Struggles of 1999 helped shape Pederson
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- The numbers? Yeah, the numbers were ugly.
Wins? Not many. Just two in nine starts.
The fans? They were ruthless.
It wasn’t an easy year for Doug Pederson. He was hand-picked by rookie head coach Andy Reid to not only quarterback the Eagles in 1999, but also mentor first-round pick Donovan McNabb and tutor him on the intricacies of the West Coast offense. Teach him how to be a pro.
Talk about being thrown to the wolves. Bad team. Rookie coach. Terrible offense.
Reid had taken over a team that was 3-13 in its final year under Ray Rhodes and hadn’t won a playoff game in three years, and the rebuilding process started with a roster that was thread-bare in talent.
The offensive line -- the starting offensive line -- featured guys like Lonnie Palelei, Jeff Dellenbach and Steve Everitt. The receivers were Charles Johnson and Torrance Small. Not exactly Jackson and Maclin. Duce Staley and Tra Thomas, two Rhodes holdovers, were the only bright spots on a horribly overmatched offense.
Pederson, a career backup who had spent time with the Packers and Dolphins along with a couple tours of duty in the World League, never had a chance.
The Eagles blew a 21-0 first-quarter lead against the Cards on opening day at the Vet, were 0-4 a month into the season, and things never really got any better. Pederson became a symbol of the Eagles’ offensive ineptitude and an easy target for frustrated fans weary of a third straight losing season and desperate to see the electrifying 22-year-old McNabb in action.
“It was tough,” Pederson recalled. “Your family comes to the stadium, wants to enjoy the game, and hears the comments in the stands and reads the paper and everything. You just have to shut yourself out from that the best you can. But it’s tough.
“It’s even harder on your family because they can’t control the situation. It’s out of their hands. It was very hard on them. Very hard on my wife. Kids were still young, 3 and 5, so they didn’t know what was going on, but it was a tough year from that standpoint.”
Pederson’s ninth and final start in an Eagles uniform came on Nov. 7 in Charlotte, N.C., a desultory 33-7 loss to the Panthers. McNabb took over for good, and held the job for 11 years, taking the Eagles to the playoffs seven times before his 2010 trade to the Redskins opened up the door for Kevin Kolb and, a year later, Michael Vick.
And, to come full circle, Vick is now coached by Pederson, who’s starting his second year as Reid’s quarterbacks coach after two years as an offensive quality control coach.
“I knew what I was getting into,” Pederson said this week after a morning practice at Lehigh. “Andy and I had talked about it. But, yeah, it was hard.”
How did he get through it?
“A lot of it goes back to my faith,” he said. “You have to search for other things outside of football, and it was turning to my family and my faith at the time and finding strength in that. And that was really the difference for me. That’s what allowed me to get through that year.
“Yeah, Philly’s a tough place, but it was a great experience. I look back at it as a positive. Totally. Because I think through that, being in this position, getting scrutinized every day, getting criticized every day as a coach, look back on those experiences, you draw on them, and you use the good and the bad and try to convey that even to the players today.”
No, Pederson wasn’t the world’s greatest quarterback, but he was the winning quarterback when Don Shula won his 325th game -- a 19-14 win over the Rich Kotite Eagles at the Vet in 1993 -- to surpass George Halas and become the winningest coach in pro football history.
Pederson had a 3-14 career record as a starter, and his 62.3 passer rating is ninth-lowest of the 208 quarterbacks who’ve thrown 500 or more passes since 1980.
But the qualities he showed under extreme duress in 1999 -- the Eagles ranked sixth in the NFL in sacks allowed and their wide receivers were borderline pros -- helped shape the person he became. The person he is now.
“It wasn’t an easy deal there, and I thought he was resilient to all of that,” Reid said. “I thought he stayed on track with what he was here to do. He knew we had a No. 1 pick who was eventually going to be the starter, and his job was to help coach him, but at the same time have that opportunity to be able to start in the National Football League and to make the best of it.
“He didn’t go above or beyond that. He just kind of stuck to the plan, did that, and when it was time for Don to go in, he was a big supporter of Don. He didn’t let the outside things get in the way, and so if you’re going to be a coach, like a player, like a quarterback in particular, you’ve got to have some thick skin, so I think it was a natural transition for him to be able to go into coaching.”
Pederson spent 2000 with the Browns -- he threw for a career-high 309 yards in a 35-24 loss to the Eagles in Cleveland in mid-December -- and then he finished his career with a second stint in Green Bay backing up Brett Favre from 2001 through 2004.
He knew all along he wanted to go into coaching, and he got that opportunity at a small school, Calgary Baptist Academy, in Shreveport, La., where he started up the program in 2005 and had built it into a powerhouse by 2008.
“Andy and I had always stayed in touch,” Pederson said. “We’d talk every offseason, and I was at a point in my coaching career after four years where I was hoping to get my shot back in the NFL. It just happened that he had an opportunity at that time.
“Pat Shurmur was moving [to become offensive coordinator of the Rams], and the offensive staff was changing. James Urban was promoted to quarterbacks coach, so that quality control job was open.”
When Urban left Philly to become Bengals wide receivers coach after the 2010 season, Pederson was promoted to quarterbacks coach.
Two of Reid’s first three quarterbacks have gone on to become NFL head coaches -- Brad Childress and Shurmur. In this offense, on this team, it’s a crucial position and one that Reid takes great care to fill.
“I think Andy knew my work ethic, he knew me as a player, he knew my study habits and how I prepared, and I think he felt comfortable with that,” Pederson said. “Really, quality control is a great way to really get back into coaching. Get your feet wet, studying, drawing the pictures, doing the play books, breaking the film down.
“For me to be able to do that for two years, even though I already knew the system, it gave me a whole different perspective on everything. The light is turned on differently.”
Reid notices everything. In 1999, he didn’t see an ineffective quarterback playing behind a shaky offensive line with JV wide receivers as much as he saw a patient, engaged teacher for McNabb.
In the meeting room, in film study, on the sidelines, Pederson was next to McNabb, preparing him as well as possible. So when he inevitably took Pederson’s job, he was as ready as he could be.
“I watched him teach Donovan,” Reid said. “I saw him. Donovan was getting good coaching from all of us, but getting it through a player’s eyes that’s actually out there ... that’s big. ‘What did you see?’ ‘Well, this is what I saw,’ and he would explain that to Donovan.
“The blitz game was huge at that point, and that was the biggest jump Donovan had to make, and Doug was able to teach him that -- what he’s looking at, where it’s coming from.
“A lot of guys would put a wall up. Veteran player, puts a wall up. This guy’s taking your job? But Doug, he never stopped teaching. And he continued to teach. He didn’t slow up.”
It’s been 13 years.
McNabb is out of football these days, and Vick is now the electrifying quarterback that an entire city is desperate to see lead the Eagles to its first championship in half a century.
But the one thing hasn’t changed is Pederson. Still coaching, still teaching, still mentoring.
“I think that experience in Philadelphia in ’99 made me mentally tougher to be able to handle anything that came up,” he said. “That was probably the biggest thing for me. After going through that, you just feel like you can deal with anything.”E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org