On Sunday night in South Philadelphia, in the fourth quarter of a meaningless game for the Eagles, coach Doug Pederson made a decision that sent the sports world into a serious frenzy.
With the Birds trailing in the fourth quarter, he benched rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts for third stringer Nate Sudfeld — and subsequently lost the game. Sudfeld passed for 32 total yards with one interception, a performance so lacking that many people were convinced Pederson had violated one of the NFL’s supposed sacred oaths:
He lost the game on purpose, people said. Gave up. Tanked.
The move captivated the sports world, dominating Monday morning conversation. Dozens of reporters and pundits weighed in on the topic, along with handfuls of players and coaches, and hundreds if not thousands of fans.
With the loss, the Washington Football Team celebrated winning the historically dismal NFC East. If the Eagles had prevailed, the New York Giants would’ve won the division instead. Losing also set up Philly for a slightly better draft pick, sixth instead of ninth — the theoretical reason for a tank.
The issue seemed to consume everybody in the business, leading to debates over the ethos of the game of professional football itself.
Called out in front of a national audience
The game was flexed to Sunday Night Football on NBC (which averages 13 million viewers) despite the Eagles already being eliminated from the postseason, so people across the country were watching a game that was seemingly set up to fail from the start.
Pregame, Pederson had already put eight of his regular starters on the inactives list — including “franchise” QB Carson Wentz, who reportedly wants a trade. Pulling starters is common practice for a team with no mathematical playoff chance, since it removes them from possible injury and gives others a chance to test their mettle.
But as the game progressed, longtime SNF on NBC announcers Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels couldn’t hold back their derision for a team they believed to be purposely losing.
“I couldn’t do what Philadelphia did. I just simply could not do it,” Collinsworth said, live on the air with under a minute left to play. “You’ve got men who are fighting their guts out… I personally could not have done what they did.”
Michaels agreed, acknowledging Pederson had indicated he’d planned to play Sudfeld, but “under this circumstance,” with a Philly within one touchdown, Michaels was obviously exasperated. “C’mon,” he said.
After the game concluded with a score of 20-13, others eviscerated Pederson for the decision to bring in Sudfeld.
Analyst and former Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner said he was embarrassed by the performance.
“I have never been more ashamed to be associated with the Philadelphia Eagles than I am tonight,” Joyner said Postgame Live, adding that in his 30+ year career playing/covering football he’d “never seen anything like this.”
He mostly felt bad for the players on the field: “[They] went out and tried to win this football game, when it was evident to everybody that, for the first time, you see a legitimate attempt to tank and lose a game.”
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio called for the league to investigate the decision to bench Hurts.
Chris Mortensen, also at ESPN, said he’d never seen a coach’s integrity called into question as much as Pederson’s this week.
Others in Philly media said they saw the value in losing the game — since it secured a higher pick in the NFL Draft next year.
Eagles Twitter, obviously, had plenty of jokes.
Eagles players: ‘I play to win’
The Eagles season this year was horrible all around.
The team suffered a horrible slew of injuries leading to inconsistent lineups. That contributed to poor performance by Wentz, the face of the franchise. He got benched for becoming arguably the worst quarterback in football. And Philly had a tie game versus the Bengals, who finished last in the AFC North, which just…really sucks.
So on Sunday, with rookie Hurts at quarterback, many expected Pederson to use the end-of-game time to further analyze the raw prospect who’d replace Wentz if he does indeed leave. Instead, Pederson handed the ball over to fourth year quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who was obviously unprepared for the job.
Eagles players and coaches reportedly confronted Pederson looking for an explanation.
“[N]obody liked the decision, nobody,” Starting running back Miles Sanders told WIP on Tuesday. “That’s all I can say really. I don’t know who was the main person behind that decision. All I know is that a lot of people on the team was confused.”
Jalen Hurts could be seen mouthing, “it’s not right” on the sidelines when the team brought in Sudfeld.
“As a competitor I play to win. But you’ve got to trust coach with that,” Hurts said post game.
Wentz did not speak to the media.
Part of the plan all along?
Pederson had apparently previously explained that his plan “was to get Nate in the game.” He even reportedly made it clear to Hurts that Sudfeld would come in at some point.
Postgame, Doug was asked if he lost on purpose. He laughed nervously before saying, with a straight face, “I was coaching to win.”
Giants coach and Lansdale native Joe Judge didn’t buy it. He voiced his displeasure at the Eagles failure to carry Giants into the playoffs. (Many Philly fans were quick to note that New York ended the season with a 6 and 10 record, not exactly the stuff of history books.)
“To disrespect the game by going out there and not competing for 60 minutes and doing everything you can to help those players win,” said the former New England Patriots assistant, obviously someone who’s never skirted the rule book a day in his life. “We will never do that as long as I’m the head coach of the Giants.”
Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton was also displeased that the Eagles couldn’t lift his sub-.500 team into a first-round playoff exit.
Even Eli Manning tried to get a jab in, which Eagles All-Pro lineman Fletcher Cox quickly stamped out.
If nothing else, the tears from Giants players/media made this suck a little less for Eagles Nation.
So the Eagles will officially pick sixth in the NFL Draft, and reportedly, both Pederson and embattled general manager Howie Roseman will stay with the team next year. The league has yet to announce repercussions for anything that happened Sunday night.
Personnel-wise, the Eagles are left with the remnants of a major Super Bowl hangover: an aging roster, yet another quarterback controversy, and now, distrust from the players about whether their coach has their best interest in mind after he just (allegedly) lost a game on purpose.
Oh, and Zach Ertz is most likely finished in Philly, something he got very choked up about.
It’s going to be a miserable offseason for Birds fans as the team tries to sort out this mess. At least the Sixers are good — for now anyway.