Flyin High In Philly
05 Feb, 2018
Time was out, giving the players a rare chance to catch their breath in the middle of the most frantic Super Bowl of all time. Just 38 seconds remained in the first half, and the Philadelphia Eagles faced fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. They’ve all played for Doug Pederson long enough to know they were going for it, but as they guzzled their water bottles, rested their hands on their hips and looked left toward their sideline, they wondered just how cool a play Pederson might have in mind.
They were not disappointed.
“Philly Special” was the call, and there were more than a few smiles in the huddle. The play calls for quarterback Nick Foles to move up to the line of scrimmage and basically act as if he’s checking his phone. It calls for a direct snap to running back Corey Clement, a pitch to tight end Trey Burton and a pass from Burton to Foles — assuming the New England Patriots had forgotten about Foles. Which they had, because who would think to cover him?
Philly Special. A play that sounds as if it should come with cheese and … well … onions.
“Our coach has got some guts, huh?” Burton said. “Got some big ones.”
When the Eagles needed a yard for a touchdown — when most coaches might have trusted their offensive line to just push their way forward — Pederson called a play on which his quarterback would ideally be the last of four people to touch the ball. It was a play the Eagles had practiced a total of six times, and never before the week of the NFC Championship Game. Sitting in a timeout, leading by three with halftime coming up and the opponent set to get the ball to start the second half, Pederson sent in a play he knew would get his guys grinning.
“You never know what he’s thinking,” Burton said. “Here we are. Philly’s never won a Super Bowl. We’re fourth-and-1 on the goal line and he calls a trick-play pass to the quarterback? Come on, man.”
It worked, of course. Pretty much everything Pederson did Sunday night worked, which is pretty much why it’s no longer true that Philadelphia has never won a Super Bowl. You don’t just roll in with any old game plan and expect Nick Foles to win a 41-33 shootout with Tom Brady. You don’t play it safe and expect to out-coach Bill Belichick.
“I trust my players, I trust my coaches and I trust my instincts,” Pederson said. “I trust everything I’m doing, and I want to maintain that aggressiveness. In games like this, against a great opponent, you have to make those tough decisions that way and keep yourself aggressive.”
One of the main reasons the Eagles won this game was that they converted 10 of their 16 third downs, and that on two of the other six they converted the fourth down. The Foles touchdown catch is the one everyone will remember, but it mattered just as much that Pederson went for it again on fourth-and-1 from his own 45-yard line with 5:39 left in the game and his team trailing for the first time all night. He had Foles throw that one, to tight end Zach Ertz, and he got 2 yards and the Eagles were able to control the ball for three more precious minutes before Foles hit Ertz for the go-ahead touchdown.
Pederson was playing with his backup quarterback against the greatest dynasty in his sport’s history, had the lead for all but seven minutes and still called 44 pass plays to only 27 runs.
“Coach Pederson is unbelievable,” Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. “The playcalling, man. I think he showed that all season, and tonight he just let loose. Foles was slinging it, and guys were making big-time plays in a big-time game.”
To the outside observer, this was nothing less than the gutsiest coaching job in Super Bowl history — an all-out, nothing-to-lose strategic masterpiece equal to the monumental moment. Pederson was sending in plays like a boxer determined to keep his opponent on the ropes. Body blow. Uppercut. Corner route in the end zone to a covered Alshon Jeffery. Touchdown pass to a double-covered Clement in the back of the end zone. Pederson and the Eagles watched last year’s Super Bowl. They knew Brady and Belichick would keep coming. They had to stand on the gas pedal until they saw that checkered flag.
But to the Eagles themselves? To those who’ve been watching the Eagles for the past month? For the past five months? Well, this was just Pederson coaching the way Pederson does.
“That’s been Doug all year, and that is Doug,” Celek said. “He’s a heck of a playcaller. He’s going to keep you off-balance, and he did that tonight.”
In the end, that’s what it took to deliver Philadelphia its first Super Bowl title. This was the third time (in eight tries!) that a team beat the Brady/Belichick Patriots in a Super Bowl, and each of the three required some kind of superhuman effort. A David Tyree helmet catch. A Mario Manningham sideline miracle. A backup quarterback who was thinking about retirement last summer becoming the first player to throw and catch touchdown passes in the same Super Bowl. A gutsy playcall that let everyone on the field know he believed in them, because Pederson is a coach who believes that’s the only way this will work.
“Unbelievable fourth-down call,” center Jason Kelce said. “He told us before the game he was going to stay aggressive, and when that call came in, I can’t tell you how excited everybody in the huddle was.”
And he meant complete confidence — even where you might have least expected it.
“People don’t realize how athletic Nick Foles is,” Burton said. “I know, as long as I put that throw anywhere near him, he’s going to catch it.”
Foles gave credit to Burton.
“Trey made an amazing throw, right on the money, and I just looked it in,” Foles said. “We’ve repped it for a while, so I was excited to get to run it in the Super Bowl.”
The signature play of Doug Pederson’s brief-but-now-brilliant NFL head-coaching career was called “Philly Special.” Appropriate for a coach and a team that turned out to be a whole lot of both.
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