MINNEAPOLIS — Doug Pederson, who was coaching in high school less than a decade ago, out-coached New England Patriots legend Bill Belichick in a Super Bowl. With his backup quarterback. Let that sink in.
There will be many enduring moments from the Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-33 win in Super Bowl LII, but nothing will top Pederson going for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line and having the fortitude to call a trick play with a tight end passing to his quarterback.
“You really want to know what we call it?” Pederson said when asked about the trick play. “‘Philly Special.’”
“Philly Special” was actually borrowed from elsewhere. It seems to have its roots at Clemson, who ran it for a two-point conversion from DeAndre Hopkins to Tajh Boyd in 2012. Quarterback Nick Foles approached the line like he was going to call an audible. There was a direct snap to running back Corey Clement, who started right and pitched to tight end Trey Burton. Burton threw to Foles for a touchdown.
“We’re all sitting there on fourth down, wondering what’s going to come in, if we’re going to kick a field goal,” center Jason Kelce said. “Then we get the play in, and I can’t tell you how excited everybody in the huddle was to run that. We all felt like it was perfect.”
It’s one thing to run that on a random Saturday afternoon against Georgia Tech. It’s another thing to call it on fourth down with more than 100 million people watching.
“I’ll tell you what, for a coach to call that play in that situation — are you kidding me?” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
“That’s been Doug Pederson all year. He’s stayed confident in this group of guys,” Kelce said.
Pederson said he thought his team needed touchdowns, and not short field goals, to beat the Patriots. And that should be obvious to everyone. But you don’t see that line of thinking often in a league overrun by risk-averse coaches who would rather kick 19-yard field goals and avoid criticism if going for it doesn’t work out.
Pederson’s devil-may-care ways at the Super Bowl didn’t surprise any of the Eagles. Pederson put his foot on the gas when the season started and never let up. The Eagles led the NFL in fourth-down conversions. After Carson Wentz went down with an injury the Eagles didn’t go in a shell; they devised aggressive game plans specifically catered for Foles. When Pederson met with the team before the Super Bowl, he had a simple message: He wasn’t going to change anything about his approach just because of the magnitude of the game or who they were facing.
“He said he was going to be aggressive, that was his message pregame,” Ertz said. “He said if we were up, he was still going to be aggressive.”
Pederson stayed true to that. Some analysts figured there might be a run-heavy game plan to hide Foles. Foles threw 43 times for 373 yards, and consistently threw downfield. There are only a few coaches in the NFL bold enough to go for it on fourth-and-1 at their own 45 with less than six minutes left in a regular-season game, much less a Super Bowl. Pederson went for it, Zach Ertz caught a 2-yard pass. The Eagles scored the game-winning touchdown later in the drive.
“We knew coach was going to go for it,” receiver Alshon Jeffery said. “That’s what he’s been doing all year.”
Pederson will get credit for going for it on the fourth downs, and coaching up Foles to throw for more than 700 yards in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl. His mastery Sunday was also in the little things that weren’t as obvious. As Ertz explained his game-winning touchdown, he said the Patriots double-teamed him on similar plays earlier in the game. This time, the Eagles sent the running back in motion away from Ertz. Once a Patriots defender went with the back in motion, Foles and Ertz knew it was man coverage and Ertz was one-on-one. Foles hit his tight end on a slant route for the score. That’s not as splashy as “Philly Special,” but it’s another example of how Pederson and his staff out-coached the Patriots.
“They kept us off balance,” Belichick said.
And on the other sideline, cornerback Malcolm Butler stayed on the bench for vague reasons while Butler’s backup Eric Rowe got picked on. It wasn’t Belichick’s best night, while Pederson pushed every correct button.
“Our coach, Doug Pederson, should have won coach of the year,” Ertz said to a question that had nothing to do with Pederson. “He’s the best play-caller I’ve ever played with, the best coach I’ve ever played for.”
After Sunday, Pederson will be mentioned alongside the NFL’s best coaches. The Super Bowl win was a long way from his four seasons at Calvary Baptist Academy from 2005-08, when he was figuring out if he really wanted to coach. It’s even a long way from the beginning of this season, when he was still a mystery and one well-known analyst opined that Pederson was “less qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve ever seen.” On Sunday, at the end of just his second season as a head coach, his creative and aggressive game plan got the best of Belichick, who will probably go down as the greatest coach ever. Pederson brought a Super Bowl title to Philadelphia, and it seems like he’s just getting started.
“I just come to work, the same person, and I don’t want to change,” Pederson said. “Hopefully we can win a couple more of these.”
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