If Eagles coach Doug Pederson could go back to the sideline on Sunday and change a decision from the Eagles' embarrassing 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints, he would return to the opening drive. The Eagles faced a fourth-and-1 from their 24-yard line on the fourth play of the game, and Pederson sent his punting unit onto the field.
Pederson admitted Monday he was "real close" to going for it.
"That was one that possibly, you get that, and you stay on the field and you see what happens," Pederson said. "But that's one I look at that maybe you do something different right there."
Pederson decided against it because it was so early in the game. It would be unconventional for a coach to go for a fourth down at his own 24-yard line at that point. Then again, this is Pederson. He ran the Philly Special in the Super Bowl. He literally titled his book Fearless.
Maybe it wouldn't have an effect on the game. Maybe the Eagles fail to convert, and the Saints use the short field to score a touchdown instead of settle for a field goal like they did on the ensuing drive, and the final score is 52-7. Maybe the Eagles convert, and end up punting three plays later. But what if the Eagles converted and drove down and scored on the opening drive for just the third time this season, instead of going three-and-out for the sixth time this season? That's the unrealized upside.
"I think it just sends a message to the team that we're going to maintain that aggressiveness that we have established here," Pederson said.
The Eagles were outplayed, outcoached, and overmatched by the Saints. There was no question who the better team was on Sunday or why the teams appear heading in different directions. But how the Eagles played that game mattered as much as the final score, and they didn't play like the aggressor.
The most perplexing part was that it countered everything Pederson had said going into the game. On Friday, Pederson said the Eagles had the mind-set that "you're going to have to score points" against the Saints. The Eagles couldn't expect to win a 16-14 field-position duel. This would likely need to be a shootout, or at least require more points than the Eagles had been scoring this season. Only one team brought their weapons, though.
"There are times when I felt like we needed to stay on the field, try to stay on the field, and there were times when an opportunity presented itself to try to back them up, try to get a stop, and get the ball back," Pederson said. "It's unfortunate it didn't happen."
The Eagles went for two fourth downs, but both came in the second half when the Eagles already trailed by double-digits. They passed up the fourth-and-1 on the opening drive and a fourth-and-4 at the Saints' 49-yard on the next drive. That was another play the Eagles could have tried to convert. They instead punted it away, and the Saints went on a touchdown drive to take a 10-0 lead.
"I mean, there were some opportunities to do that and elected to punt," Pederson said after the game of being aggressive on fourth down. "Try to flip the field a little bit and get field position. I knew as the game went on that there was going to be some more opportunities to do that. Just didn't get it done."
So the Eagles wanted to play a field-position game against the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. All that meant was Drew Brees had more ground to cover. The defense wasn't stealing many possessions from them. It seemed like a conservative approach for a coach who takes pride in being aggressive. Remember all those Super Bowl stories about Pederson, who would combine data and instincts to go for more fourth downs and two-point conversions than most other coaches?
Pederson said Monday that he "thought about fourth downs and thought about two-point conversions." They didn't score enough touchdowns to make two-point conversions a factor, and Pederson said the time of the game kept him from being aggressive for those early fourth downs. But if he could change anything from the defeat, it was that first fourth-down decision.
He didn't even give his offense a chance. And when he looked back at the final score, the Eagles' seven points bothered him more than the Saints' 48.
"The seven points we scored because we had more plays out on the field that we left, after watching the film again today," Pederson said. "So that's the disappointing thing that we didn't do a better job offensively and score more points in this game. The 48, listen, they're a good football team. Let's not kid ourselves there. That's a good football team, and we knew we were going to have to score points."
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