Eagles fans woke up Tuesday with a note to Eagles head coach Doug Pederson: Be like Nick Saban if you want to win.
If Nick Foles struggles during the Birds’ first NFL playoff game this weekend, have the guts to pull him in favor of third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld. Saban, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, led his team to the National College Football Playoff Championship Monday night by pulling his starting QB in favor of a seldom-used backup — who then became a title-winning hero.
Now, Foles isn’t 25-2 as a starter. Sudfeld isn’t a four-star rookie who was recruited by 20 schools. He went to Indiana, was a sixth-round pick last year and was signed off the Washington practice squad. The situations aren’t exactly the same. But the sentiment might be.
In the ESPN write-up about how Saban had the guts to make the move that won his sixth national title, Alabama running back Damien Harris was quoted saying, “We took that shit. They said we ain’t supposed to be here. And we won the whole thing!”
That sounds like the Eagles.
A running back at the most successful school in college football history, who in his three years has won two national championships and finished runner-up in the other, was quoted saying, “they said we ain’t supposed to be here.”
Um, nobody actually said that.
Sure, when the college playoff teams were announced, many pundits made the point that Alabama getting in despite not even playing in the SEC title game was ridiculous, but that’s because the system is broken. There’s not a person on the planet who looked at the four teams in the national title race and thought Alabama didn’t have a shot to win it all. Over the last three seasons, Saban’s team is 41-3. But after winning another national title, players in that locker room were talking about how “nobody” believed in them.
Pride is a powerful motivator. And that kind of rah-rah, let’s rally the troops belief system works in the college game, where players aren’t paid and all they have to play for is school pride and limited personal glory.
Professionals often have other ways to motivate themselves, like bigger contracts for better play. But there’s still an element of “nobody believes in us” that can creep in. It’s especially weird to hear when it’s from a team everyone did believe in — until their quarterback went down with a torn ACL and ruined the season.
Only, the Eagles season hasn’t actually been ruined yet. Since Wentz went down with injury, the Eagles beat a playoff team on the road, won a division game on the road, won in primetime on Christmas night at home and lost a game that didn’t matter.
No, Pederson is not Saban, and no, the Eagles are not 125-14 in their last 10 seasons. But what does people believing in a team or not change for the players?
Some things. The No. 1 seed in the NFC having the worst odds of winning the Super Bowl definitely provides extra motivation.
The headline on the story about the Super Bowl odds at Bleeding Green Nation reads: Updated Super Bowl odds provide underdog Eagles with more bulletin board material
The subhead simply says: ‘No respect.’
This is a badge of honor in Philly. On every radio interview I did this season out of market they’d ask what the feeling was like around the city and, well, it’s weird. People in Philly don’t know how to be frontrunners. We thrive on nobody believing in us. The chip on our shoulder is a part of who we are. So when everyone thought the Eagles were going to the Super Bowl this season — and really, pretty much every national publication wrote or said that at some point in the season before Wentz went down — something felt off.
This feeling of nobody believing in the Eagles feels more comfortable for fans. It’s more true to who we are.
And yet it’s ridiculous for the players to buy into that. People still believe in the Eagles defense. It’s legendarily good against the run. The Falcons went to the Super Bowl last season and Matt Ryan won the MVP award and still Jim Schwartz dialed up a scheme that limited the offense to just 15 points last season and this year’s defense has better talent.
The Eagles receivers are better, the offensive line is healthier and they have better running backs than last year. It’s just…the guy who probably would have won this year’s MVP award isn’t playing, and over the last two games the back-up tasked with replacing him has been horrible.
Foles has not proven he is quick enough with either his feet or his reads to make the plays Wentz can make. And, so, pundits and fans have lost faith in the Eagles’ ability to win in the playoffs given how good the other NFC teams are.
It’s not meant to disrespect the rest of the team. It’s just a fact: The Eagles aren’t as good as they were, and Foles has not shown he can do enough to get them to the Super Bowl. It’s why on Tuesday of a playoff week the conversation on sports talk radio is about if Pederson will have the guts to do what Saban did and pull his quarterback if-and-when he struggles this weekend.
If that’s disrespect, so be it. But when ESPN publishes a headline Monday afternoon like this…
Fletcher Cox: Eagles have been disrespected all season
…well, that is insane. WTF, man?
Cox told Tim McManus, “We’ve been disrespected all year. Our record can speak for itself. We’re a team that’s been disrespected week in and week out, and we just come out and ring the bell every week.”
This is just utter nonsense. And it’s factually incorrect.
Before the season, yes, the Eagles were disrespected, given what most expected of the season and where they are now. During the season, did many of us point out that the Eagles hadn’t played a lot of tough opponents? Yes, because it was true. Until the Eagles beat the Rams they had played two teams that ended up in the playoffs, and were 1-1 against them. All told, through 16 regular season games this season, the Eagles played only three games against playoff teams. That’s not disrespect. That’s fact. The Falcons played more games against playoff teams in their own division this year than the Eagles played all season.
But this is the quote that, as someone who has worked in sports for a long time, makes me nuts.
“It just puts a bigger chip on our shoulder and just adds fuel to the fire, and that’s what this team, obviously, has been going off of all year,” Cox said, “people doubting us every week. So we just want to go out and shut those doubters up.”
Imagine being an All-Pro defensive tackle in the second year of a $103 million contract who is getting ready to play just your second ever playoff game and needing the extra motivation of wanting to “go out and shut those doubters up” as a reason to play harder.
I get how the human brain works. I’ve seen Rocky IV like 100 times, so if Cox is out in the snow somewhere chopping wood and punching meat and thinking about how “nobody” believed in his team this year, good for the Eagles. He’s ready to go.
But to think a player needs extra fuel on his fire given the opportunity in front of him — win two home games to get to the Super Bowl and to prove to himself and the rest of the league that he is the best at his craft — is frightening. It’s pathological. It’s ‘my button is bigger than your button’ insane.
Not to get all Herm Edwards you play to win the game or anything, but the goal of every football season, college or pro, is to win a championship. The Eagles are three games away from that, and two of those games would be at the Linc. How is that not motivation enough?
I spoke with ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck for a Steelers—Patriots story I did for our Pittsburgh site and I asked him if the Steelers should be worried because the Pats were heading into their Week 15 game following a bad loss to Miami. The Patriots needed to win against Pittsburgh to secure home field and a first-round bye, so I asked if their loss to the Dolphins was actually worse for the Steelers. The tone of his reply was like, “have you ever played sports?” And I deserved that.
“Yeah…I don’t think the Patriots are going to, like, try harder now,” he said. “They were already going to try as hard as they could. I don’t think that matters.”
But then you see what Cox said to Tim McManus or what Harris said after Bama won the title and maybe it does matter.
Enter Chris Long, who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last year and lines up in the trenches next to Cox. For Long, the result is its own motivation. “Nobody outside this locker room wins or loses a game,” Long said Monday. And, per Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report, Long said, “What would it sound like if I stood here and was like, ‘Man I wasn’t that motivated for this playoff game, but I just found out we’re underdogs and nobody picked us on ESPN, so now I’m more motivated?’ I mean, It’s just not the way we think.”
The shame is, Chris, that is how some of your teammates think. Read back a few paragraphs. It’s how a lot of athletes think. And it’s crazy.
Long replied to Tanier on Twitter, which gave readers this remarkable exchange between player and reporter.
It does sound funny as hell. And it is silly. And so is the fact that what I wrote here is probably already up on someone’s bulletin board.