NFL coaching literature is not a particularly deep genre. Bill Walsh wrote the two most influential football coaching books of all time, Finding the Winning Edge and The Score Takes Care of Itself, but those two books are completely different. Bill Walsh is the Bill Walsh of coaching books; he outsmarts a very basic world. The Score Takes Care of Itself is a leadership how-to with good chunks of information, while Finding the Winning Edge is a ludicrously broad and enriching guide to coaching that includes everything from specific advice to the ideal size for each position. That book is still studied closely by people across the NFL, including Doug Pederson.
“I only read the parts that pertain to coaches,” Pederson told me of Walsh’s epic. “I’ve read it a couple of times.”
Pederson, the defending Super Bowl champion head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, and I talked about football books because he just wrote a good one, called Fearless: How an Underdog Becomes a Champion, which is out Tuesday. His book is rare in that it is a book by a current coach in which you actually learn things about football. It probably helps Pederson that he is one of the handful of coaches on the cutting edge of the sport; just hearing him talk about the interesting things he’s doing is in itself interesting.
A few years ago, while trying to impress Rex Ryan (Rex Ryan!), I mentioned that I’d bought and read his book on the 46 defense in an attempt to understand his defense. Ryan laughed and said that, though other journalists have thought it, the book doesn’t actually tell you much at all about his defense. Well, it’s the thought that counts, I guess. You can learn more about the football world from simply looking at the landscape of football books than by ever opening one of them. Coaching books are typically written with few meaningful details, with a type of self-imposed omerta that prevents ever-paranoid coaches from spilling any scheme secrets. Or locker room secrets. Or anything at all. Most books serve as a reflection of the coaches themselves: afraid to say anything controversial out of fear of some vague, unknown distraction.
Pederson’s book is different in that, like a candidate writing a book to try to establish a platform, he is solidifying a persona that few, if any, knew he had until last winter. His platform, apparently: I’m sort of a badass. The book is a love letter to aggressive play-calling—going for it on fourth down, going for two, and just running the plays that make sense even if they’re untraditional. If some scared NFL head coach—there are many!—reads this and decides that he needs to be more aggressive, the football world will be a better place.
“I don’t want to be normal, I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing,” Pederson told me. “I believe in being aggressive. If you want to go 8-8, 9-7, that’s OK. Those are good seasons, but I don’t want to be in a box.”
To that end, he writes in the book about getting mad at the television when the Jaguars knelt before the half against the Patriots in the AFC title game and vowed never to play that conservatively against them. He told Eagles executives he will “attack everything” in his job interview. After Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury in Week 14, he addressed his team: “I basically told them, ‘Pull your heads out of your butts. We are still a good football team.’”
The football world is paranoid. Access is limited. But a few books have broken through. Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden is the masterpiece, a football tell-all about an incredible team, the early ’90s Eagles. When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’s Vince Lombardi book, is on a short list of football gold, along with A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman. Paper Lion by George Plimpton rounds out the Mount Rushmore. Tim Layden’s Blood, Sweat and Chalk is another book that left the football literary world a better place than where it found it. But, as you might be gathering, the thing these books have in common is that they’re written by journalists, not coaches. Bowden wrote Black Hawk Down. Maraniss and Plimpton have written about candidates and presidents. David Halberstam, one of the best nonfiction writers ever, wrote the best look at Bill Belichick in The Education of a Coach, but the fact it was easier for Halberstam to get intel on multiple wars than it was to gather info about Belichick’s life should be instructive.
I’ll admit I am not the target audience for inspirational tomes like those from Tony Dungy, Mike Smith, or Tim Tebow. Those are less football books and more soft-focus features in written form. Pederson won a Super Bowl with a QB who got cut by Jeff Fisher; that’s a different type of inspiring.
What Pederson does here is he drops enough nuggets to map out what got the Eagles to the Super Bowl without giving away the specific game plan. In some cases, coaches spilling secrets in books has been considered a competitive disadvantage. After Bo Schembechler detailed some schemes in the Official University of Michigan Football Notebook, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes held it aloft after a win over the Wolverines in 1970 and echoed the words of George Patton toward German general Erwin Rommel: “I read your book, you SOB!” Don’t expect to see Jason Garrett doing the same to Pederson this season.
What Pederson does do is give good insight into the modern football world. He finds the Rams interesting because “they seem very simplistic in the sense they ran a lot of the same play over and over, but they use different personnel groupings, formations, motions and shifts.” Another detail: Jon Gruden approached Pederson to tell him he made “ballsy calls.”
Pederson doesn’t believe there is enough development at the NFL level—a growing crisis in the league—so he put younger coaches and quality-control coaches in charge of the inexperienced players, directly leading to the emergence of backups like Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who filled in admirably for injured tackle Jason Peters during the Super Bowl run. He spells out how when Nick Foles ran the offense they used “5 to 10 percent” more run-pass options. Then there’s how he even came up with RPOs—that was an Alex Smith idea, introduced to him by Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. He talks about the influence analytics had on the team. And in the non-football division, Pederson reveals he likes the Bourne series and the Fast and Furious franchise. He also says he’s a “Star Wars guy but I never got into the Star Trek thing at all, whether it was the TV shows or the movies.”
When I was a younger reporter—probably too young to write a book—I met with a bunch of people about an NFL idea I’d had. One book agent I talked to thought it could sell but mentioned off-hand that he thought that most football fans do not want to read about football for 300 pages. I believe the agent’s phrase was that fans “wanted to drink Bud Light Lime and watch the game.”
Pederson’s book finds the middle ground: It is readable and I learned things. He is not Walsh, but few are. As the title suggests, being fearless is how he was able to win a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. The score here, it seems, took care of itself.