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Doug Pederson Healed Himself. Now He’s Trying to Heal the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Pederson’s first win in Jacksonville is that he isn’t Urban Meyer. But now comes the real challenge: fixing Trevor Lawrence and turning the Jaguars into winners.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Doug Pederson bounded off the field after the second practice of Jacksonville Jaguars training camp. He stopped at the edge of the grass to help himself from a bin of orange slices—yes, like at a kid’s soccer practice. He was smiling.

The geniality of all this tempted me, watching from a nearby sideline, to make a Ted Lasso reference. A few Jaguars players, though, talked me out of it. “I wouldn’t go that far,” receiver Christian Kirk told me. Pederson shares a sweet tooth and a good attitude with the Jason Sudeikis character, but he’s somewhat more intense and significantly less hokey. (In another critical difference, he’s coached this sport before.) But he’s got an energy that, even after a long practice in 90-degree heat, seems to have rubbed off on his team. It’s part of what made Jaguars camp feel like a remarkably happy place, which may even be understating it.

“I don’t think it feels like it,” veteran receiver Marvin Jones corrected. “I think it is a happy place.”

Another part of that, of course, is that this is not just about Pederson, but about the man he is replacing, Urban Meyer.

This would probably be a good time to offer a brief synopsis of the 2021 Jaguars season: The Jaguars drafted Trevor Lawrence, considered a generational prospect at quarterback, with the no. 1 pick. Things went downhill from there, and fast. Meyer had demonstrated a shocking lack of fluency with how the NFL works, complaining about free agency costing money and giving players choices. He violated the league’s non-contact rules during offseason workouts, resulting in fines for himself and the team and lost practice time in 2022. He tried to run the full playbook during the preseason. He briefly hired Chris Doyle, the disgraced former Iowa strength coach who multiple former players said had made racist comments and bullied them during his tenure. During the regular season, Meyer repeatedly berated his assistants, calling them “losers” and threatening to fire them. On multiple occasions, he was woefully mistaken about basic facts of what was happening with his team: He once claimed rookie safety Andre Cisco was getting more playing time after a game in which Cisco did not play a single defensive snap, and on at least two other occasions responded to questions about the lack of snaps given to running back James Robinson, the team’s only consistently efficient offensive player in 2021, by saying that it wasn’t his job to “micromanage who is in the game.” Meyer was mocked after then-Broncos coach Vic Fangio revealed that an amazed Meyer in Week 2 had told him that every week in the NFL “is like playing Alabama.” Former kicker Josh Lambo, who is currently suing the Jaguars for back pay and damages related to emotional distress from the hostile work environment created during the 2021 season, said that Meyer kicked him in the leg at a practice.

And, of course, there was the incident after the Jaguars’ loss to the Bengals in September when Meyer declined to travel home with the team and instead went to his own steakhouse in Columbus, where he was videotaped dancing with an anonymous woman who was not his wife, Shelley. The Jaguars went 3-14 and finished last in the NFL in scoring. Meyer was fired in December with more losses to his name in Jacksonville than he had in seven seasons coaching Ohio State. The Jaguars were suddenly in need of a replacement who would bring credibility to the locker room and improve morale.

After a protracted, two-month coaching search, the Jaguars hired Pederson, who in 2021 spent a year away from football for the first time since he was in high school. The former Eagles coach had been fired in Philadelphia at the end of the 2020 season, a disappointing campaign in which a team three years removed from its first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, with the core of the roster mostly intact, finished last in one of the NFL’s weakest divisions.

In hindsight, Pederson told me, winning a championship had probably covered up a lot of “negativity” that lingered under the surface, and losing laid it bare. His quarterback, Carson Wentz, was struggling, both in his performance on the field and in his ability to command the locker room, and the quarterback–head coach relationship had grown strained. Numerous reports detailed a competitive, politicized environment among the team’s leadership that often placed Pederson in opposition to team owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman. After firing Pederson, Lurie acknowledged publicly that the coach “did not deserve to be let go” but said that the organization needed a reset. Ultimately, Wentz was traded to the Colts and Roseman became the only member of the Wentz-Pederson-Roseman triumvirate from the Super Bowl team to keep his job. Pederson was offered offensive coordinator jobs in Seattle and, ironically, Jacksonville, but he turned them down, feeling like he needed to recharge.

“There were a lot of things that went on and just, gosh, how many injuries we had on the team, the back-and-forth with the quarterback, and just a lot of things that weigh on you,” Pederson said. “Things kind of pile up. I pride myself on just taking everything—I internalize everything and I put it all right back on me, and eventually that weighs you down and you need to take a break.”

The break came at the right time, in part for tragic reasons. Pederson spent much of 2021 in Louisiana, at his brother Craig’s side as he struggled with pancreatic cancer; Craig died in October, at 51 years old. It made for a bittersweet year, as Pederson also became a grandfather and got to watch his oldest son, Drew, get married last July. Between those events, Pederson spent most of his time in Jupiter, Florida, where he and his wife own a home, “just to get away, put your feet in the sand, and fish a little bit,” he said. The time there helped Pederson feel mentally ready to immerse himself in football again.

Pederson also interviewed with the Saints, Vikings, Bears, and Broncos in January, but was among the favorites for the Jaguars job. The former quarterback, who won a Super Bowl ring as one of Brett Favre’s backups in 1996, is best known for his work with that position, having coached up Nick Foles during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run and Alex Smith when Pederson was offensive coordinator under Andy Reid in Kansas City. So the chance to coach Lawrence was the top reason Pederson was interested in coming to Jacksonville, despite the mess Meyer had left behind. But Pederson also felt he was a good candidate for a team that needed to rediscover some joy in their work. On some level, Pederson wanted that for himself, too.

“I think there was a level of healing that needed to go on with this team, with this organization and these players, because it was not good,” Pederson said.

One of Pederson’s first worries on the job had been the offseason program, and he wondered whether players would even show up, he said, given “what they went through last year,” when Meyer broke the league’s non-contact rules during OTAs. Turnout for those voluntary practices was fine, though, and Pederson began building trust by emphasizing his intention to always give clear expectations. Though he didn’t construct it this way intentionally, his staff is full of other former players—defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, wide receivers coach Chris Jackson, tight ends coach Richard Angulo, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, inside linebackers coach Tony Gilbert, safeties coach Cody Grimm, and passing game coordinator and cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend all have NFL player experience—who use that common ground to connect. Pederson is also clear with players about their status on the team, including Lawrence, who, as the starting quarterback, is taking all the first-team reps at camp. That seems like it should be obvious, but last year Meyer put Lawrence in a “quarterback competition” with backup Gardner Minshew, which cost the starting offense valuable reps and Meyer credibility.

“You don’t pull the wool over their eyes or pull the rug out from under their feet,” Pederson said. “You don’t do any of that stuff to trip them up. Let’s be honest: I’m going to tell them exactly what we’re doing tomorrow.”

It’s a simple strategy, but it’s one players have noticed.

“The [reputation] of him being a players’ coach that you hear around the league is 100 percent true,” Kirk said. “He’s all about us, but he’s all about doing what’s best for us and getting better.”

“He’s talking to us like grown men,” defensive end Josh Allen said.

The Jaguars are a young team—they were 27th in the NFL in snap-weighted age last season, according to Football Outsiders—but Pederson’s philosophy is that if you treat players like kids they will act like kids. He’s created a player leadership council that currently stands at around 20 members. Pederson wanted the group to be big enough to include promising young players like cornerback Tyson Campbell, a bright spot last season and a player the coaching staff believes is ready for a breakout opposite Shaquill Griffin. Griffin is also a council member, and Pederson’s hope is that pairing veterans and young players will give the newcomers good examples of leadership—something that was lacking last season.

Pederson says that a formative moment in his philosophy about good coaching came during a conversation he had with Mike Holmgren when Pederson was a player in Green Bay. Pederson was walking down the hallway in the Packers’ building one afternoon after practice when he ran into Holmgren, who pulled him to the side. They talked a little bit about the great quarterbacks Holmgren had coached and was coaching—Joe Montana, Steve Young, Favre—and then Holmgren told Pederson to step up his game.

“It’s one thing to know the offense and just execute plays and move the chains,” Pederson remembers Holmgren saying, before suggesting that Pederson could do a lot more.

The lesson was about relentlessness, yes, but it was also about who on a team could be considered influential. Pederson was a backup, and the fact that Holmgren didn’t think that prevented him from leading stuck.

The leadership council may whittle down to 10 or 12 members for the regular season, Pederson said. But for now, there’s value in having a big enough group to include more than just veterans and starters.

The tone Pederson would like those players to set is focused but fun. As both a player and a coach, Pederson has been known to end meetings by suggesting that everyone go for ice cream. The habit started when he was a player in Green Bay. Packers players would get dessert with their team meal only on the nights before games. On any other night, sweets would have to wait till after meetings, so Pederson, who loves ice cream—plain vanilla, though he’ll get creative with the toppings—would often remind his teammates to focus up, given the treats they’d get once it was over. When he became a coach, he kept the tradition alive by often ending meetings with a highlight tape, then telling the players to go get some ice cream. Sometimes there was literal ice cream waiting for them, but the suggestion became a proxy reminder that he wanted them to have a little fun after working hard.

“It just kind of took on a life of its own,” Pederson said. “But I love ice cream.”

Bonding over ice cream and the leadership council are two of several ways for members of the Jaguars to simply get to know each other. Pederson concedes that he’s not going to get to know every member of the organization on a personal level, but he wants to know as much as possible. In Philadelphia, Pederson was known for writing Christmas cards to behind-the-scenes employees like stadium security guards, janitors, and cafeteria workers, usually tucking some cash into the envelopes before they were delivered, sometimes by hand.

Pederson seemed a little bit bashful when I brought this up, making sure I knew he wasn’t spending hours writing long, flowery sonnets around the holidays. “It’s just something I enjoy doing,” he said. “It just goes a long way.”

In Jacksonville, his first act when the coaching staff returned before the start of training camp was to host a barbecue at his house for the staff and their families, complete with a face-painting station for kids. He’s suggested that coaches attend some of the social events the team’s business staff holds in the building.

“They open it up to the organization, well, we’re part of the organization,” Pederson said. “Let’s go. Let’s go meet them.”

One of the most critical relationships Pederson will have to develop is with Lawrence. They are neighbors, though so far their wives have spent more time together off the field than they have. Lawrence and Pederson have regular meetings, though, (Lawrence is also a member of the leadership council) and Pederson’s top goal for their dynamic is that they simply communicate openly.

They did get off to a good start. Lawrence got wind of how much Pederson loves ice cream and had Häagen-Dazs delivered to the stadium for the entire organization on the day of Pederson’s introductory press conference.

The bottom line is that Pederson’s tenure in Jacksonville will go as Lawrence does. That’s not a terrible spot to be in—though the collective product was mostly awful in 2021, Lawrence had some brilliant moments, particularly in a Week 18 win against the Colts. Pederson said it’s fair to expect a “sky’s the limit mentality” with Lawrence. It is reasonable to expect that both Lawrence and the Jaguars as a whole will be better this season than they were last, but for Pederson to define himself as something other than not Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, he will need the team to do a little bit more than that. Playoff contention would certainly constitute success, though that’s a high bar to clear for a team that has finished last in the AFC South for four years in a row and owned the worst record in the NFL in back-to-back seasons. A record around .500 with significant development from Lawrence and other young players, like Campbell and this year’s first-round draft pick Travon Walker, would be meaningful and probably more realistic.

Ideally, Pederson will help Lawrence develop an understanding of the defensive fronts he’ll face, which will allow the young quarterback to speed up his processing and tap into the instincts that helped him be chosen first. Pederson’s plan is to inject motion and more play-action into an offense that was stagnant last year. Pederson has turned the defense over to Mike Caldwell, previously Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach, and hopes to get better results from a defense that generated a lot of pressure last season but had little to show for it, ranking 31st in the league in DVOA on plays where pressure was recorded. Success for the 2022 Jaguars will be measured by even incremental on-field improvement on both sides of the ball, not just through team bonding exercises or a culture of respect. If the team is any good, it will not be because Pederson is simply a nice guy. Football coaches are often an ill-adjusted lot, and plenty of successful ones don’t host barbecues or write notes at Christmas.

Pederson is probably right, though, that the Jaguars needed some healing after 2021. And even by the standards of training camp, when hope springs eternal all across the NFL landscape, Jacksonville felt—or to ask Marvin Jones, was—joyful.

Regardless, the moments when Pederson has a light touch are not just for the benefit of his players and staff. It’s for himself, too.

“I think that the biggest thing I’ve learned over the five years in Philly plus a year off going into this next opportunity for me, is just enjoy it, you know? It doesn’t last forever,” Pederson said. “I’m always sitting down thinking, man, five years went by like that. It was fast, and now it’s six years—the Super Bowl was 100 years ago!—and you know that, but you still have those emotions and those feelings. You still want to get back there and you still want to coach that way. But at the same time, you’ve got to enjoy it and not put so much pressure on yourself. It’s OK to laugh and have a good time.”

And to have some ice cream.