On Feb. 4, 2018, just before halftime of Super Bowl LII, Doug Pederson called a play on fourth-and-goal from the 1 that called for a backup running back to hand off to a backup tight end to throw to a backup quarterback, against the greatest defensive mind of the modern football era. It worked. A career backup quarterback and an Andy Reid sycophant, Pederson’s NFL profile had never been higher. The play, called “Philly Special,” vaulted Pederson into coaching royalty and earned him a statue outside Lincoln Financial Field.
Today, the New York Giants, their fans, and NFL purists everywhere want to tear that statue down.
On Jan. 3, 2021, on Sunday Night Football, Pederson ruined his reputation. The NFL’s season finale determined whether the Eagles’ opponent, Washington, or their rivals, the New York Giants, would win the NFC East. It also determined whether the Eagles would draft the sixth overall, if they lost, or ninth, if they won. This framed two decisions that Pederson will forever regret.
In the third quarter, Pederson decided not to try to tie the game at 17 with a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 4. Instead, he called a passing play. It failed.
Then, the coup de grace: Trailing by three points entering the fourth quarter, Pederson replaced starting quarterback Jalen Hurts — who had scored the Eagles’ two touchdowns — with career third-stringer Nate Sudfeld. If you’re not familiar with Nate Sudfeld, that’s probably because he hadn’t taken an NFL snap in 734 days.
Pederson had planned to play Sudfeld, who’d been inactive for the previous 14 games, as a reward for his service, but a win was within reach. Putting in Sudfeld ensured that didn’t happen: interception-fumble-sack-sack. Washington won, 20-14. The Giants were done. So was Pederson’s reputation.
Giants Nation erupted in outrage. Giants players, denied their playoff slot and the paydays that come with them, tweeted their outrage. NBC broadcasters Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, who usually are reluctant to criticize coaches, ripped Pederson without mercy, on the air, in real-time.
A day later, Pederson’s tank job remained the talk of the league. Newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington led their sports pages with the debacle. Tank talk scorched the airwaves of radio stations all along the I-95 corridor.
Overnight, Pederson had turned from Super Bowl genius into NFL punchline.
“I don’t know how he comes back from this,” said one NFL source who has known Pederson for more than two decades. “I just don’t know.”
Pederson’s flawed reasoning: “We were struggling just a little bit to move the ball. … Nate’s a guy that’s very capable of running our system and executing, and an opportunity to pull that game out last night.”
Nate’s also a guy who had thrown a total of 25 passes in five seasons.
Sure, Hurts had struggled against the stout Washington defense: 7-for-20, 72 yards, a bad interception, and a badly thrown pass that would have converted the aforementioned fourth-and-goal, which turned out to be Hurts’ final play. Yes, Hurts is a rookie who was making his fourth NFL start. Hurts still was a better option than Sudfeld. Every one of the Giants knew it — especially receiver Darius Slayton, whose Auburn Tigers lost to Hurts and Alabama twice in three games from 2016-18.
Pederson’s explanation made things worse because it was simply implausible. He could have claimed that he took Hurts out of the game to protect Hurts’ health. After all, considering Carson Wentz got benched for the last four games and has twice let it be known he wants to leave the organization, Hurts might be the Eagles’ starter for the next few years.
But to assert that Sudfeld — a less athletic, less capable version of Nick Foles — gave the Eagles an equal or better chance to win than Hurts isn’t just illogical; it’s insulting. Given the situation, and the fact that Hurts had scored twice with his legs, Pederson had painted himself into a competitive corner. He had no choice but to remain with Hurts — that is, if Pederson wanted to protect the integrity of the game and the integrity of his reputation.
Instead, he forfeited both.
An NFL source said Monday that Pederson and the Eagles will face no discipline for their actions Sunday because it’s impossible to adjudicate playing time and precautionary strategies. For instance, Ben Roethlisberger and Patrick Mahomes didn’t play Sunday. Those are apples. These are oranges.
While all games affect draft slots, the Steelers’ and Chiefs’ incentive involved protecting players and resting them for the playoffs. This is honorable and wise. The Eagles’ incentive involved improving their draft position. This is neither.
Pederson claimed that the moves were his and his alone, but quarterback participation plans in these situations never happen without the general manager’s knowledge, and nobody values draft assets more than Howie Roseman.
What might have been
For those who contend that the Eagles stood little chance to win given Hurts’ struggles, understand this: If Pederson had converted the field goal in the third quarter, the score would have been tied. That means the Eagles could have been within three points late in the fourth quarter when Alex Smith fumbled at the Washington 36. If Rudy Ford had fallen on the ball rather than trying to scoop and score, the Birds would have been in business trailing, 20-17.
As for Hurts’ struggles: Consider that running quarterbacks gave Washington’s overeager front seven fits all season. By the time Hurts exited, he, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Daniel Jones (twice) had burned them for a total of 284 yards and five touchdowns on 42 carries. So yes, the Eagles had a chance to win with Hurts.
And while it might be hard to sympathize with a Giants team that went 6-10, understand that this particular 6-10 was a fabulous 6-10. The Giants hired a rookie coach, Lansdale Catholic product Joe Judge, who had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator at any level; gave him Daniel Jones, a second-year quarterback; and saddled him with former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator. Six-and-10 was a minor miracle.
Pederson’s defenders (if there are any), like Pederson himself, will point out that he didn’t bench all of his good players. Defensive end Brandon Graham and cornerback Darius Slay both played in the final defensive series. Graham can always be counted upon to say the right things, and so he was made available to the media Monday.
“I’m always trusting the organization’s decisions,” Graham said “The call that’s made — that’s not my call.”
Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce is less trustworthy when it comes to diplomacy. He went on a rant last month, saying, “Everything is about winning. I know that won’t appease a lot of people out there who always want to talk about getting better draft position.”
Kelce seemed particularly distraught at the fourth-quarter fiasco. He was not made available; neither after the tanked game, nor on Monday afternoon.
Maybe he was outside, guarding that statue.