Doug Pederson never stopped being aggressive this season — not after Carson Wentz went down and not when the Super Bowl was on the line with Nick Foles under center.
Pederson’s play calling all season was deemed “unorthodox” by many, but after the Super Bowl there’s a better word for it: Ballsy.
Pederson made those calls all season long, throwing deep on running downs and running on third and long with great success. He threw a flea flicker in the playoffs against the best defense in football and it worked! He didn’t back down in the Super Bowl even though he was across the field from the greatest defensive mind of this generation in Bill Belichick.
Pederson outcoached the best coach in the history of the game, and it was never more obvious than on two fourth down plays that won the Eagles the team’s first championship in 57 years.
Pederson loves going for it on fourth down, something he’s done quite often since taking over before last season. In two years the Eagles opted to go for it on fourth down 53 times in the regular season, converting 13 in 2016 and 17 this season. Last year, only Jacksonville went for it on fourth down more than the Eagles, but no team had more conversions than the Birds. This season, only the Packers went for it more times than Philly, and no team converted more.
The Eagles opponents this season were just 4-for-18 in the regular season on fourth down, and just 2-for-6 in the playoffs. The Eagles were a perfect 3-for-3 in the playoffs on fourth down.
But it’s how the Eagles converted their fourth down attempts in the Super Bowl — and when Pederson opted to roll the dice on fourth down — that was the key to Sunday’s victory.
With 1:46 to play in the first half, the Eagles had the ball at their own 33 yard line up 15-12 before a swing pass to Corey Clement gave the Eagles unexpected field position deep inside the Patriots’ territory.
The Eagles had first and goal at the Patriots’ eight yardline with less than a minute to play in the half and chose to run the ball with Clement for six yards, to set up second down and two to reach the end zone. Clement ran again, for one yard, setting up third-and-goal at the one yard line. A pass to Alshon Jeffery was incomplete in the end zone, setting up fourth down. Logic says kick.
Pederson opted to go for it, rather than kick the short field goal to extend the lead to six points. Pederson is never one for logic in this situations, if that means playing it safe. He’s more of the type of coach who will go with his gut.
The Patriots were set to get the ball to start the second half, so if the Eagles didn’t convert on fourth down, the Pats would have taken a knee that deep in their own territory and, at worst, the Eagles would have gone into halftime with a three-point lead, rather than being up six. But Pederson did one better, calling a gadget play unlike any we’ve ever seen.
Foles set up in shotgun formation and moved down the line of scrimmage talking to his linemen in hopes the defense wouldn’t be set when the ball was snapped. Clement took the direct snap, moved left then flipped the ball to Trey Burton on a reverse. But rather than Burton try to run the ball into the end zone, he flipped it to a wide open Foles for the score.
Foles became the first quarterback to throw and catch a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and Pederson became a play-calling legend. 22-12 Eagles.
“You really want to know what we call it,” Pederson said after the game. “Philly Special.”
“You know, I trust my players,” he added. “I trust the coaches. I trust my instincts. I trust everything that I’m doing and I want to maintain that aggressiveness with the guys. In games like this against a great opponent, you’ve got to make those tough decisions that way and keep yourself aggressive.”
He sure was, and that was never more evident than the second fourth-down conversion of the Super Bowl. This one won the Eagles the game.
Fourth-and-1 with 5:39 to play and the Patriots seeming totally unstoppable on offense in the second half. New England had just taken the lead on the previous drive and Pederson and the Eagles were faced with a fourth down in their own half of the field.
Despite having all three timeouts and the two-minute warning at his disposal, Pederson decided that the best way to beat Tom Brady was to keep the ball out of his hands. Had the Eagles failed to convert the fourth down, Brady and the Pats offense would have gotten the ball in Eagles territory, and a touchdown could have put them up eight points, with a possible field goal extending the lead to four. Punting would have still given the ball back to New England deeper in their own territory, but that only would have given Brady more time to put together a long drive to kill the clock. Remember, the Patriots were winning at the time.
It was a risk for Pederson, but a calculated one and the right call at the juncture in the game. The play call was again on point — opting to pass from the shotgun instead of trying to run for the one yard — and Foles scampered backwards, avoided pressure and hit Zach Ertz for just enough to get the first down.
LeGarrette Blount came in to rush for one yard on the next play, then Foles connected with Nelson Agholor three straight times to get the Eagles into the red zone. Three plays later — this time on third down — the Eagles scored a touchdown when Foles hit Ertz again for an 11-yard score.
No one knows what might have happened had Pederson opted to punt from inside his own territory. The Patriots could have rolled down the field and won the game. The Eagles could have forced a punt and gotten the ball back in time to set up a game-winning drive.
Kicking the ball away would have been the safe play, with that much time on the clock. Most coaches would have done it.
Doug Pederson is not most coaches. And that’s why the Eagles are Super Bowl champions.