Skip to main content

The Philly Special: Inside the ‘Set of Stones’ Play Call That Helped the Eagles Win the Super Bowl

How the surprise touchdown pass to Nick Foles encapsulated everything about this world championship team in Philadelphia

MINNEAPOLIS — Thirty Eagles bounced to the beat of a popular rap song, “MotorSport,” an hour after the pulsating Super Bowl 52 victory over the dynastic Patriots. White, black, players, coaches, one equipment guy at least. When the deafening song was over, 50-year-old Doug Pederson, one of the unlikeliest Super Bowl-winning head coaches ever, found his way to the front of his men for his post-game address.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am!” the hoarse Pederson said, straining to be heard, his face a road map of glee. “World champions! World champions! This is what you’ve accomplished—it’s for this moment right here!”

Then he said: “An individual can make a difference, but a team makes a miracle!”

One player yelled: “Coach of the year!”

If the balloting included the post-season, and counted three straight wins as underdogs, the award would be Pederson’s. But he’s fine with this award for his team and his football-loving city: Eagles 41, Patriots 33, in what could well be the single biggest sports victory in the history of Philadelphia.

Foles’ Gold: Eagles Are Super Bowl Champions

The Eagles are NFL champions for the first time in the Super Bowl era, for the first time since three weeks before the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. And it never would have happened without the head coach whom USA Todayranked seventh of seven new NFL coaching hires in January 2016.

“He’s got a big set of stones,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, trying to find the words just before the clock struck 12 Sunday night.

That’ll do.

• HOW BUTLER BENCHING GAVE EAGLES THE UPPER HAND: The absence of Butler, plus game film from October, allowed Philly to exploit the Patriots D.


Doug Pederson is a coach of the people. No idea is too weird. No time to run a play is ever inopportune. I don’t mean to say this should be his legacy, but it might turn out to be. He is a Super Bowl champion in his second year as an NFL head coach, in part, because of one of the strangest play calls in Super Bowl history, called on fourth down late in the first half in a three-point game, the biggest game of his life.

The Patriots are flying home losers today despite putting up a Super Bowl-record 613 yards and despite Tom Brady playing one of the games of his life. They are flying home losers because a head coach who was a backup NFL quarterback (Pederson) and an offensive coordinator who was a backup NFL quarterback (Reich) and a quarterback who was a backup NFL quarterback (Foles) beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They knew the only chance to beat the Patriots was to call a top-secret play when it wouldn’t have mattered if the Patriots had 15 players on defense.

Inside the Eagles’ locker room, I got Pederson alone and asked where this football ethos came from.

“Playing quarterback, watching a lot of teams, a lot of football,” he said. “You learn if you play passive, if you play conservative, if you call plays conservatively, you are going to be 8-8, 9-7 every year. Every year. Frank and I just having that collaborative spirit to talk about things and talk with our quarterbacks and just come up with ways of keeping this game fresh and fun and exciting for our players. And that's really where it all stems from.”

In this case, the key moment of the game, and of the season, came when Pederson, the Eagles’ play-caller, looked over his play sheet and fixated on the play he has loved for three weeks.

Target left bunch, Philly special.

On Saturday night, Pederson said to Reich: “We’ll build a lead, and in the third or fourth quarter, that play will be the dagger.”

I love five parts of this play.

• Reich told me the kernel of the idea originated from an industrious Eagles quality-control coach, Press Taylor. Said Reich: “Press has this, what we call this vault of trick plays. It's an immense vault, so every week we go into Press's vault looking for plays.” Taylor, it appears, found the play in a meaningless Week 17 game in 2016. At 1:10 this morning, The MMQB’s Kalyn Kahler found a play from the Chicago-Minnesota game that doubtless led to Target left bunch, Philly special. Bears running back Jeremy Langford took a direct snap from center, quarterback Matt Barkley lined up behind the right tackle, and wideout Cam Meredith circled back behind Langford and took a pitch from him. Barkley leaked out of the backfield into the end zone. No one covered him. At the 11-yard line, Meredith tossed the ball to Barkley, two yards deep in the end zone. Touchdown. Watch that play and keep it in mind. You’ll need it. “We’re fine with ideas coming from anywhere,” Reich said. “Doug loves ideas.”

A Dejected Tom Brady Shows No Signs of Stopping After Super Bowl LII Loss

• The Patriots are known for their exhaustive research to discover the roots of a play, with mad scientist/analytics expert Ernie Adams knowing every play a team might run going back at least a couple of years. But if a play hasn’t been run by the Eagles, how would Adams have seen it? And how would Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia been able to prepare for it?

• Why Burton as the triggerman? He was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback out of high school in Florida. He pitched in high school. So Pederson knew Burton could throw it—and he saw it when the team practiced the play some this month. And the Eagles knew the Patriots wouldn’t expect Burton to throw a pass. In his four NFL seasons, he hadn’t thrown a single one.

• The Super Bowl’s a big stage. The Eagles practiced the play in privacy back in Philadelphia—in fact, they thought they might use it against Minnesota but didn’t need it in the 38-7 NFC title win 15 days ago—but once they got to Minneapolis, they didn’t want to expose it to prying eyes of outsiders, a few of whom are at every practice. They ran it twice on Friday afternoon in a walk-through practice at their Mall of America hotel, the Radisson Blu, a five-minute walk from the Orange Julius, seven minutes from Shake Shack. On one of the attempts, Burton threw behind Foles, but the quarterback reached behind him and made a nice grab. Burton didn’t beg, but he asked Pederson stridently, “Can we run this?”

• Foles had not been thrown a pass since his first season quarterbacking the Arizona Wildcats in 2009. He caught it … for a loss of nine yards.

This is what it takes to stun the Patriots: a play they’d never seen run by the Eagles, with a passer who’d never thrown an NFL pass, and a receiver who’d never been thrown an NFL pass.

Run in the Super Bowl, in a three-point game, against the best team of the generation. Burton’s glad he didn’t have much time to think about it.

“It was fourth down,” I said to him. “It was fourth down in the Super Bowl!”

“Doug’s got some guts, doesn’t he?” Burton said.

Eagles 15, Patriots 12. Third-and-goal from the Pats’ one, with 41 seconds left.

“I made up my mind we were going for it on fourth down if we didn’t make it on third,” Pederson said.

Incomplete. Fourth-and-goal now.

“We had a couple of options at that point, but then my eyes just kind of hit that play,” Pederson said. “I was thinking, ‘We keep talking about that play, and calling it in the second half of the game … but are we going to be in a situation like this, to put us up by two scores? There are certain plays that you spend time doing them, repping them, and you have no doubt they are going to work. Without a shadow of a doubt you know. I knew.”


Pederson called into his headset to Foles: “Target left bunch, Philly special.”

This is about to be a touchdown, guard Stefan Wisniewski thought when he heard the call.

“The end was a little wider than I thought,” Foles said. “So I really had to sell it like I’m not doing anything. It worked.”

You can cue up the Bears’ play at Minnesota from 25 months ago. It is a precise carbon copy, all the way down to Burton taking the pitch, throwing from his 11 and Foles catching it two yards deep. No one there. Touchdown.

“That play is Doug epitomized,” Reich said. “That play is our team, our season.”

So the Eagles took a 22-12 lead at the half. New England assumed a brief second-half lead, but from the half, it was like the Patriots were always playing uphill. New England is good at it, but the Eagles keep counter-punching.

For the Patriots, It Felt Like an Ending

One more note about this: After the play, Twitter was filled with people saying the Eagles were short one man on the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. The NFL requires seven offensive players to be on the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. And it does appear that six Eagles were within a yard of the line, which is permissible, and the seventh, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, to the top of the formation, was two yards off the line. In theory, the officials could have called an illegal formation with only six men on the line.

Except Jeffery claimed he got the okay from the official on the right sideline. The way formation rules work, players can look over at a side judge or other official nearby to see if he’s in the permissible spot.

“I’m on the ball,” Jeffery said. “I pointed. What are you talking about? Man, you know I checked with the ref!”

No call. Eagles win ... eventually.

• Eagles fans, celebrate Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl title with SI’s special commemorative package. Click here to order.

The Eagles were as euphoric a team in the locker room as I recall after a Super Bowl. Pure happiness. Not a bit of guile. Reich said it, Pederson said it, a couple of players said it: This was a great football game, with two excellent teams (well, excellent offenses anyway) playing at their peak, without being cowed by the stage. And playing without being chippy.

So the Super Bowl champs fly Eagles fly to (what’s left of) Philly today to be received like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan after the Apollo 11 moon landing. Oh, it’s going to be crazy when that parade goes up Broad Street, likely on Wednesday.