PHILADELPHIA -- Nothing prepares a person to be a head coach in the NFL. Just ask Doug Pederson.
"Until you've been in this position, it's really hard to describe," said Pederson, who was only eight years removed from a high school job when he was named head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 18, 2016.
Pederson was inundated with installing a new system and fixing the culture left out of the smoldering remains of the Chip Kelly era. There was also the death of his father, nine days before the start of his first regular season as the leader of an NFL franchise. One day later, while Pederson was in Louisiana by his family's side, starting quarterback Sam Bradford was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, elevating No. 1 draft pick Carson Wentz into the lineup.
"That's true. That's true," said Pederson, when asked if the perception he was overwhelmed early was accurate. "There is a sense of an overwhelming feeling when you're dealing with so many players and so many different aspects of the organization. ... Until you've been in this position, it's really hard to describe."
Publicly, Pederson has faced a good deal of skepticism. He was not the team's first choice (Ben McAdoo would have been hired if the New York Giants hadn't grabbed him) and he is viewed by some as Andy Reid Lite. A pupil of the longtime Eagles head coach, Pederson was considered for the job, in part, because he was endorsed by Reid.
"When you've never had those opportunities before, your stepping stones are out in front of everybody," said former Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil, who has become a friend and mentor to Pederson, "especially so in Philadelphia."
Entering his second season as coach, Pederson understands everything that goes with the title. Many of the job-related worries have lessened now that he is used to the constant waves of demand. With the level of comfort, his personality and coaching style are beginning to bubble to the surface, wiping away some of the preconceived notions about him in the process.
For instance, it turns out there's a little toughness to Pederson's approach, running counter to the idea that he is strictly a jovial, player-pleasing coach.
When a Monday practice was sloppy heading into the preseason opener, Pederson's reaction caught some players off guard.
"You just see out of nowhere, coach Doug flip," cornerback Jalen Mills said. "He started calling guys out. It kind of surprised me because I've never seen him do that before. From that point on, the level of intensity of practice went up times 10."
"When I see it, it's like, we know we f--- up," added linebacker Najee Goode. "We had a bad day of practice during OTAs. That day he snapped. He was just like, 'It ain't good enough.' And that's where he draws that fine line. It ain't never gray. It's a fine line that says 'bam, the line is right here -- we can't have anything less than this.'"
The non-football, business-related responsibilities and the media were two parts of the job for which Pederson was unprepared. His dealings with the press got off to a shaky start. In an attempt to be accommodating and forthright, Pederson sometimes offered meandering answers.
"The No. 1 thing I said to him in a closed door visit, and I don't think he'd mind me saying this, is 'Doug, never go into an organized press conference unprepared,'" Vermeil said. "I learned my own lessons the hard way a few times."
The news conferences helped influence how the public and media viewed Pederson as a coach. If there was a perceived in-game gaffe -- and there were a few in his first season, such as his questionable playcalling in an October overtime loss to the Cowboys in which his squad blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, or his decision to go for it twice on fourth down rather than kick the field goal in a five-point loss tot he New York Giants the following week -- it was often submitted as proof Pederson was in over his head rather than chalked up as a rookie mistake. Similarly, when the Eagles' 7-9 record is discussed, the obstacles he faced aren't emphasized relative to mistakes he made.
Pederson also encountered those who think he was hired because of Reid. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was more than open to the idea of returning to the familiar after the Kelly era. Pederson was an apple right off the most bountiful coaching tree that Lurie ever climbed. Some of the holdovers even called Pederson "Skinny Andy" early on.
"Probably because I brought back some of the same things that we did when Coach Reid was here. Some of the same structure and the way we practice and things like that," Pederson said. "Listen, it's been successful for him, so if that's the worst thing they're calling me, then I'm OK.
"Hopefully [now they're calling me] Skinny Doug, not Big Ass Doug," added Pederson, staring down at his midsection.
The answer is that Pederson has carved out his own identity and is now just "Doug," "Coach Pederson" or in Mills' case, "Dougie Fresh." He is starting to put his own twist on things. He has made tweaks to the practice format and found ways to incentivize players through competitions ranging from third-down drills to tug-of-war showdowns after practice. He also has emphasized team bonding through different activities such as a team paintball trip this past spring.
Pederson created a player's counsel consisting of leaders from each position group and meets with them weekly to let them know what's coming up and to listen to any concerns.
"I thought that was a very, very important piece to the relationship, especially for a new coach, really leaning on his leaders and vice versa," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "... That's a big part of why now we see him really handing it off and really putting a lot of pressure on the leaders to establish the culture."
Pederson's theme this offseason has been ownership. He wants the standards to be enforced and upheld by the players. To that end, he offers the group plenty of room to breathe and handle its own business. It's only when things slip below his standard that he steps in.
"He reminds me of Gary Kubiak," said guard Brandon Brooks, who played under Kubiak with the Houston Texans. "The reason I say that is this: Kubiak was a player's coach. But don't think ... I mean, Andre Johnson, he was late for a meeting my rookie year, second year, and Kubiak had what he called his 'red ass of the day.' ... Nobody is exempt, and it's the same thing with Doug: Nobody is exempt. He wants the same effort and finish out of everybody."
Pederson has three characteristics he wants to define his club: "I want it to be a physical football team. I want it to be a tough-minded football team. And I want us to be a smart football team."
Straying from that last part will upset Pederson, which was on display this past Monday in practice when the offense kept committing penalties. Pederson had the entire offensive unit line up after the two-and-a-half hour session and run gassers -- three of them, one for every time the unit committed a false start.
Attention to detail is something that was drilled into Pederson during his time as a quarterback -- he was Brett Favre's backup in the mid-90s and started nine games for Reid's Eagles in 1999 while rookie Donovan McNabb was being groomed. Attention to detail remains in every aspect of his life, right down to the positioning of the ketchup and mayo in his fridge.
"If you go into his refrigerator, everything is lined up, labels out," said good friend Vince Papale, the former Eagles walk-on who was the inspiration for the movie Invincible. "All labels forward. It's the perfect offensive line, everybody in perfect position."
Papale paints Pederson as a man with many layers and interests, standing in sharp contrast to the one-dimensional figure that's been portrayed. He sees a cook (steaks on the grill are his specialty), wine connoisseur, hunter and a fisherman, music-lover (anything from Guns 'N Roses to "Hot Country"), drive-booming golfer and family man with a spiritual center.
Pederson gets to his office around 5:30 a.m. And, each morning, he dedicates a half-hour to reading the Bible and reflecting.
"Anything that's on my mind goes away, anything I'm worried about goes away for those 30 minutes, and it sort of eases everything leading up to getting my day started," he said.
Football has always come easy and is less strenuous this season, now that his offensive system has been installed and the operation is off the ground. It has allowed him to lift his head up and manage the team from a more macro perspective.
His relationship with the players seems to be in a good place, though the honeymoon typically extends into Year 2. The real tests are yet to come. One bit of feedback? Beyond being universally labeled as an accessible player's coach, Pederson is viewed as "a freakin' phenomenal playcaller," according to tight end Brent Celek.
"He is. I agree with that 100 percent," added center Jason Kelce.
It may seem somewhat counterintuitive given the 2016 offense was often stagnant and Pederson's run-pass ratio was out of whack (Wentz was asked to drop back a franchise-high 607 times as a rookie). But Kelce said from an insider's perspective, the players saw a coach who was keeping the defense off balance and taking advantage of opponent's tells and tendencies, even if the execution wasn't there.
"I like a lot of his playcalling -- not all of it, I'm not as big a gambler on fourth down as he is," Vermeil said with a laugh. "But you live and learn by doing things. ... I'm very optimistic he's going to grow and become a real great contributor to the Eagles and the National Football League."
The Eagles upgraded their offensive talent pool this offseason, ratcheting up expectations. Many believe Wentz is a franchise quarterback in the making. Now that he is armed with more experience and Pederson has his footing, Lurie can really begin to evaluate the coach/quarterback combo for the long term. Lurie has yet to win a Super Bowl since buying the team in 1994. The growing sense of urgency is only heightened by the presence of Wentz, who says he is pleased with his relationship with Pederson.
"The biggest thing is that he's a player's coach." Wentz said. "You want to play for him. He understands from our position -- obviously as a quarterback, but just as a player -- he's a former player, so he's been through it, so he knows when to kind of crank it up, when to tone it back. So he is definitely a player's coach.
"And then him and I, we meet up all the time and just talk about plays, concepts, different things. We just have a really good relationship that's just been growing ever since last year."
Pederson said his concern remains not on how he is perceived, but on winning football games.
"Like Donald Trump has an approval rating -- I couldn't even tell you what mine is, and, quite frankly, I'm worried about this football team and winning games," he said. "That's the gauge that we're all measured by."