Almost a year ago, I spent an hour talking with Johnny Booty, a man who knows football and who knows Doug Pederson. Booty gave Pederson his first job as a football team’s head coach. It was at Calvary Baptist Academy, a high school in Louisiana.
Booty spoke about Pederson with an admiration reserved for people who’ve made a lasting impression. It was hard to ignore.
In their time together in Louisiana, Pederson took a program in its second year of existence and turned it into a powerhouse in a crowded high school football scene in just four years.
High school football isn’t pro football, so comparing his ability to rally teenagers around Friday night lights and his ability to inspire men to fight when millions are guaranteed isn’t perfect. But as Pederson continues to coach, and learn to be a better leader of men, it seems he has a handle on what makes football players tick.
“He happens to be gifted with the ability to draw people together towards a dream,” Booty told me last January. “That’s the unique thing. That’s the Pete Carroll-type of gift. Very few men have that. Doug has got that gift.”
Pederson made his fair share of mistakes this season. He made poor decisions late in key division games, which turned out to be losses. His team seemed utterly unprepared for a game against the Bengals, with visions of the postseason still dancing.
But to watch this year’s Eagles, compared to what we saw from Chip Kelly’s listless finishes in his last two years with the team, was to watch an entirely different team in attitude.
Where Kelly’s teams were broken by key losses — a monstrous humbling against the Packers in 2014, and an equally brutal loss to the Buccaneers last season — Pederson herded his team to an admirable finish against three capable football teams.
“I challenged the team a couple weeks ago, as far as, ‘Let’s finish the season the right way,’ and our last month of the season has been heading in the right direction,” Pederson said after the Eagles’ season-ending win against a slap-dash Cowboys team. “It’s great to finish strong, two division opponents this way.”
One of the final three games was a loss to the Ravens, a game which could’ve very easily been a win had Carson Wentz’s pass to Jordan Matthews on a two-point conversion not been tipped at the line.
The two others, a win against a Giants team with postseason positioning to play for and a Cowboys team with nothing on the line, were productive wins, if not entirely telling.
But it’s far better to win those games than to lose them, and that’s what Doug Pederson managed to coax from his team. He inherited a team with many flaws, and was handed a rookie quarterback and told to win as many games as he could.
There’s no question Pederson left wins on the table this season. The Eagles could have, and probably should have, won closer to nine games. Maybe even 10. But seven wins is probably what many expected from the rookie head coach when the Eagles hired him a season ago.
And the path Pederson took — a hot start, followed by the inevitable swoon — is more important than the final product. To rebound from that mid-season swoon and salvage three good football games at the tail end showed me all I needed to see from Pederson in December.
He’s got work to do, but Pederson’s first season at the helm was a step in the right direction.