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Haskell's Hot Stove

Eagles' execution of final game plan tanked — sort of

Longtime Philadelphia fan takes look at his team's controversial actions
By Mark Haskell | Jan 06, 2021

Tanking for Tua. Tanking for Trevor. Suck for Luck.

“Tanking,” or purposely losing in an attempt to gain an advantage, has been prevalent in professional sports for decades.

But never has it been done in the National Football League quite as it was Sunday night, Jan. 3 when the Philadelphia Eagles hosted the Washington Football Team in the final game of the regular season.

On the line for Washington was a playoff spot, and a potential date on Saturday, Jan. 9 with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For the Eagles? No opportunity to play “spoiler” as many teams out of contention do at the end of the regular season (one of their three division rivals would take the last remaining NFC playoff spot regardless). It was nothing more than pride.

Well, that and the difference of three slots in the NFL Draft.

Lose, and the Eagles secured the sixth pick. Win, and the Eagles dropped to ninth.

Washington led 17-14 for the majority of the second half and the Eagles had a chance to tie the game with a chip shot field goal, but elected to go for it — not uncommon for the Eagles all season — as quarterback Jalen Hurts missed a connection with a receiver for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown.

Then, in the fourth quarter, Hurts, who accounted for Philadelphia’s two touchdowns on the ground, was benched in favor of third-string QB Nate Sudfeld, who had not seen the field this season.

Washington added a late field goal and claimed the NFC East championship with a 20-14 win, and eventually lost to the Bucs 31-23 in the opening round of the playoffs.

Since then, the Eagles have fired head coach Doug Pederson after five seasons. And the man that, along with Super Bowl most valuable player Nick Foles, has a statue emblazoned of the immortal “Philly Philly” call that helped them knock of the mighty New England Patriots, is out of a job.

Despite the fact Pederson said prior to the game Sudfeld likely would see time in the game, most noted the sudden benching of Hurts for Sudfeld in the fourth quarter as suspicious.

Those people would be right.

Now, that being said, as a longtime Eagles' fan, losing this game was the outcome hoped for. Philadelphia officially had been eliminated from the playoff chase a week prior in a lopsided loss to Dallas.

And the NFC East — a historically, laughably bad division that has made many question whether division winners should even be guaranteed postseason spots going forward — has been thought to be an essential bye week for whatever team drew the division winner in the playoffs (it was not as the Bucs were pushed hard by Washington in that game).

Not only that, but the top of this year’s draft class has several elite-level prospects, such as Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (who won the Heisman Trophy on Tuesday night, Jan. 5), Lousiana State University wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase or Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. (among others). The chance to miss out on players of that caliber — positions of need for the Eagles — would be a tough pill to swallow.

But, benching Hurts late in favor of Sudfeld — in a nationally-televised game with a playoff spot for other teams hanging in the balance — admittedly was as brazen as it was idiotic. Pederson may as well have winked at the camera in the postgame press conference.

Now, as a fan, am I mad about this? Am I embarrassed that my beloved Eagles supposedly rigged the system? Or defied the integrity of the league or any of the other incredulous things we have heard people say the past few days?

Please.

If the Eagles are not going to the playoffs, would it not behoove the organization to put themselves in the best position to give next year’s team as much talent as possible?

More often than not fans like to scoff at the business side of things when it is convenient. And while most players are playing a game for millions of dollars, ownership is running a business trying to make that tenfold.

That is why team personnel and management rarely see eye to eye on such things. You cannot have one (team personnel) without the other (management) and decisions about the future of the franchise — and not just one meaningless end-of-season game —must be made.

Eagle running back Miles Sanders said “nobody” on the team was in favor of pulling Hurts off the field in the fourth quarter. And as a player, he is right. No player should be pleased with that decision. But the organization is not made up solely of the players.

And Pederson, who has curried no favor with Eagles' fans this season, was admittedly in a tough spot. He was the middle man. He had to answer to the people above and take care of the people below. That and find a way to sleep at night.

Now, he finds himself falling on the sword. And he was the right man to take the fall since it has become apparent after the fact that then offensive coordinator Frank Reich — who had a great relationship with Wentz and is now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts — had as much to do with coaching that team to excellence as did Pederson. Perhaps more.

Now, “purists” may scoff at such a notion of looking at the larger picture. That one always tries to win, no matter what, at all costs.

Tell that to the New York Jets, who since trading Jamal Adams to Seattle in the offseason basically flew up the white flag before the year even began, all but publicly declaring their intentions to “Tank for Trevor,” in reference to taking Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick (the poor Jets could not even get that right).

The year before, the rage was to “Tank for Tua,” that being Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who eventually was drafted by the Miami Dolphins. Years prior, the Indianapolis Colts, during Peyton Manning’s year sidelined with a neck surgery, likely would have attempted to find a more capable pair of quarterbacks than Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter if Andrew Luck had not been the anointed prize for the worst team in the league that season, right? These are only a few examples.

Now, I am not saying what the Eagles did, and what these teams did, are remotely the same. I merely point out the Eagles did not invent the idea of tanking to improve draft position.

But, if their idea was to entrench themselves in the center of all NFL discussions this week by how they did what they did — i.e. doing it without the convenience of plausible deniability — mission accomplished.

Seriously, what the hell were they thinking? They could have had Hurts and Sudfeld alternate series throughout the game. Give Sudfeld the first half and Hurts the second half? That way at least they could have operated under the guise they wanted to see what Hurts could do facing real adversity.

The most important thing for everyone pointing and wagging their finger at the Eagles for what they did is to remind themselves no matter how unscrupulous or dastardly what they did may appear, beneath the surface, they did nothing wrong.

They violated no rules.

I guarantee Bill Belichick in 2021, despite a few scandals over the past two decades involving video cameras or under-inflated footballs, is losing no sleep dreaming about the six Super Bowls he has won as coach of the New England Patriots.

The Eagles were, currently and unequivocally, the talk of the league. And are sure to have a long, tumultuous offseason, headlined by what they will do at the quarterback between disgruntled "franchise" signal-caller Carson Wentz and Hurts.

Luckily, based on what we saw of Sudfeld in that final game, I do not think he is going to factor into their long-term plans (if there was a font for sarcasm, I would have used it here).

Pederson had lost the locker room. It was time to let him go. But in terms of the big picture, he is not solely to blame. Howie Roseman’s handling of the last two drafts —particularly his decisions to pass on receiver such as DeKaylin Zecharius "DK" Metcalf and Justin Jefferson in favor of José Joaquín (J.J.) Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor — have set the team back.

Bill Parcells once compared the coach and the general manager to being those who cook the food and buy the groceries. Well, the groceries Roseman has purchased of late have been past their due date. It is not all Pederson’s fault he cannot make a decent meal out of it.

Overall, as a fan, I was happy with that final loss. But much like most everything the Eagles have done this season, the execution was poorly handled.

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