- Officially, the award excludes the postseason and the Super Bowl. But if it truly honored the coach of the year—the one who did the best work in the season’s biggest moments—then Sunday proved the honor belongs to Pederson. Here’s how he outmaneuvered the legendary Belichick on two crucial plays
MINNEAPOLIS — All around Zach Ertz was mayhem. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and the rest of the defensive backs were taking swigs from a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Teammates were spraying champagne and sing-chanting Meek Mill lyrics. Every player under 25 had his phone out, snapchatting history. Earlier, the air had been sucked out of a capacity stadium as a Hail Mary ball floated toward the end zone, then a violent roar rang through the night. The Eagles won their first Super Bowl. Later Ertz would sit back with his mom, Lisa, and his wife, Julie, and revel in the larger moment. “We did it,” he said over and over. “We really did it.” But for a moment in a celebratory locker room, his mind was on a small injustice of Super Bowl week.
“Doug Pederson should’ve won coach of the year,” he told The MMQB. “I don’t know how that happened. He got one freaking vote. It’s embarrassing.”
It’s hard to blame Ertz for feeling slighted on behalf of his head coach. Votes, of course, were tallied before the postseason began, when Nick Foles was in crisis and the Eagles were universally considered the rare underdog No.1 seed. Sean McVay won the award handily with 35 votes; Minnesota's Mike Zimmer finished second with 11; Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone earned two votes, and the two men coaching on Sunday night—New England's Bill Belichick and Pederson—received one apiece.
Ertz had a front row seat and an integral role in Pederson's head-to-head chess match with Belichick, arguably the greatest football tactician of all time. Standing at his locker in the basement of U.S. Bank Stadium, Ertz knew things about the simple magic of Pederson's Super Bowl game plan that the rest of us will come to learn in the coming weeks, as a game for the ages is dissected, documented and submitted to NFL lore.
The obvious example is the trick play on fourth-and-goal at the end of the first half, which saw tight end Trey Burton toss a one-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Foles. That's the Mona Lisa, but there's more than that in the Louvre. Take two of the biggest plays in this game, on the drive that erased New England's only lead of the game. Foles, who replaced an injured Carson Wentz with three games left in the regular season, got the ball down 33-32 with 9:22 left. Seven plays later it was fourth-and-1 at their own 45.
The Eagles didn't have to go for it, technically, but they had to go for it.
Y Rub Concept (Fourth-and-1, ball on Eagles’ 45, 5:39 left)
The Eagles were in 13 personnel—three tight ends, one receiver and one back. WR Alshon Jeffery was split right, Ertz on the right side of the line, TE Brent Celek on the left, TE Trey Burton on the left wing and Corey Clement to the left of Foles, lined up in shotgun. Matt Patricia's defense delay blitzed, with man coverage on each receiver.
Ertz says the play is an Eagles staple, and one the Patriots would have prepared extensively for; personnel groups can differ, but Celek “sets the depth” with a shallow cross, and Ertz runs underneath him with a shallow-er cross. Burton runs deeper, to the middle of the field, and stops on a dime about five yards deep and catches the ball. Five times Ertz can recall they’ve run this play in 2017, and five times the ball went to Burton.
In the first half, they ran the concept out of different personnel and broke tendency by throwing to Clement, enjoying a mismatch with safety Jordan Richards, on a wheel route for a 55-yard gain. So when the Eagles ran the play on the biggest fourth down of the season, the Patriots had Clement locked down with a lurking free safety and an outside linebacker.
Burton, the typical go-to on the route, was covered, with Eric Rowe in his hip pocket. Ertz found himself open following a successful Celek rub, and caught the ball a half-second before the safety who was sprinting toward Clement changed course and arrived.
“Foles has to kind of avoid the rush and that's why the ball wasn’t on me sooner,” Ertz says, “but he found me and I knew I was going to get hit but I just needed to catch it and get one yard.”
So the fourth-and-1 conversion on the drive that gave Philadelphia its final lead was a tendency breaker two times over, with Pederson and Foles running counter to New England’s scouting on two occasions to make it happen.
“I think we’ve run that play with that personnel five times this year and every time it went to Trey,” Ertz says. “It's a great call against man coverage and that’s what the Patriots do on third and fourth down, and against that coverage, I’m ‘High Alert.’ Great Call by Doug in that situation to go for it and trusting us to get it done.”
Jet Y Slant X (Third-and-7, ball on Patriots’ 11, 2:25 left)
Seven plays after the Foles conversion, it was third-and-7, and Pederson wanted to go back to Ertz to keep the drive going. Ertz was split out left, with trips to the right.
Before the snap, Clement motioned from Foles’ left to join the trips receivers, leaving Ertz alone on the left side of the field, matched up one-on-one with safety Devin McCourty. For a moment it looked as if McCourty was anticipating a slant; he was lined up on Ertz's inside shoulder and posturing towards the middle of the field. But when Ertz nodded outside before cutting back to the middle, McCourty stumbled, leaving the Pro Bowl tight end wide open. In fact, McCourty couldn’t have known the slant was coming because the Eagles have literally never run that play in a game since Ertz was drafted in 2013.
Ertz caught the Foles’ dime and dove for the goal line, and after a lengthy review, the final touchdown of the Super Bowl was confirmed by replay with 2:21 to play.
“Foles trusted me and made a great throw, and it was another great play call,” Ertz says.
The Eagles went with a similar concept against the Falcons in the divisional playoffs, but they motioned from twins left to trips right, and the running back ran to the left flat. Pederson anticipated the Patriots would do everything in their power to not let Ertz beat them, including double-teaming him in the red zone, so he wanted a device to make clear to Foles he was looking at single-coverage if they were throwing a goal line slant. This time they lined up in trips, and instead of running to the left flat, Clement sprinted to the right sideline in pre-snap, taking a safety with him and leaving Ertz and McCourty all alone.
“Pre-snap with that safety shaded to me I’m thinking possibly double, but when Clement sprints to the wide route on the right we knew it was one-on-one,” Ertz says.
Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and behind-the-scenes film guru Ernie Adams are famous for being prepared for every eventuality, and using knowledge of a team’s favorite play calls, concepts and tendencies against them in critical moments. That’s how they turned the tide in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks, with cornerback Malcolm Butler sniffing out Seattle’s favorite route concept at the goal line and making an extraordinary interception that could only have happened with the aid of devout film study.
But you cannot study what no one has ever seen. With two weeks to prepare, it was assumed Belichick would have the coaching edge over Pederson. But we were wrong. Given two weeks to prepare an injury-depleted offense with a backup quarterback under center, Pederson arrived with the answers to the test.
“Doug balled,” Ertz says, simply. “He called an unbelievable game.”
All due respect to McVay, who did a tremendous job transforming the Rams into a team to be feared in the NFC. But if it is truly a Coach of the Year honor, one that includes the biggest moments of the biggest game of the year, then it belongs to the guy who won on Sunday.
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