Chad Lewis has a story about Doug Pederson that he likes to tell, that says a lot about the new Eagles head coach and about the makeup of a former teammate who has always put the team first in his remarkable football life.
The year was 1999 and Lewis had just rejoined the Eagles and head coach Andy Reid midway through the season. As Lewis arrived on the scene, Pederson was transitioning on his way out as a starting quarterback. Signed by Reid, the new head coach, to guide rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb and teach the intricacies of Reid’s West Coast scheme to the rest of the offense, Pederson started the first nine games of the season before turning the offense over to McNabb, the second overall pick in April’s draft.
Lewis, a sure-handed tight end who played in Philadelphia from 1997-98, came back to the Eagles in November of ’99 after being claimed off of waivers from St. Louis, and four days later he caught McNabb’s first NFL touchdown pass and the two would make beautiful music together through 2004 and the Super Bowl XXXIX run and halfway through the 2005 season. In the background by the time of McNabb’s rookie emergence was Pederson, who had been relegated to backup duty at quarterback when Lewis came on board.
“What I saw was a really important period of time when a transition was made from Doug to Donovan. Donovan had learned, he had waited, and now it was his time. I don’t think there are very many people who can handle that transition like Doug in a good, positive, team-building way like he did,” Lewis said. “He absolutely understood his role. He was humble about it. He embraced it. Privately, he was not disgruntled. Privately, he was as supportive of Andy, the system, of Donovan, his potential and it was remarkable. Everything he said was positive. Not Pollyanna. Positive. Strong. And resilient.
“And those qualities are what has helped him go from player, starter, backup, starter, backup to coach and you can see that Andy has been grooming and teaching him. Just because Andy has been grooming him and teaching him doesn’t mean he’s going to be successful. He went through the process. He kept learning. He kept growing. His temperament is unflappable and that is so important as a coach who is going to be dealing with wins, losses, player preparation, player problems, media fiascos. I think Jeffrey Lurie understands that he’s getting a guy who is going to be his partner and he’s not going to be tripping. He’s going to be very consistent in good times and bad, and who’s going to bring a culture into the Eagles' organization that Jeffrey is in high favor of and totally supporting.”
The Doug Pederson who returns now to Philadelphia as the team’s 23rd head coach has taken a long, detail-driven journey to reach this point. A career backup quarterback, Pederson played for 12 seasons in the NFL with four teams, including the Eagles in that ’99 campaign. He threw 522 career passes and completed 286 of them for 2,762 yards, 12 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. If there is a claim to fame in his career, and there is, it’s that Pederson helped Don Shula win his record 325th game as a head coach when the Dolphins beat the Eagles, ironically, in a November 14, 1993 game at Veterans Stadium. Pederson stepped in for an injured Scott Mitchell (separated shoulder) and managed the offense in final two quarters of the game (he completed 3-of-6 passes for 34 yards, including two completions for 11 yards on the drive that set up the game-winning field goal) and was part of the group that carried Shula off the field and into a greater legacy.
That’s where he was until the Chiefs lost on Saturday in the AFC Divisional Round game at New England, a defeat that ended Kansas City’s 11-game winning streak and sent Pederson on a new path, this time as a head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Doug had a presence, a voice and he commanded during a very difficult time,” said former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese of Pederson, recalling the ’99 season. “It wasn’t an easy situation. He was a great mentor for Donovan and he was at the head of the class, taking all of the shots from the media and the fans for half of that season. He was the steward of the position and he handled the situation very well. We all respected him for it.
“I’m sure he grew from the experience as he transitioned into the coaching field. He’s no longer an assistant coach. He’s the head man. He’s got a lot to handle, and he’s got to lead men and command the room. Those are new areas for him and by watching Andy both here and in Kansas City, there’s no doubt that Doug has had an opportunity to learn a lot. He has a blueprint in place from first-hand experience to see how it all works, and I think that Doug, much like when Andy got here, is going to have to lean on his assistant coaches for guidance through the early process as he grows.”
Pederson will get right to work upon arriving in Philadelphia, filling out his coaching staff, setting up the 2016 practice schedule and then digging in on the roster and working with the personnel department to build this team into a playoff group through the NFL Draft, player development, free agency and the trade route.
There is a lot of work to be done, as everyone acknowledges. Pederson knows the routine. He’s reached this point by taking the long road, by stopping to attend to all the details and to put the team first in every instance. That won’t change as a head coach.
“I’m pumped about it,” Lewis said. “I think it’s going to be sweet. Doug knows how to get it done. He’s done it his whole career.”