The most timid, confounding ending of a game in the Doug Pederson era was announced with special emphasis by referee Adrian Hill.
“This is the end of the game.”
Hill sounded incredulous, or maybe he was merely glad to put Sunday’s eyesore behind him. Hill had just seen the Eagles punt the ball to the Cincinnati Bengals with 19 seconds remaining in overtime, in order to preserve a 23-23 tie, which Cincinnati seemingly would have been hard-pressed to break had Pederson instead tried to win the game. The decision was a vote of no confidence in the 2020 Eagles, from their head coach.
“We didn’t want to give them the ball toward midfield," so that Bengals kicker Randy Bullock could try a game-winner, Pederson said. If the Bengals didn’t gain yardage, Bullock would have been kicking from 64 yards. Bullock missed a 31-yard-attempt that would have sent Cincinnati to overtime in Week 1. His career long is 57 yards.
"I just made that decision. Hopefully, something positive might have come out of the punt,” Pederson contended, after going through his rationale for not wanting the Bengals to regain possession on a Jake Elliott miss or an incomplete fourth-down pass.
So the Eagles are 0-2-1, with San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore on tap. Surely, curling up into a ball and settling for a tie at home against the winless Bengals will be the springboard for a successful season.
Pederson had to be glad no fans were on hand at Lincoln Financial Field to witness the franchise’s most bizarre coaching moment since Rich Kotite’s two-point conversion chart got wet.
The Eagles lined up for a 59-yard Elliott field goal attempt that could have won it, had right guard Matt Pryor not false-started. Then, instead of going for a first down on fourth-and-12 or trying to kick a 64-yard field goal, they lined up to punt, took a delay penalty, and indeed punted.
OK, so let’s go through this. Pederson said he didn’t want to give Cincinnati the ball on the Eagles' 46. But 19 seconds were left when Pryor flinched, and the Bengals had no timeouts remaining.
A missed field goal would have burned at least five seconds, let’s say. An incomplete pass probably would have burned more than that. So let’s give the Bengals 14 seconds from the 46, maybe a little less. Cincinnati probably would have had to throw the ball to the sideline or the end zone.
Could the Bengals have completed a 10-yard pass over the middle and then lined up and spiked the ball for a 54-yard field goal attempt? Not at all likely, in that time frame.
But to Pederson, the coach whose 2018 ghostwritten book was titled Fearless, trying to win just seemed too risky. Rally 'round the tie, boys.
“Obviously, in those situations, you’re hoping to do what’s right for the football team," Pederson said, when asked how this ending fit into his credo, that being aggressive builds confidence in players. This is the man who ran the Philly Special on fourth down in the Super Bowl.
“And that’s probably a decision I’ll look back on tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, we could have done something else.’ But it is what it is. We’ll learn from it. I’ll learn from it, and get better.”
It bears mentioning that the last time this happened, on Nov. 16, 2008, at Cincinnati, coming away with a tie from a dismal game instead of a loss eventually got the Eagles into the playoffs, even if it did confuse Donovan McNabb. Looking at Sunday’s NFC East results, this could happen again. The Giants are 0-3, the Washington Football Team and the Cowboys are 1-2. But, the tie was definitely not a win. Really, how dire was the risk in the risk/reward scenario?
“I understood the decision,” quarterback Carson Wentz said, after another dreadful two-interception passing day, which Wentz’s 65 yards and a touchdown rushing on nine carries couldn’t erase. He had Miles Sanders open down the sideline for a touchdown late in regulation and overthrew him.
“Tying is no fun. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a tie, so it’s just kind of an awkward way to end the game. ... These are tough decisions, and I trust coach fully.”
The Eagles had three possessions in overtime, and entered Cincinnati territory twice. The other time, star right tackle Lane Johnson false-started on first down from the Bengals' 43, after Wentz’s best throw of the game, a 30-yard teardrop down the right sideline to tight end Zach Ertz. Then rookie left guard Nate Herbig was called for holding on a Wentz scramble to the Bengals' 32. The Eagles ended up punting from their 48.
“I told them in the locker room after the game that we weren’t a very smart football team today. I think 11 penalties [for 93 yards],” Pederson said. [Some] came at crucial times. We couldn’t get off the field on defense. Offensively, we didn’t execute well enough. We had some injuries, but that’s going to be part of the game.
“Just not a smart football team right now. That’s on me. We’ll get that fixed as we get ready for this next week.”
Wentz was the second-best quarterback on the field, clearly less effective than Bengals rookie Joe Burrow, but he did drag himself and the Eagles into overtime. When Wentz’s arm, his offensive line, and his receivers proved they could not be counted upon, Wentz had one more weapon at his disposal.
Wentz sprinted around the right side when no one was open on second-and-goal from the 7, dived for the end zone, and made it, getting his team an extra 15 minutes, with 21 seconds left in regulation.
It was a rare bright spot on a dull, gray day in an empty stadium.
Both Wentz picks were inexplicable. The Eagles defense turned third-and-15 into a 42-yard Bengals gain that set up a late field goal. Left tackle Jason Peters looked older than 38, before limping off with an apparent leg injury in the final seconds.
Speaking of which, the injury cascade continued — tight end Dallas Goedert (ankle), starting corner Avonte Maddox (ankle), wide receiver DeSean Jackson (hamstring).
When you count the high draft picks over the last several years who are giving the team nothing right now, and the age and injury history of some of the better players, is it really that surprising to see someone run past Duke Riley, or elude Trevor Williams? The healthy parts of this roster aren’t exceptionally talented.
The only really shocking thing, before the ending, was the play of Wentz (29-for-47, 225 yards, a touchdown, 62.8 passer rating), even though he played like this last week in the loss to the Rams, and in the second half the week before, in the loss at Washington. What is he seeing? What is he thinking?
We might never know.
“You’re going to miss a couple [throws] and you’re going to make some plays,” said Wentz, who has six interceptions in three games, after throwing seven all last season. “Things happen. Obviously, I just have to be better and handle some of these. Some of them are communication, just making sure we’re on the same page with everybody, and some are just poor throws. I have to be better, and I will.
”We’re still meshing and jelling as a team and building the chemistry. A lot of moving pieces today, not as an excuse, but guys will continue to get this experience and learn from it. We’ll all be better, including myself."
Despite all the declarations the Eagles made during the week about doing the work to get untracked, they started the game extremely tracked.
Their first play was a bomb thrown over Jackson, who was double covered anyway. Then Sanders (95 yards on 18 carries) got them a couple of first downs, until on third-and-3, Wentz’s pass over the middle to Jackson was tipped at the line and intercepted by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson. Jackson had three Bengals around him.
As if Wentz’s problems weren’t enough for the offense to deal with, the offensive line suddenly started getting turned inside-out by a Bengals pass rush that had produced all of two sacks in two previous games. Specifically, Peters was pushed backward and outmaneuvered repeatedly by the Bengals' Carl Lawson.
Wentz took three first-half sacks. On the play before the Greg Ward touchdown that gave the home team a 13-10 halftime lead, Lawson stripped Wentz from behind. Jason Kelce fell on the fumble.
Goedert, the Eagles' best blocking tight end, might have been able to help Peters had Goedert not gone to the locker room after making a 7-yard catch on his team’s second drive. The fear was a high-ankle sprain, which usually is a multiple-week injury. Losing Goedert obviously affected the game plan, for a team that lives on two-tight-end sets.