Scouting the Eagles new coach and why it would be foolish to dismiss Doug Pederson’s tenure before it even starts.
Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
The wait — or torment, depending on your patience level — is finally over. The Philadelphia Eagles have hired Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to be their next head coach. With the hire, Jeffrey Lurie seems to be reaching back in time trying to rekindle the magic he established when he hired Andy Reid, another relatively obscure offensive mind with no play calling experience.
Despite what you may hear on the radio or read on ESPN, we legitimately have no idea whether Doug Pederson will be a good head coach. That’s because there are so many unknown variables right now: can Pederson perform the necessary duties required of him as a head coach? Who will be Pederson’s assistants? Will the Eagles get back to building through the drat and supplementing through free agency? And can the Eagles front office finally– finally — coexist long enough to attain the stability that this franchise has never achieved with Jeffrey Lurie as the owner?
(Author’s note: this post focuses exclusively on Doug Pederson. I will address the Eagles front office in a post later this week).
We Have No Idea How This Hire Will Turn Out
The only concrete conclusion that we can reach about Doug Pederson is that we have no idea how he will turn out as a coach. Anyone suggesting otherwise is peddling a false narrative based on their own preconceived notions.
One such narrative is that Pederson cannot be a quality coach because he was their third or fourth option. Missing out on their top choices certainly makes the Eagles front office look bad. But it’s worth pointing out that whether you hire your first or fourth choice in a coaching search has almost no predictive value on whether that head coach is good.
Bill Cowher was the eighth of nine coaches hired back in 1992, and that worked out fine for the Steelers. Chip Kelly was the Eagles primary target in 2013, and he lasted only three seasons without ever winning a playoff game. Rob Chudzinski was the Browns fallback option after they missed out on Kelly, and he went 4-12 in his only season as a head coach. Bruce Arians was passed over by almost everyone in 2013 — including the Eagles — and he is one win away from playing in the Super Bowl.
The point is simple: picking a head coach is hard, and history is littered with trendy coaches and fall back options that succeed and fail miserably. So we shouldn’t put any stock in where Pederson ranked in the pecking order of hot commodities.
By all accounts, Pederson has a good reputation. Andy Reid speaks very highly of him, something that should carry weight in Philadelphia given his track record as a head coach. And those that have interacted with Pederson have glowing things to say:
But beyond that, we are at a huge information disadvantage here. We don’t know anything first hand about Pederson. We weren’t privy to the interviews. We don’t know whether he can command the respect of a locker room. We don’t know if he can formulate a gameplan designed to take advantage of another team’s limitations. We don’t know how he will do with in-game adjustments. How he will react when the proverbial shit hits the fan (and it always does). Or whether he can connect with his players in a way that’s conducive to building a winning culture.
We don’t know. We don’t know. We. Don’t. Know.
So the best that we can do is give Pederson time. I don’t mean to sound like a Hallmark card here, but we need to let him fail, let him learn, and let him grow. If we take our legitimate frustrations with the Eagles front office and ownership out on Pederson, we are setting him up for failure. Then, we would be looking for our fourth coach in short order, placing us squarely in Cleveland Browns territory, folks.
Hiring A Great Staff Is Critical
The best thing Eagles can do is surround Pederson with a talented staff. A head coach cannot do it all. The coordinators usually help formulate game plans. The position coaches spend the majority of time with the players at their respective positions and are charged with helping them improve their technique and work on their limitations.
Look no further than the difference between the staffs compiled by Andy Reid and Chip Kelly to see how a staff can impact the success of a franchise. Reid had John Harbaugh, Leslie Frazier, Brad Childress, Pat Shurmur, and Steve Spagnuolo on his staff — all of whom went on to become NFL head coaches. And that list does not even include the venerable Jim Johnson, one of the best defensive coordinators of the last decade.
Chip Kelly’s staff was not devoid of talent — Shurmur, Duce Staley, Dave Fipp, Jeff Stoutland and Cory Undlin are all competent coaches. But not one coach from his staff was hired — or even interviewed — for a head coaching gig. And the one coach off memory that received a promotion from another franchise — that would be quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, who took the offensive coordinator job at the Dolphins — was fired after two seasons.
So it is imperative that Pederson surrounds himself with a talented staff. He’s already reportedly keeping Fipp, Duce, Undlin and Stoutland — good moves on all fronts.
He’s also reportedly targeting Frank Reich, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, as the offensive coordinator. I would have preferred Pat Shurmur (more on this in a moment), but I can’t outright dismiss Reich either. The only thing we know about Reich is that he was a quarterback in the league for 14 years (good) and lasted only one season as the Chargers offensive coordinator (bad). But it’s important to point out that Reich was dealt a bad hand from the start given the bevy of injuries that the Chargers experienced this year.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Giants reportedly denied the Eagles request to speak to Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator (thank you, Giants!). The Eagles are also reportedly interested in Jim Schwartz, the former Detroit Lions head coach who served as defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans. This would be a huge coup; despite his limitations as a head coach, Schwartz is considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL.
Over the coming weeks, we will see Pederson’s staff take place. If Pederson can mimic his mentor Andy Reid and surround himself with a talented and experienced staff, he will be setting himself up nicely for the foreseeable future.
Pederson Brings His Variation Of The West Coast Offense
Now let’s dig into some specifics on the offense that Pederson will employ.
Pederson brings the west coast offense with him from Kansas City, a system he has spent the majority of his career as a coach and player. Pederson played in the scheme in Green Bay as Brett Farve’s backup and as the placeholder for Donovan McNabb in Andy Reid’s first year on the job. He coached the west coast offense with the Eagles in 2010-2012 and as the Chiefs offensive coordinator the last three years. So expect an offense that is markedly similar to the one Andy Reid ran.
The offense was created by legendary 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, whose success is matched only by his simply incredible coaching tree that he has amassed, with Walsh, Dungy, Billick, Holmgren, Harbaugh, Gruden, McCarthy, and Shanahan all winning Super Bowls:
(Side note: anyon else notice how many times Jeffrey Lurie seems to be going back to this well? His first hire as a head coach was Ray Rhodes, who coached in San Francisco under Walsh. His next hire? Andy Reid, who was schooled in Bill Walsh’s ways by Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. The Eagles reportedly targeted John Harbaugh, another Reid disciple, before interviewing Pederson (Reid), Ben McAdoo (who came up under McCarthy in Green Bay), Duce (Reid) and Pederson (Reid). Not sure what this means long term, but figured I would pass it on).
The west coast offense is predicated on short passes — think slants, bubble screens, and crossing patterns — with three step drops. The offense is designed to get plays out of the quarterbacks hands quickly and into the hands of the playmakers looking to get YAC. And often times, the offense will use the short passing game in lieu of the run.
Of course, the West Coast offense is an amorphous scheme — each coach that has inherited it from Bill Walsh has put his own spin on things — so don’t expect Pederson to run the exact same offense that Reid ran here.
But looking at the Chiefs offense will still provide us some clues as to what we can expect. While there are a lot of similarities between the offense Reid ran in Philly and his current offense in Kansas City, there are some noticeable differences as well. For starters, Reid has relied more heavily on the running game since he moved to the Chiefs. Below is the percentage of pass plays ran since 2013 and their rank compared to the rest of the NFL:
For comparisons sake, Reid passed on average 60% of the time from 2003 to 2012, which ranked 8th in the NFL (I could not find statistics for 1999-2002).
The other stark difference is how the Chiefs have embraced some new age spread concepts, which is why you will see them run some read option plays.
AJ Feeley recently described Pederson as a “new age West Coast” coach, which is an encouraging label. The NFL’s new passing rules favor the downfield passing game, leading many to question whether the West Coast offense, which is predicated on the horizontal passing game, is outdated.
If Pederson is able to marry the West Coast principles with the new age spread concepts that his predecessor Chip Kelly used to success, we could be onto to something. I know many are at the point during the breakup from Kelly where everything he did seems toxic.
But we would be foolish to dismiss the positive change he brought to the game: combining vertical and horizontal passing concepts with an up-tempo offense and simplified verbiage used for calling plays. This approach has been adopted to varying degrees across the league, including in New England (especially), Denver, Seattle and Carolina, all of whom played football games over the weekend.
It is the familiarity with the spread offense that makes me inclined to want Pat Shurmur to stay on as the offensive coordinator. Anyone that watched the Chiefs burn through timeouts and handle their two minute offense at a snails pace on Saturday night were quickly reminded how frustrating the time management — or lack thereof — was during the Reid era.
There are least two causes for these issues. One, Reid has an inefficient system in place for calling plays. As Reid acknowledged to the Kansas City Star, he calls the plays to Pederson, who then relays them to quarterback Alex Smith.
Add to it the complicated verbiage that is used for each play, such as “shift to halfback twin right open, swap 72 all-go special halfback shallow cross wide open,” and it is easy to see why the Chiefs struggle to manage the clock effectively, especially when compared to the one or two word play calling used by Kelly and Belichick.
The Offense’s Strength Lies In Its Efficiency
A final thought on the Chiefs’ offense — and by implication, Pederson: don’t be fooled by total numbers. The Chiefs rank 27th in total yards, 30th in passing yards, and 6th in rushing yards. Compare that to the Eagles, who ranked 12th in total yards, 12th in passing yards, and 14th in rushing yards, in what many would consider a down year, and it’s easy to think that the Eagles are taking a step back offensively by switching to Pederson.
But that is prime example of why total numbers can be misleading. The Chiefs offense was highly efficient this year: they were 9th in points per drive according to FootballOutsiders.com, and 19th in yards per drive. (The latter statistic would be even better if the Chiefs did not have the best average starting field position in the NFL, again according to FootballOutsiders.com).
And the Chiefs offense was efficient in 2014 as well, where they ranked 12th in points per drive, 8th in starting field position, and 20th in yards per drive (again, the latter of which is dragged down by their great field position).
Compare that to the Eagles, who were the model of inefficiency in 2015, ranking 23rd in yards per drive, 19th in points per drive, and 25th in starting field position.
Why the disparity in total numbers versus efficiency? Two reasons: the Eagles were propped up by the fact that they ran more plays than most teams in the league, thus giving a false perception that they were a good offense when in fact, they were not.
Second, the Chiefs were much better at protecting the football (which is, at least in part, a byproduct of the risk adverse west coast offense predicated on shorter passes): they ranked 2nd in 2015 in turnover differential with a plus-14, compared to 22nd for the Eagles, with a negative 5.
Big Picture Take Away
I will address later this week why there are legitimate concerns about the Eagles front office and ownership, but we should do our best to compartmentalize those concerns and not let them impact our view of Doug Pederson. We have no idea how his tenure will turn out because there are so many unknown variables in the equation. But we do know that Pederson his highly respected around the league, runs a blend of the West Coast offense with new-age spread principles, and has spearheaded one of the most efficient offenses in the league over the last two years.