Jason Kelce started his 105th straight game Sunday night. The Eagles center played the last seven games with an elbow injury that often forced him to block with just one arm. The 33-year-old could have easily taken the meaningless season finale off.
But Kelce did not, in what may have been his last NFL game. If the ten-year veteran retires, something he’s contemplated the last several offseasons, it’s likely he would have preferred it to end differently.
The Eagles fell to Washington, 20-14, and despite hollow words about denying NFC East rivals the division title — the “no-hat rule” — team brass made their intentions clear with the product they fielded at the Linc. It spoke volumes about the lowly state of a franchise.
No matter how hard Washington tried to fumble the Eagles’ gift, coach Doug Pederson and his collection of misfit toys found another way to secure that No. 6 overall draft pick. That Washington needed nearly all 60 minutes to claim the crown says as much about one of the worst divisions ever than it does the Eagles’ effort.
The tank was on, and while many fans were pleased about picking three spots earlier in the draft, and the Eagles understandably avoided injury by resting several key players, Kelce’s screed last month about folding for the future at the expense of culture seemed to fall on deaf organizational ears.
“I don’t care who you’re trying to evaluate. I don’t care if you’ve lost every game, you’re 0-15 and it’s the last one you got,” Kelce said on Dec. 16. “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 or getting looks at certain guys to see what you’ve got for the future.
“But the moment a team feels like you as an organization aren’t doing your job for me to go out there and win, you’ve shown who you are. You don’t care about me or this team. You care about the future. That’s not what the focus is here and that’s not what the focus is on any winning organization’s team.”
It’s unclear what Kelce, who wasn’t made available to reporters after the game, thought about his bosses’ approach to the game. The Eagles were already shorthanded, like they were for much of the season, with significant casualties. But players seemingly with injuries that would normally soldier through were inactive.
And Pederson basically gave up the charade when he pulled quarterback Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld with 12 minutes, 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter even though the Eagles trailed by only three points.
“Yes, I was coaching to win,” Pederson said. Yes, that was my decision solely. Nate has obviously been here for four years and I felt that he deserved an opportunity to get some snaps. Listen, if there’s [anyone] out there [who] thinks that I was not trying to win the game, [Zach] Ertz is out there, Brandon Graham is out there, Darius Slay’s out there. All our top guys were still on the field at the end.”
Sudfeld promptly threw an interception on his second pass attempt. He fumbled a low snap a series later. Jim Schwartz’s defense played as if it was its last game, and it might have been for the mulling-retirement defensive coordinator.
But no matter how hard Eagles vets, backups and deep reserves played, Pederson’s play-calling and decision-making were dubious. He didn’t challenge a clear fumble in the third quarter or a questionable third down spot in the fourth. He took an odd delay penalty on fourth down and gambled on fourth down when a field goal late in the third would have tied the game.
It’s almost as if Pederson sold his soul to return next season. General manager Howie Roseman better hit with the No. 6 overall pick — and in subsequent rounds — but that has clearly been easier said than done.
Perhaps players like Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Dallas Goedert and DeSean Jackson, who were on the injury list, were unable to play under normal circumstances. But running back Miles Sanders suffered what was reportedly a minor knee injury Thursday, and was deemed out for Sunday the following day.
And on game day, quarterback Carson Wentz and receiver Alshon Jeffery were healthy scratches. Sitting the former made some sense. Benched last month and with an uncertain future, the Eagles had little to gain if Wentz was forced to play and exposed to possible harm.
The latter falls under the same category. Jeffery is unlikely to return next season and the Eagles don’t want to risk a significant injury that could force them to keep him on the roster. He likely didn’t want the same either.
But for weeks, Pederson insisted on playing the 30-year-old ahead of younger receivers because he said he was the better option. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but don’t sell a bill of goods about the significance of a win littered with coachspeak.
“This game is important. … We’d like to win the game,” Pederson said Friday. “Whoever’s on the football field, we play to win the game. That’s just what we do.”
It’s certainly to Pederson’s credit that he received a valid effort. The Eagles were without 14 starters and nearly 20 regulars for various reasons. Many of the players and numbers on the field were unrecognizable without a cheat sheet.
Names like Jameson Houston, Rashad Smith and Caleb Wilson will likely be long forgotten in time, along with the outcome. The effort could be sustainable. If there’s been one consistent attribute of Pederson-coached teams it’s that they always played to their maximum.
Players aren’t being told to give less than 100%. Giving anything less is a recipe for injury or a ticket out of the NFL. The film never lies. But the Eagles were dealing with less than a full deck and it’s fair to wonder if Pederson would have dealt a different hand had he been told he wasn’t coming back.
All indications are that he will return for a sixth season. Owner Jeffrey Lurie is clearly tipping the scales in favor of his past accomplishments vs. a dreadful 2020 season. He may use injuries, the coronavirus and other illogical reasons as excuses for the Eagles’ regression.
Pederson has tried. But other teams were as injured, and all 32 were affected by the pandemic, some more so. And highlighting those obstacles, however cursory, only spoke to how the Eagles’ culture wasn’t strong enough to navigate those waters.
It wasn’t once that way. This was the team that won the Super Bowl with its backup quarterback, after all. The team that sustained as many injuries in 2018-19 and still managed to squeak into the postseason.
But losing teams become losing organizations if you allow cynicism to seep in, whether it’s seemingly inconsequential or not. Kelce knew what something as minor as allowing one younger player to play ahead of an older one, even if he was a smidgen behind him on the depth, would mean. Tanking would be even worse.
“You see a lot of losing teams sustain losses for a number of years when they have bad cultures,” Kelce said last month. “They have cultures where you don’t try and win every week. Where you’re trying to finish [with a bad record]: ‘What are we going to do in the draft? What are we going to do in free agency? What can we do over here?’
“In football — this isn’t basketball — one draft pick isn’t going to make us a Super Bowl champion.”
And likely neither is three spots up in the draft.