By the end of the madness, the genius coach had to throw out half of his playbook and hope the only guy on the field with a Nirvana CD could engineer the unlikeliest of comebacks in his playoff debut, at 40.
Then he almost did. Josh McCown, who un-retired in August, threw a fourth-quarter bomb to Shelton Gibson, who hadn’t played a game in more than a calendar year. Gibson drew a pass interference penalty, which put the ball at the Seahawks’ 13-yard line with less than 4 minutes to play, and put the Eagles in position to tie the 17-9 wild-card game. But McCown took two sacks, and the score became the final, and the incredible, improbable season ended.
It ended, but with with seven players on offense who had been unemployed at least once since the start of training camp. It ended, but with with franchise quarterback Carson Wentz concussed, this time with no Big Game Nick Foles waiting to save them all (he got rich in Jacksonville). It ended, but really, none of this had any business happening. That it happened at all — a 9-7 record, an NFC East title, a 4-0 run to end the season, a shameless effort in the finale — was the definition of determination.
“As crazy and ugly as this season was, they’re still gonna hang a banner for us,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, the team’s unquestioned leader since 2016. "We put together an effort we can be proud of. It makes it really hard to have a bad feeling right now."
There was little bad feeling among the faithful as 69,796 retreated into the cold Philadelphia night. Alicia D’Antonio, a 27-year-old speech therapist from Malvern, N.J., was sad, and she was cold, but 2019 left her grateful, hopeful, and inspired.
“Definitely, they had a lot of heart," she said. "It says a lot about Carson, and it says a lot about Pederson.”
Wentz, in his fourth season, won four straight games with a veritable Legion of ... Whom?
Doug Pederson, the coach whose derring-do in the 2017 Super Bowl season, did it again. He already has earned a statue just a few yards from where D’Antonio spoke. If he’d pulled out a win without Wentz — if he’d somehow won with McCown playing three quarters with little running back Boston Scott, and converted quarterback Greg Ward, and tight end/receiver Josh Perkins, and castoff tight end Richard Rogers, and the Deontay Burnett/Robert Davis anonymous duo, and Gibson, who was literally sitting on his couch last week — a statue wouldn’t have been nearly enough.
They’d have given him a bust and a gold jacket on Monday morning.
By the second quarter Pederson was playing without 10 of his top 16 offensive players. Besides Wentz, he lacked his four top receivers (Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins), his two best linemen (Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks), and three of his four top running backs (Jordan Howard, Darren Sproles, Corey Clement). Tight end Zach Ertz played with an injured kidney. Running back Miles Sanders played through ankle and knee injuries.
“With all the injuries we had, we came up 8 points short of going into overtime? All those guys being hurt? Overall stars?” Peters said. "I'd say it was a success."
Ertz missed the finale at the Giants last week with a lacerated kidney that knocked him out of Game 15 against the Cowboys and left him bedridden the next morning. Ertz said God healed his kidney fast, but you got the impression that Ertz would have played whether his guts were bloody or not.
“I wanted to play for this city,” Ertz said, tears welling as he pondered facing his peers just because he had a bit of pain in his side. “I wouldn’t be able to look my teammates in the eye.”
Sanders said that neither the sprained ankle that cost him the second half last week and the knee injury he suffered on the last play of the first half Sunday would have robbed him of the playoff game. Brandon Graham, who led the Eagles with 8 1/2 sacks this season, left in the first quarter when three-week-old tendinitis in his left knee flared, returned for the second half.
“These guys are tough guys,” Pederson said. "They want to help their teammates win. It shows the character of each individual, the type of people and men we have in this locker room and on this team."
They’re the type of men who withstood a 1-2 start as the Cowboys raced out to 3-0, only to win in Green Bay the next week. Men, who got manhandled at Minnesota and Dallas but bounced into the bye with wins at Buffalo and over Chicago. Men who lost to New England and Seattle, then, pitifully, at Miami, and looked dead at 5-7, but resurrected their season with four straight wins, and, until the very last moments, a chance at five in a row.
Men who lost Wentz late in 2017 and 2018 and won without him. And almost did the damn thing again.
Men of resilience.
Men of fortitude.