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Hayes: Pederson should bench McLeod, Ertz for soft play

LITTLE ELSE turns the stomach like watching football players quit. Their job is brutal; their nature, brutish. Yet they choose this life and they are paid like princes to perform, and they never turn down their paychecks. It is their job to fight and flail and finish.

LITTLE ELSE turns the stomach like watching football players quit.

Their job is brutal; their nature, brutish. Yet they choose this life and they are paid like princes to perform, and they never turn down their paychecks. It is their job to fight and flail and finish.

The Eagles failed in Cincinnati; some worse than others.

You saw it.

We all saw it.

Doug Pederson saw it, too.

He saw safety Rodney "No Thanks" McLeod refuse to hit Bengals running back Jeremy Hill at the goal line Sunday. He saw tight end Zach "El Matador" Ertz refuse to block Vontaze Burfict on a quarterback run.

Pederson saw it all. It made him sick, too.

Asked Monday whether all of his players played hard in Cincinnati, Pederson replied:

"Not everybody."

You heard that correctly. The head coach of an NFL team in a blue-collar town acknowledged that his players are tanking. Stealing money. Playing soft.

In the 215 area code, that's heresy. You might punk out in the baseball heaven that is St. Louis, where McLeod spent his first four NFL seasons, but, in the Delaware Valley, refusing to block and declining to tackle warrants benching.

Not every Eagle plays this way. A week earlier, offensive lineman Allen Barbre knocked Packers linebacker Clay Matthews out of the game with a hellacious block. Then again, Barbre makes only $1.75 million. Barbre can be cut at any time.

Ertz signed a 5-year, $42.5 million extension in January. McLeod signed a 5-year, $35 million free-agent contract in March. You have to stay healthy to enjoy that money.

Professional athletes respond to two types of discipline: You can take their cash or you can take their pride. Being benched is the more visible, more effective shame. That's what this pair deserves.

No one should be more outraged than Pederson, their advocate, their defender, the benevolent dictator who often says he'll "Love 'em up." Well, Dougie, it's time for some tough love.

The game ended 32-14, but the plays involving McLeod and Ertz happened with the Bengals ahead, 3-0, in the first quarter. Both plays could have set a more physical tone in an absolute must-win game that would have evened the Eagles' record at 6-6 and kept them relevant in the playoff race. Both plays let the Bengals know that the Eagles did not come to fight.

The question in question was the third of its kind during the Monday postmortem. Pederson clumsily evaded the first two. As the postmortem grew to a close, grizzled radio and TV reporter Howard Eskin, a visible irritant of the towns' teams for three generations, gave it another shot. Eskin named McLeod in his question; and, typically in Eskin fashion, he did not feign any professional decorum. Eskin demanded an answer with the fully biased outrage of a zealot betrayed.

It was answered with the fully righteous outrage of a coach betrayed.

Certainly, the answer indicts the answerer. Pederson's first responsibility each week is to judge which players will play best. In football, a gladiator sport whose first criteria for success is effort.

It also indicts general manager Howie Roseman, who compiled the roster. It also indicts team leaders such as safety Malcolm Jenkins, the team's unquestioned spokesman; and left tackle Jason Peters, who last week personally guaranteed that the Eagles would not quit. Neither spoke to the press after Sunday's heartless loss. So much for leadership.

It was as absent after the game as it was lacking during the game.

Somehow, against a Bengals team that won only once in the past two months, the Eagles trailed, 29-0, with about 20 minutes to play. Somehow, against a Bengals team that had allowed the fourth-most sacks in the NFL, the Eagles managed none.

Eskin used McLeod's end-zone deferral as the example. It was an apt example.

The Bengals went ahead, 10-0, late in the first quarter. Two plays earlier, they completed a 50-yard pass to Cody Core, on which McLeod also seemed uninterested in unnecessary contact. He was late to help cornerback Nolan Carroll; he pulled up as the pass was completed, perhaps hoping for an incompletion or that Core would step out of bounds; and, finally, he rode Core down at the Eagles' 5-yard line.

Then, on second-and-goal from the 2, the embarrassment.

McLeod was the only third-level defender, which made sense, since he has built a reputation as a stout tackler. He stood three yards deep in the end zone. After the snap, every defensive lineman and linebacker was blocked. A hole opened in the middle. Hill took the ball at the 7 and plunged toward it. McLeod was unblocked. He took two steps toward the hole, and toward Hill . . . then stopped. Just stopped. Hill dived into the end zone at McLeod's feet.

Hill ran 11 total yards. McLeod ran two yards. McLeod, whose only job is to stop the ball, essentially let Hill score.

There was no misdirection. McLeod just quit.

Somewhere, Brian Dawkins cringed.

Brent Celek should be just as disgusted.

For a decade, Celek has defined tight-end toughness for Philadelphia. He will retire an immensely popular player, because, with or without the ball, Celek invites contact.

Ertz, his successor, might be run out of town because he avoids it. He has built an unassailable reputation as a catch-and-drop receiver. Ertz's predisposition to self-preservation reached a new high (new low?) in the middle of the first quarter.

Carson Wentz scrambled up the middle, then angled toward the right sideline, where Ertz's route had taken him. Six Bengals chased Wentz. The closest was Burfict, a ferocious linebacker. Ertz had a clean shot to block Burfict. Ertz is 6-5 and weighs 250 pounds, two inches taller and five pounds heavier than Burfict.

Ertz clobbered him, right? Hardly.

Like a bullfighter, Ertz stepped aside. Burfict ran right past. Ole!

Was Ertz in position to block Burfict? Absolutely. Instead, Ertz actually tapped Burfict on his back with his left hand as Burfict rumbled by, as if inserting a banderilla. All Ertz needed was a red cape and some tasseled slippers.

Yes, Wentz seemed likely to run out of bounds, which he did, but what if he hadn't? What if Wentz evaded Josh Shaw on the sideline and turned his run upfield? Then, Burfict gets a free shot at the Franchise.

"He just pulled off at that point," Pederson said, clearly perturbed. "That's all I can say about that, but I'm definitely going to ask him why. Obviously, we ask our guys to turn and block."

Ertz issued a specious statement on Monday afternoon that ran first on in which he contended that he declined to hit Burfict because he assumed Wentz would "easily make it out of bounds" and that he believed the play was over when he reached Burfict. Wrong: Wentz took three steps after Burfict passed Ertz.

Ertz is second on the team, with 47 catches and 452 receiving yards. McLeod is half of the safety tandem that is, arguably, the most functional part of a dysfunctional team. The Eagles host Washington on Sunday.

This goes beyond statistics and chemistry. This concerns heart. This concerns professionalism. Pederson might come off as fatherly, but, in his rookie season, he has shown a stern hand.

Pederson cut Josh Huff for an alleged criminal malfeasance. He sat Nelson Agholor for psychological distress.

Benching two well-paid veterans for tanking in a crucial game seems like an easier decision than either of those.