Doug Pederson did not title his autobiography Cautious. He did not win a Super Bowl by settling for a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line against the NFL’s greatest coach. He did not give the Eagles a psychological advantage over their opponents last season by playing anything safe.
Yet there he was Sunday at AT&T Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys, with a chance to be the fearless coach that he, or at least his literary agents, had billed himself to be. And with the NFC East title and, really, the Eagles’ season at stake, Pederson declined to walk the wire.
One yard for a two-point conversion, with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in regulation, to give the Eagles their first lead in a game they had to win. One yard to prevent what became a 29-23 loss. One yard to stare down the Cowboys and tell them, We’re the champs. If you want it, you gotta take it from us.
Instead, Pederson backed down. The Eagles had zipped down the field, tying the score on a Carson Wentz-to-Darren Sproles touchdown pass, and during the ensuing extra point, the Cowboys committed an unnecessary-roughness penalty.
Pederson and his coaches had a choice to make: Either Jake Elliott could kick off from the 50 instead of the 35, or the Eagles could take Elliott’s PAT off the board, move the line of scrimmage from the 2 to the 1, and dare to run one play to gain a one-point lead. Pederson kept the point and the 23-23 tie.
“The decision to go for one obviously favors us and gives us a better chance of winning that football game,” he said Monday, as if it were self-evident that the Eagles – with a defense that ended up surrendering 576 yards of total offense – would improve their odds of winning Sunday’s game by lengthening it.
If anything, the opposite was true: From the collective persona that he had helped forge for the Eagles to the pure statistics themselves, Pederson was all but obligated to go for 2, and he damaged his team’s fortunes – and stripped away its veneer of boldness – in bypassing that shot to stun the Cowboys.
During his Monday news conference at the NovaCare Complex, Pederson clearly came prepared to answer any and all questions about his decision and a pertinent counterexample.
Last season, in a 28-23 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 12, a similar sequence had unfolded in the third quarter: The Eagles scored a touchdown, and the Panthers committed a penalty on the extra point. In that game, though, the Eagles went for 2, and they took an eight-point lead on a LeGarrette Blount carry. Here’s what Pederson said afterward:
“The percentages in that situation are favorable to the offense. It’s like a 60-40 success rate. That’s the first thing. That, to me, is almost a no-brainer to go for it. The time where we were in the game – if it was the first quarter, I probably would have done the same thing. Fourth quarter, I probably would have done the same thing.”
Fast-forward 14 months to Arlington, Texas. The Eagles weren’t ahead by six in the third quarter. They were down one late in the fourth, and to Pederson, that changed everything.
“End-of-game situations are different from third-quarter situations,” he said. “They’re totally different. And so we played the percentages at the end of the game, right?”
No, they didn’t. Pederson himself admitted that the Eagles still had a 60-40 likelihood of converting against the Cowboys: “Rates are about the same.” The only difference was that the consequences were weightier. Fail against the Panthers, and you still hold a six-point lead in the third quarter in a Week 6 game. Fail against the Cowboys, and you’re left grasping at the sort of if-then playoff permutations that are the last hopes for middling teams.
The truth is that it would have been gutsier for Pederson to go for it Sunday, and a coach who spent his spring and summer writing and selling a book that touted his purported gutsiness declined to live up to his own image. Worse, his more-detailed explanation betrayed his distrust of his own players, particularly those on defense.
“You make the two-point conversation, [and] you’re up one,” Pederson said. “Dallas has two timeouts and every down available to stay on the field and kick the game-winning field goal, right? Obviously, if we don’t make it, chances are the game’s probably over. We kick it; we tie. Now, Dallas still has two timeouts. Now, they’re not as likely to go for it on fourth down. There’s a chance now, at fourth-and-8, where they say, ‘We’re going to punt the football.’ …
“With two timeouts and all four downs and we hadn’t really stopped them, we can spin this thing a hundred different ways.”
Boiled down, Pederson argued that, even if the Eagles had taken a 24-23 lead with 99 seconds left, it was too much to ask of their defense to stop Dallas on a possible fourth down.
Never mind that the pressure would have shifted completely to the Cowboys, who, as Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill noted, tend to save their worst performances for those situations that demand their best. Never mind that the genius of the job Pederson did in 2017 was that he and his team refused to play scared – against the rest of the NFC, against the mighty New England Patriots, against anyone. Never mind what Doug Pederson’s decision revealed about him in the most important moment of the Eagles’ season: that he was as far from fearless as a coach could be.
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