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September 01, 2018

The Q&A ... with ESPN NFL insider (and 'Philly Special' author) Sal Paolantonio

Sal Pal talks about his new book, why 2017 was the best Eagles team ever — and why that might not be the case for very long

If you're a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles — or of the NFL in general — then you likely already know the name Sal Paolantonio. 

Having covered the Birds for 25 years, first at The Philadelphia Inquirer and currently for ESPN, Sal Pal knows as much about the Eagles as most people have forgot. 

And after the Doug Pederson and Co. capped off an improbable Super Bowl run in February, Paolantonio, who now lives in South Jersey, decided to write a book about the team's championship season and capture not only what it was like for those inside the locker room, but also for those who have lived and died by this team for decades — those who bleed Eagles green. 

And it's really resonated the fans. Currently, "Philly Special" is the No. 1 football book on Amazon.


But it hasn't just been a hit in the Philly area — Sal Pal's been doing interviews and signings around the country. 

"I think the book really resonates because this Eagles team became America's team last year," Paolantonio told PhillyVoice. "America loves to root for an underdog. America, at large, has never been in love with this Patriots team. You saw all those maps that would show which states were rooting for which teams, and the only ones rooting for the Patriots would be in New England. And I think that's why the book resonates with fans around the country."

Sal Pal was kind enough to sit down with PhillyVoice for a Q&A about his book, the Eagles' run to the Super Bowl, and what he expects going forward.

PhillyVoice: Doug wrote a book, Nick wrote a book, several other reporters have published or are about to publish books. If I want to buy a gift for my dad, why should I pick your book off the shelf over all those other ones?

Sal Paolantonio: That is a tough one. As opposed to any of the others, I would never advise you to buy my book over Doug's or Nick's book. That's the head coach and the Super Bowl MVP so you can't go wrong with those two books. The only difference between my book and their books is their books are more autobiographical, and my book is a biography of the team, a biography of the season, and a true romance between a fan base and a franchise that's gone on for two generations without a Super Bowl title since the last NFL title in 1960. So what I tried to do was capture not only the season from an insider's viewpoint, but also how it relates to the fan base and to the city at large. 

There are a lot of cameo appearances of people in the book all the way from Dick Vermeil to M. Night Shyamalan to Andrew Jackson. There are a lot of interesting correlations between this book and the biography that I wrote on the late mayor Frank Rizzo 25 years ago in that the story of Rizzo as a politician loved and hated is the story of the city of Philadelphia. And the story of this Eagles team is also the story of this region and a fan base that spreads all over the country. And the fans of the team play an important role in the story of this book and the biography of this team. I tried to take it from a lot of different vantage points and make sure I told the entire story of what happened in 2017. 

You know, I didn't write the book for myself. I wrote the book for my family and my friends. I didn't grow up an Eagles fan but I moved here in 1985 and I've been covering the team for a quarter of a century and if you do anything for 25 years, especially covering an NFL team as closely as I have, a lot of people have to sacrifice along the way and support you along the way. So I wrote this book to them — the guy who has cut my lawn and cut my hair and my mailman and the guys at my gas station and the nurses at Cooper Hospital — they're all Eagles fans, and they have all over the years asked me many questions about this team and I wanted to write this book for them and leave it as a legacy. So that's the long answer to your question why this book rather than the other two. It's more biography than autobiography. And their stories are important -- Nick Foles' whole story, super important; Doug Pederson's story, super important and vital. But this is the story of a team and a fan base and a town and the love affair between three of them. 

What I really tried to do was capture this team from "behind the scenes;" what was Doug saying to the team, what went on in team meetings, what happened in Los Angeles in that locker room when Wentz got hurt. And I spend two and a half chapters talking about one play, the Philly Special. I interviewed the guy who invented it and went through the entire history of the play. And in NFL Films where I host the NFL Matchup Show, I had one of my young film study guys break the play down frame by frame. So I really tried to go through exactly how the play was created, why and how it got into the hands of Doug Pederson, and why it worked against the New England Patriots in that particular moment. 

I don't want you to give away the best story in your book, so what's the second-best story in there?

SP: Well, I mean there are many great stories in the book. I think people are going to be surprised when they read each chapter as to what they will learn about what happened week in and week out. But to me, the fun story and the most interesting story is just how and why Doug Pederson and Frank Reich decided to fake the practice on Saturday the day before the Super Bowl when the team went to US Bank Stadium and what happened when they got there. And Frank Reich, on the record, is totally quoted about what happened between him and Doug Pederson that morning and what happened to the team when they got to US Bank Stadium and it's one of the chapters, or portions of a chapter, that I read aloud at book signings and people are blown away about what they've heard. 

In your mind, what was the single biggest moment of the entire season?

SP: I think there are several pivotal moments in the season, and I would have to say if I had to pick one it would be Malcolm Jenkins' speech after Carson Wentz gets hurt. Doug Pederson is a good speaker in the locker room but it wasn't enough according to Malcolm. And Malcolm went to Doug and Malcolm's quoted in the book, Malcolm told me that he went to Doug and he said, "Listen, the media is about to come in here and I just feel a sense of ambivalence in the locker room and I want a chance to speak to the players." And Doug said, "Yup, go ahead." 

And I think parts of the speech are living out there on the internet and I went back and looked at it and put the whole thing in there. There's no profanity in the book except in that speech because I wanted to keep it totally "Philly real." And I think what Malcolm Jenkins said to the team hammered home the point that all was not lost and that they had a chance to go on and still do something very special as a team. I would have to say that's the number one critical moment because I believe that if that doesn't happen — there was a sense of doom around that team that I think would have really spiraled quickly. And the town felt it because the next day — one of the things that I talk about in the book is tell the story of how Anthony Gargano was on the air and he brought on Vai Sikahema on with him and Vai is a bishop on and the two of them prayed together on the air live for the team. 

Only in Philly... 

SP: Only in Philly could that happen. And people told me how, while they were listening they wanted to pray, so they pulled off the road on to the shoulder so that they could pray and concentrate on it, on the side of 95 and the Schuylkill Expressway. People called in and told Anthony that they pulled off the road to pray with him and Vai. So there was a sense of doom in the city but when the team came back I think Jenkins' speech was a very important moment to try to carry on; to keep calm and carry on for that team. Jenkins plays a major role in the book in many parts and in Chapter three where I talk about the national anthem controversy that was re-ignited by President Trump's comments and how Pederson leaned on Jenkins to keep the team together. Where it fractured other teams, it did not cause any kind of schism in the Eagles locker room because of Jenkins leadership. So that was an important moment and there's another moment that I couldn't quite put my finger on because nobody could tell me the exact reason but in the second half of the Falcons game in the playoffs some kind of switch just went on for Nick Foles and no one knows why. He can't really explain it. And that was obviously super important. 

What I overall learned after covering the Eagles in the NFL for 25 years is that what Nick Foles said, "Football is about relationships and if you have the right relationships, you can overcome any adversity." They were a truly special team because of the leadership of Doug Pederson, because of the leadership of Malcolm Jenkins, because of the leadership of Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, even when they were hurt, and because of the character, the high character, of people like Nick Foles and Torrey Smith and Chris Long. 

In football, more than pretty much any other sport, you build those relationships based on high character people and this book is about that for sure if not anything else. 

Was this the best Eagles team ever?

SP: I started covering this team in 1993 and this is the best Eagles team that I've ever seen. And this is one of the best NFL teams that I've ever seen in my 25 years covering pro football. And I think it largely has to do with what I just talked about — the leadership and character of the players on this team.

What do you expect from them this season?

SP: I expect them to be very competitive. I think, first and foremost, you have one of the most diabolical and inventive defensive coordinators in the NFL in Jim Schwartz. He will figure out how to dissect and ruin a quarterback's day, even though he's got a lot of different moving parts this year. That's No. 1.

Two, I think with with Foles or with Wentz, they're going to be pretty much in every game — at the quarterback position. And now, I used Schwartz first instead of Wentz and Foles first, because we quite frankly don't know what we're going to get out of the quarterback position one way or the other with these two guys. So I think this year, more than ever, they're going to have to rely on the defense. They scored 28.3 points per game last season, and that's very hard to duplicate, especially when your leading rusher is in Detroit and your leading receiver from last year is not going to be on the field until at least Week 3.

ESPN recently ranked the top 100 players for 2018 and Carson was No. 17 (and the 4th best QB). A year from now, he will be ranked...

SP: It's so unknowable, it's a tough question to answer. I'll say, if Carson Wentz is healthy, and he makes it through the 16-game season this year, he'll be a league MVP more than once in the next five years. And if he remains healthy — knock on wood — I think the Eagles will win at least two more Super Bowls in the next five years. 

Last preseason, Mike Lombardi ripped Pederson. I'm going to ask you the opposite question: Just how good is Doug Pederson?

SP: If I owned an NFL franchise and Doug Pederson was available, I'd hire him right away. I think it's a shame that he wasn't voted as coach of the year. And the guy he beat in Los Angeles with a backup quarterback in the fourth quarter wound up winning, that's just astonishing. That's malfeasance of the highest possible magnitude. So I thought Doug should've been Coach of the Year last year. You lose Wentz; you lose Peters; you lose Hicks; you lose Maragos; you lose Sproles — and you win the Super Bowl anyway? Come on.

I think Pederson is the most underrated coach in the NFL — still. But look at it for a second. This is the New England model. Lock up the head coach, you've got your quarterback, you've got a coach and a top front office exec in Howie Roseman that are represented by the same agent, Bob Lamont, and this is the New England model. Keep the quarterback, the coach and the personnel guy together, have an owner who now understands what it takes to win.

So I can easily see this team winning two more Super Bowls in the next five years [with a healthy Wentz].

Click here to buy a copy of Sal Pal's new book, "Philly Special."

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