As Eagles players walked off the turf at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with their heads down following their crushing 20-14 loss to the Saints in the NFC's Divisional Round, they looked up to find head coach Doug Pederson waiting for them by the locker room entrance.
He paced the carpet in silence while holding the door, seeming to hold in emotions as he alternated between bending over to look at the ground and staring up at the ceiling. The muffled sound of “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang blaring through the walls juxtaposed the gloomy moment.
Pederson waited for every last player to file through the tunnel and greeted each one with a hug or a pat on the back. Some greetings lasted longer, depending on if the player wanted to take in that moment or just continue walking. But each was sincere and made an impact.
“I've never seen that before,” said 11-year veteran defensive end Chris Long. “There's nothing fake about that. I mean there's nothing fake about that. A lot of people, when they get power in the league and they get the head coaching job, they don't treat people the way Doug treats somebody. I just really appreciate him.”
A common thread between each of the conversations during the Eagles’ locker room clean-out on Monday was respect, love, and gratitude for Pederson. The third-year head coach dealt with the incredibly difficult task of keeping a group of players on track when faced with an embarrassing blowout and a 4-6 record.
Some on the outside thought he was overly positive in his message that the Eagles still had their goals in front of them and could overcome these obstacles. But his players were with him every step of the way. Pederson blocked out the noise and stayed the course. Eventually, a dangerous playoff team took shape.
“I just saw a lot of guys raise their level rather than lower it and that's not everywhere in the NFL,” Long said. “It starts with the culture with Doug and the guys we have in here.”
“I think for everybody with Doug, you gain more and more respect with him the more and more that you go through,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “It's easy to be great and lovey-dovey when you're winning all of the games but when your backs against the wall, you're scrapping for everything you've got, there's no doubt. He doesn't change. That earns a lot of respect from the guys he's leading.
“For me, I know I appreciate playing for him. He's definitely a coach that gets it. He gives his players a lot of ownership, a feeling that everybody's role matters and that we're all included. I think he has the respect of everybody in the locker room.”
Pederson has consistently received credit for connecting with the players in his locker room on a personal level. Some of that ability stems from his experience as a former quarterback and his understanding of his players’ mindset.
It also comes from his ability to listen. Pederson has always shown trust in his players and listens to their thoughts. He established a leadership council when he started a head coach to address the players' concerns.
He has made changes like simplifying and altering schemes when games slipped away this season. He ran more practices with pads last season before the playoffs at his players’ request. Heck, he even let his quarterback suggest the play on fourth-and-goal before halftime at the Super Bowl that is now forever known as the Philly Special.
It’s not his way or the highway. Pederson has always focused on winning as a team and staying real. That has not gone unnoticed by his players.
“He's just genuine. He's not fake,” said quarterback Nick Foles. “He continues to be Doug. He continues to motivate guys by being who he is. He didn't put any added pressure. He trusts his players. He trusts his players to speak. There's a lot of great leaders in this locker room. That never wavered. I think the thing you see with Doug Pederson is a guy who is genuine all of the time. That's something that resonates in this locker room.”
“He's a great guy,” said rookie running back Josh Adams. “Obviously, a great coach, but just a great individual who cares about his players and takes what he does personally. For each man in the locker room, he cares about their development and trying to get them better.”
The Eagles’ locker room is well-known for being a tight-knit group over the past two seasons, which comes from the culture Pederson established. Jenkins and defensive end Brandon Graham said Monday that the players’ relationships with each other and with the coaching staff is known across the league. That will make it easier to draw in free agents.
“I love playing for Doug,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “He's helped me through a lot of tough times off the field and I'm forever indebted to him, forever grateful for having the opportunity to play for a coach like him. … Everyone loves playing for Doug. He's an amazing coach, an amazing person.”
“I think it starts with the head coach,” Long said. “We have a really great head coach, a head coach who sets that family tone and just bringing in the right guys for the most part and having that kind of culture in the locker room.”
After the final whistle on Sunday, Pederson was frank with his players once again. He told them this one would hurt and would hurt for a while.
But following the massive comeback this team was able to pull off, he reminded them to keep their heads up and be proud of what they accomplished. It wasn’t just coachspeak. Other locker rooms may have fallen apart when facing the injuries and difficulties this team faced. But not this team and not this locker room.
Pederson has a 29-19 regular-season record in three seasons as a head coach in the NFL. He’s 4-1 in the postseason and already has a Super Bowl ring. He’s had more joyful moments than disappointing ones.
But the Eagles learned as they saw Pederson greeting them in the most disappointing of moments what they always knew: He would be there for them.
“It shows the respect that he has for us and also the respect we have for him,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “When you've got a head coach that's standing at the door, greeting every guy that comes in the locker room, you go find me one player in the NFL that wouldn't want to play for that guy.”