Eagles center Jason Kelce has found himself in the crosshairs of the dispute over the organization’s perceived “tanking” of Sunday’s season finale against Washington, because of Kelce’s impassioned words last month about the need to try to win, no matter what. They lost the finale, 20-14, finishing 4-11-1, so the Eagles will draft sixth overall this spring, instead of ninth, had they defeated Washington.
Kelce, normally a prominent voice when the team disbands for the offseason, as reporters try to sum up the year, was not available for comment Monday or Tuesday, but on Wednesday, he released a statement via social media in which the 10-year veteran acknowledged his surprise and his questioning head coach Doug Pederson about Pederson’s decision to insert quarterback Nate Sudfeld with 12 minutes, 35 seconds remaining and the team trailing, 17-14. Sudfeld hadn’t played in two years. His first two series Sunday night ended in an interception and a lost fumble off a low snap from Kelce.
Kelce said he asked Pederson if Sudfeld was going in for starter Jalen Hurts, was told that was the case, and then asked if other starters were staying in. Pederson said they were, so Kelce said he then went to Sudfeld and started practicing snaps. Kelce said his conversation with Pederson was not confrontational, and that the team knew Pederson planned to play Sudfeld at some point during the game.
“I understand the optics of how it looked, and I’d be lying if I [said I] wasn’t a little surprised that the move happened when it did, but every one of us did our best, and all of us believe we can win with Nate Sudfeld,” Kelce wrote.
Kelce took responsibility for the fumble on the low snap.
On the TV broadcast, Hurts was shown on the bench, clearly mouthing the words, “It’s not right.”
The Inquirer has reported that Eagles players and coaches were surprised by the move to Sudfeld, that Kelce and another offensive starter asked Pederson about it, and that two defensive players were held back from approaching Pederson.
Running back Miles Sanders was held out of the game with a knee injury that had not kept him from participating the previous week in a loss at Dallas. On Tuesday, Sanders said on WIP-FM: “If I’m being honest, nobody liked the decision. Nobody. That’s all I can say. I don’t know who was the main person behind that decision, but all I know is a lot of people on the team were confused.”
Last month, Kelce was asked if he had any curiosity about what young players might be able to show in the final weeks of the season. Kelce said he did, but then he said this:
“That being said, I think, at all times in the NFL, the focus should be winning the football game. Nothing else takes precedence. No player evaluation, no amount of curiosity, from anybody within the organization. Everything is focused, in my opinion, in this league, upon winning games. You see a lot of losing teams sustain losses for a number of years, when they have bad cultures. They have cultures where you don’t try to win every week. ‘What are we going to do in the draft? What are we going to do in free agency? What are we going to do over here?’
“You know, in football — this isn’t basketball. One draft pick isn’t going to make us a Super Bowl champion. It might be a big start to a Super Bowl championship, but it’s always going to be about the team. That’s the greatest thing about this sport. Culture, and the way guys fight, and the way guys go to prepare and the way guys go about their business is a huge reason for success in this league and in this sport. So nothing takes precedence over trying to win a football game.
“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. Everything is about winning in this league. And I know that won’t appease a lot of people out there that always want to talk about getting better draft positions, or getting a look at certain guys and see what you got for the future.”
The Eagles’ loss meant that the 6-10 New York Giants, who earlier in the day defeated Dallas, did not win the NFC East and its playoff berth, that prize going to 7-9 Washington. The Eagles left several starters inactive with injuries, and the organization has faced a sizable backlash. Giants coach Joe Judge spoke of how his team would never “disrespect the game” by employing such tactics.