid’s lack of coordinator experience was controversial in 1999, Pederson was criticized for not always calling plays while he was Kansas City’s offensive coordinator. It also didn’t help that his visor evinced the same kind of doofiness as Reid’s mustache and wire-rim glasses.

Before the 2016 season, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman spent the no. 2 overall pick on quarterback Carson Wentz, giving Pederson his own McNabb. It was a huge gamble—Roseman spent five draft picks, including a future first-rounder, to move six spots. (The Eagles also received a 2017 fourth-rounder in the deal.) Then Roseman spent that expensive draft pick on a quarterback who played his college ball not only outside the Power Five conferences, but outside FBS altogether, for FCS North Dakota State. High draft picks don’t get much riskier than that.

And as a rookie head coach, Pederson struggled to do the little things right—challenges, third-down calls (the Eagles finished 20th in third-down conversion percentage), and the like. Wentz, who started all 16 games, played pretty well for a rookie. His 3,782 passing yards were the fourth-most ever for a rookie quarterback, and he became the second rookie, after Andrew Luck in 2012, to attempt 600 passes. But Wentz also made a lot of rookie mistakes: He threw 14 interceptions against just 16 touchdown passes, and his 14 fumbles tied for the NFL lead. After a 3-0 start, Pederson’s Eagles finished 7-9.

After the inconsistency of the Kelly years, rolling back the Reid era was not an unreasonable proposition, though it had some frustratingly familiar pitfalls. Then a whole different guy showed up to coach the team in 2017.

Pederson led the 2017 Eagles to a 10-1 start and a 13-3 record—and a relatively easy 13-3 record, all things considered. Philadelphia’s three losses came by a combined 27 points, and counting their 38-7 NFC title game demolition of Minnesota, the Eagles won five individual games by 27 points or more. Pederson’s Eagles finished fourth in scoring defense and, despite losing Wentz for the year in a Week 14 win over the Rams, they finished third in scoring offense.

As Wentz matured into a franchise quarterback, Pederson became one of the game’s most aggressive coaches. The Eagles jumped to eighth in third-down conversion percentage in 2017. They went for it on fourth down 26 times, second-most in the NFL, and converted 17 of those chances for the third-best percentage in the league. They also led the league with nine two-point conversion attempts.

If Reid frustrated fans by being conservative in big moments, Pederson excited them by taking targeted, calculated risks. The fans who once wanted Pederson benched now call him “Big Balls Doug.” (That nickname matches the sobriquets bestowed on Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles: “Big Dick Nick” and “Footlong Foles.” The saying goes: “Winning makes you handsome.” In Philadelphia, it seems that winning gives you elephantiasis.)

“I love being touted as being aggressive,” Pederson told Mitch Goldich of Sports Illustrated. “Because if I only get one opportunity in this business to be a head football coach, I definitely want to do it my way and lead my way. Calculated, not a gambler by any means, or on a whim. Very calculated and thought-out and detail-oriented.”

This past Super Bowl was a thrilling confrontation between high-powered offenses, a game in which mistakes and missed opportunities could prove fatal. Pederson’s Eagles kept the initiative by gambling frequently they punted only once, attempted two two-point conversions, and converted both of their fourth-down attempts, the first of which you’ve probably seen by now.

Beating the Brady-Belichick Patriots in the Super Bowl takes creativity and guts, particularly when Brady throws for more than 500 yards and the Pats only commit one turnover, allow one sack, and give up only 5 yards’ worth of penalties. It can be done, but only through a combination of ingenuity and cool under pressure that you usually only see in heist movies.

It’s a testament to how much people can grow, or to how wrong we all were about Pederson in the first place, or to how much the game and the city have changed in the past 20 years. But most of all, it’s incredible that this uninspiring man, who’d been a joke to Eagles fans for a generation, turned out to be everything that we wanted from a football coach. It’s unbelievable, and it’s extremely cool.