If you’d told NFL fans at the end of the 2013 season that, in five years’ time, the Philadelphia Eagles would have the best record in the league and, led by quarterback Nick Foles, obliterate the best defence in football in the NFC Championship game and then score 41 points in the Super Bowl to beat the greatest quarterback and coach of all time... you’d probably believe it.
That year was the first of former coach Chip Kelly’s reign in Philadelphia, in which his explosive and fast-paced attack tore up the league. Foles came out of nowhere to post an absurd 27 touchdown, two interception season, including an NFL record-tying seven in one game against the Oakland Raiders, and the Eagles looked on the path to changing the league forever.
Safe to say the Eagles have been on a journey since then.
Kelly flamed out two seasons later as he dogmatically failed to mix up his predictable attack and decided to forego treating his players as grown-ups. However, watching overjoyed Eagles hoist the Lombardi trophy for the first time in their history on Sunday night, it was a quip of Kelly’s that came to my mind.
“Culture beats scheme.”
An inadvertent and accidental motto for the Eagles during his time, Chip meant it more in a ‘stick to my rigid view of how you should act as a football player and a man and we will win’ kind of way but, under successor Doug Pederson, it has taken on a poignant new meaning - that togetherness was more important than simply being the cleverest guy on the field.
Just look at the players on this team and how they have bound together. Running back Jay Ajayi (London-born, don’t you know) was traded from Miami to Philadelphia mid-season, speculatively as punishment for locker room insubordination - he played a quiet but key role in Philly’s playoff run. Inspiring defensive end Chris Long played effectively for free this year, donating his salary to a number of charitable causes. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was one of the league’s most outspoken activists and vocal leaders of the NFL players’ social justice movement (side note: please let no one ever again say these players are “distractions”). Linebacker Mychal Kendricks was judged so out-of-place last season he barely played and asked to leave the team - this year he played a significant role with no complaint. Receiver Nelson Agholor was a laughing stock after two awful first years as a pro - he broke out as one of the team’s most reliable weapons in 2017. Center Jason Kelce had such a torrid previous season most fans believed his career was over - this year he was the best player at his position. In tears after the game, Kelce spoke movingly about persistence and the importance of winning the title with “a group of guys who mean the world to me”.
No player better embodies this theory than the (still can’t believe I’m writing this) Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. The devout Christian strongly considered retiring this summer for a career as a pastor after being cut from two teams in two years after his Philly career sputtered. Persuaded to return this season to play for Pederson, he stepped up and played out of his mind down the stretch in games of escalatingly high stakes. After the Super Bowl he spoke beautifully on the importance of failure as a motivator for growth.
The self-belief and determination with which Pederson and his coaching staff armed their players makes an almost incontrovertible case for the idea that “culture beats scheme”. The culture that Pederson helped foment and the freedom he afforded his players in being who they wanted to be created an unbreakable brotherhood that persisted through serious injuries to critical players, shaky late season performances, and doubt from media and other fanbases who laughed at the idea the Eagles could win even one playoff game, let alone three in a row and a Super Bowl.
Pederson’s “emotional intelligence” was derided as a reason for his hiring, instead it proved to be his strength. Yes, he has shown himself to be a fantastic developer of talent and aggressive playcaller (which arguably derives from the faith he places in his players to execute) but none of that means anything without his ability to bind and lead his players and thrust them into the right position to succeed. As Pederson said in his post-game message to his players: "An individual can make a difference but a team makes a miracle."
We take a lot from sport: the collective rush we get from being part of a fandom, the joy from winning and grief from losing, the fulfilment we get from rooting for the underdog. What I take from this special Eagles team is that expansive and creative thinking, trusting in each other, and fighting united toward a common goal ultimately wins the day. You can have all the talent and ideas in the world but having the right environment in which to create is vital to unlocking success.
Wherever we work and however we live our lives, I think that’s something we can all learn from.