Leading an Upstart Victory: Fateful Decisions That Carried a Mid-Ranking American Football Team to a National Championship

By Jeffrey Klein and Michael Useem

One of the most momentous decisions is picking the right person to lead the team all the way to the top. For Philadelphia Eagles, it took them two leaders before they could find the right coach and three leadership decisions that carried the team to victory.

 

One of America’s best professional football teams, the New England Patriots, was ahead 33 v. 32 points with 9:22 minutes remaining in the 52nd Super Bowl, the annual championship game on February 4, 2018.  Favored to win by 4.5 points, the Patriots had already triumphed in the Super Bowl in 2017, 2015, 2005, 2004, and 2002.  And for this latest contest, its quarterback, the league’s most legendary player, had been on a roll, already throwing the football 505 yards, the most ever in this game of games. 

But the opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, with more losses than wins in its prior two football seasons, and a backup quarterback on the field, would add 10 unanswered points in the game’s final nine minutes.  It was an upset that would inspire football fans nationwide who savored the improbable.   

Though U.S.-style football is less familiar to international readers, the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and the decisions behind it offers instructive insight into how any upstart organization can vanquish a powerhouse.  We have had direct access to the company’s owner, coach, and players, and we asked them to identify the most fateful decisions behind the championship.  We focused on what McKinsey has termed the “big bets” – those far-reaching and sharp-edged actions that organizations take from time to time that can derail a firm if made poorly but boost success if done right.1

We found three leadership decisions by the owner and his staff that carried the Eagles to victory.  Taken together, they can be seen as a tangible template for the leadership decisions of nearly any underdog seeking to displace a confident if not dominant incumbent.  Business parallels come to mind with Netflix’s triumph over Blockbuster and Amazon over Borders in the U.S., and Alibaba over eBay and Didi over Uber in China. 

 

Decision 1: Connecting the Talent

Finding the right coach is of course one of any team’s most consequential choices. Company owners and governing boards consistently confirm that one of their most momentous decisions is picking a new chief executive.  Nothing new here, but what is striking and informative in this instance is the pick’s evolving criteria. 

The Eagles’ owner and his lieutenants had long sought a head coach who could bring out the summative performance of all the players, a decision premised on the axiom that the best individual players are not necessarily the best aggregate producers unless they are somehow united for doing so.  In the executives’ minds, the Eagles ought to be far more than just a sum of its parts, and that extended to non-players as well.  If the organization could better sync its players and staffers around shared purpose, the players should be more able to move the ball when it really mattered, say with nine minutes to go in the championship game. 

From our interviews with the Eagles’ principals, we learned that their search for a head coach who could create that kind of connectedness among the players had started with Andy Reid.  He came in 1999 with a promising resume, having served as a sub-coach for a Green Bay Packers team that had finished its 1998 season with 11 wins over 5 losses.  And he delivered in Philadelphia, with a win rate of 58 percent and taking his team to four conference championship games.  But while Reid had upped the Eagles winning rate through greater player connectedness, he fell short in earning a Super Bowl Championship, and the owner decided to make a change.

The Eagles cast a wide net, interviewing more than a dozen candidates and finally hiring Chip Kelly for his innovative approach to the game.  Kelly too brought a promising resume, having just taken the University of Oregon to great success.  While inclusiveness was not Kelly’s strong suit, the owner and his lieutenants believed that between Reid’s legacy and their own backing of the operating principle, they would be able sustain the team’s inclusiveness.   

But Kelly’s arms-length approach proved too much.  While tactically innovative, his overall philosophy didn’t mesh with the inclusive culture that the team had worked incessantly to create over the previous 14 seasons with Andy Reid. Kelly brought in a chief of staff, for instance, who in the eyes of senior managers proved too self-absorbed, but Kelly thwarted calls for his replacement, insisting on retaining authority over all personnel matters.  “As long as I win on the field,” Kelly explained, “that’s what counts.” 

They craved a coach, came the response, who could personally connect with them both on and off the field, a person who could talk with them, inform them, listen to them, and not mislead them.

Kelly would control the game, deciding which new players to recruit and which staffers to retain. He remade the roster and he even reformed the executive suite, forcing the head of football operations out of office.  It became evident to the owner and his deputies that Kelly’s un-inclusiveness was getting in the way of his playmaking, and Lurie dismissed him in a fashion intended to signal a strategic redirection to both the players and the market. Most head-coach firings come after the season’s final game, but Philadelphia moved Kelly out a week before the final game in 2015.  Lurie explained the dismissal directly to the players, and then, displaying a tenet of the culture, he asked them what they wanted in a replacement. They craved a coach, came the response, who could personally connect with them both on and off the field, a person who could talk with them, inform them, listen to them, and not mislead them.

Eagles management chose a still different path in replacing Kelly as head coach, stressing one criterion as they narrowed the prospects. Management wanted a coach who would connect the players, “bringing the building back together” in the words of one executive, not a coach who would insist on “my way or the highway.” 

Owner Jeffrey Lurie and his lieutenants recruited Doug Pederson, a former Eagles quarterback himself and then on the coaching staff for Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs. Brought onto the staff for the 2016 season, Pederson pressed Eagles players to take greater hold, openly explaining his lineup decisions and encouraging their counsel on them. “What do you want your team to look like?” he asked them.  New assignments went for review before anybody was moved. “It’s not about me,” Pederson pleaded. “You’re the ones who play.” 

Though slow to take hold at first, the connected mindset gained traction as skepticism receded – “taking off” in Pederson’s words – by his second season. Pederson found, as intended, that his players began to coach one another. They displayed the sense of connectedness that he had challenged them to embrace, driven in part because of his own ability to connect with them. “Doug sparked buy-in through his level of empathy for players,” said Shaun Huls, director of high performance for the Eagles. “He was constantly reminding players, ‘I understand how you feel.’”

In the owner’s view, dominance and reticence would have to give way to two-way discourse. We “don’t want 53 leaders or 53 followers” on the team, he said, but rather a “strong mix of leaders and followers.” The coach informed players more frequently and consulted more widely.

Connecting the talent among the players and staffers thus proved one of the organization’s most providential decisions in the view of those who took part in them. By engaging, consulting, and empowering all those on payroll, the owner and his senior staff in turn received guidance and commitment up from them, a direct product of the ironic principle of reciprocity: in giving more away, we receive more in return.

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Decision 2: Completing the Inner Circle

In the wake of Kelly’s ouster in 2015, Eagles’ management also worked to bolster its own “inner circle.” Before, the owner, president, head coach, and head of football operations had worked more independently, focused on executing their own functions and consulting less with one another. But on the premise that their responsibilities were more interdependent than they had supposed, they sought to transcend their job titles. Each retained clear lines of authority, attending to their own knitting, but they also worked as well to pool their wisdom. They had not fully done so with Kelly, but now with Pederson recruited for this very purpose, they could tighten their circle.

Under Lurie’s insistence, the organization tightened its inner circle. The owner reasoned that his team would perform better on the field if his top team itself behaved like a team. Kelly had demoted the head of football operations, Howard Roseman, from front-line oversight to back office observer, or in the colorful words of a former president of another NFL team, from “the penthouse to the outhouse.” Kelly had wanted complete control over football operations, and as a result, Roseman recalled, he had read his own “obituary.” But now with Roseman restored as executive vice president for football operations, the organization at the top had collectively retaken responsibility for personnel actions. In the former NFL president’s phasing, Roseman had come back from the “hot seat to the catbird seat.”2

Completing the inner circle within the top team, in the experience of the deciders, was thus also one of the organization’s most consequential decisions. By rejoining the C-suite denizens more actively in common cause, the owner and his staff strengthened a kind of lateral leadership that transcended their separate functions, bolstering the operations of each but also the shared performance of all. The owner had long been drawn to this concept, and he finally had in place a set of lieutenants who embodied it.  It would become a team of teams: “When people know that the leaders at the top trust each other, that trickles down into the whole organization,” reported an Eagles vice president. “The football side and the business side can have tensions, but we now see them talk it out.

 

Decision 3: Calculated Risk

The earlier decisions, as vital as they were to connecting the players, the staff, and the inner circle, had set the stage, but now it was up to the players to perform. And for that, the owner and his lieutenants opted for calculated risk taking. They sought a mindset that “feared nothing” and “attacked everything,” in the words of Doug Pederson. “Don’t be cautious!” the coach exhorted. 

Depth research, data analytics, psychological profiles, scouting reports, medical appraisals, and face-time were all applied in detail. And that was because you have to be especially smart, explained Lurie, if you are especially aggressive. “With using data as a complementary tool, you’re taking less risk,” he explained, warning that it was always “riskier to fall back on instinct.”

With that in mind, Lurie, Pederson, and Roseman turned to the decision on who would serve as the team’s quarterback. Their attention converged on a star player from a less well-known college, North Dakota State University. “We were looking for that rare combination of leadership, healthy confidence and a genuine personality,” Lurie reported.

Through Roseman’s negotiating, the Eagles secured the second pick in the annual NFL draft, up from 13th, heightening the prospect of securing North Dakota’s Carson Wentz since he was in the cross-hairs of other teams as well. “One player can change your team,” argued Roseman, and the Eagles drafted Wentz on April 28, 2016.

The Wentz selection was closely followed by the Eagles next biggest quarterback action, and that was a decision to trade away their veteran starting quarterback Sam Bradford and to start Wentz in his first season. In betting on the yet unproven Wentz, the organization was chancing much, and that is where risk mitigation also came in. For every starting player, including the quarterback, the Eagles decided that a fully prepared backup had to be at the ready. “We coach all the players like they are starters,” Roseman explained.

With the human assets better joined, both in the ranks and at the top, the organization could better make and manage its bets.  And that meant that its staffers, coaches, and players could take larger risks.

As insurance, the organization backed-up its new quarterback with a camera-ready replacement. “We wanted to be a quarterback factory,” Roseman explained, in case the actual starter faltered. Plan B was thus ready when Carson Wentz was sidelined by injury three games before the end of the regular season in 2017. A back-up quarterback named Nick Foles came in to finish the game, then the season, and finally the post-season, all with wins. He was designated the Super Bowl’s “Most Valuable Player.” 

With players and staffers connected, and with the inner circle connected, calculated risk taking became the organization’s vital third decision arena. With the human assets better joined, both in the ranks and at the top, the organization could better make and manage its bets. And that meant that its staffers, coaches, and players could take larger risks.

Calculated risk-taking can be viewed abstractly as reasoned choices among strategic alternatives, yet in the hands of the owner, coach, and others, it also turned into a tenet of the upstart’s culture and source of competitive advantage. Julie Hirshey, director of community relations, captured the point: “No matter who you are, you are empowered to find a way and to do it,” whether on the field, with the fans, or in the community.

 

A Playbook for the Upstart

Coach Chip Kelly had served without a leader’s complete playbook, and the owner and his lieutenants had helped complete a more rounded-out version under Doug Pederson. Talent connectedness, inner-circle completeness, and calculated risk taking all figured-in. None would suffice, all were essential.

That at least is what emerges from the insights and experience of the upstart who constructed a roadmap for an improbable victory against a veteran powerhouse. The Reid years brought football smarts and personal connectedness into the team, the Kelly era risk taking onto the field, and finally the Pederson years, a blend of all.

As in both professional sports and business enterprise, nothing is sure, and it is a matter of improving the odds. With Kelly as coach, the team had won 52 percent of the time during the regular season games; with Reid, 58 percent; and with Pederson, 63 percent. For the post-season, the respective percentages rose from 0 for Kelly to 50 for Reid and 100 for Pederson. The wining ratio was up, and so too was the value of the franchise.  The owner had acquired the enterprise in 1994 for $185 million. After the 2018 Super Bowl, the team’s estimated worth approached $3 billion.

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About the Authors

Jeffrey Klein is the Executive Director of the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at The Wharton School and a Lecturer at Wharton and the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. As Executive Director, Jeff leads the team that designs and delivers Wharton’s portfolio of curricular and co-curricular leadership development initiatives for undergraduate, MBA, and executive audiences. He is the co-host of Leadership in Action on Sirius/XM Business Radio powered by The Wharton School (Channel 132), and chairs the Steering Committee for the Penn’s Lipman Family Prize, an annual award of $250,000 celebrating and supporting leadership and impact in social sector organizations. Jeff also serves as the Academic Director for the newly-launched Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy. Finally, he works extensively with managers and executives, and serves as the Executive Director of the Advanced Management Program, Wharton’s flagship 5-week program for senior executives.

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management and McNulty Leadership Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. His teaching includes MBA and executive-MBA courses on management and leadership, and he offers programs on leadership and governance for managers in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.  He works on leadership development with organizations in the private, public and non-profit sectors. He is author of The Leader’s Checklist, The Leadership Moment, Executive Defense, Investor Capitalism, Leading Up, and The Go Point. He is also co-editor of Learning from Catastrophes; co-author of The India Way, Leadership Dispatches, Boards That Lead, and The Strategic Leader’s Roadmap; and co-author of Fortune Makers: The Leaders Creating China’s Great Global Companies (2017), Go Long: Why Long-Term Thinking Is Your Best Short-Term Strategy (2018), and Mastering Catastrophic Risk: How Companies Are Coping with Disruption (2018).

References
1. André Bordeur, Kevin Buehler, Michael Patsalos-Fox, and Martin Pergler, “A Board Perspective on Enterprise Risk Management,” McKinsey Quarterly, 2010, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/dotcom/client_service/risk/working%20papers/18_a_board_perspective_on_enterprise_risk_management.ashx.
2. Jeff Diamond, “Eagles GM Howie Roseman Goes from Hot Seat to Catbird Seat in Less than One Year” Sporting News, November 15, 2017; http://www.sportingnews.com/nfl/news/philadelphia-eagles – general – manager – gm – howie – roseman – carson-wentz-super-bowl/vst7d1utrg0u1m8o00dtn9h4f.

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