There’s little shame in losing a game out on the field. Quitting entirely, however, is another story altogether.
The controversy about the Philadelphia Eagles’ loss to the Washington Team-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named last Sunday night reverberated again this week. On Monday, the team announced it had fired head coach Doug Pederson — the man who won the club’s first, and so far only, Super Bowl just three years ago.
Team owner Jeffrey Lurie claimed Pederson’s relationship with highly paid quarterback Carson Wentz, which had deteriorated this season, played little role in the coaching move. Lurie instead cited confusion about the team’s future direction amid a vast array of coaches and consultants. But as shocking as it might seem to replace a coach so soon after winning a championship, the events of last Sunday night ultimately justified the move to this Eagles fan.
Last week, Pederson benched Jalen Hurts, the game’s starting quarterback, in favor of a third-stringer who had not taken a single snap all season — in the fourth quarter of a close game. The substitute, Nate Sudfeld, turned the ball over twice, guaranteeing an Eagles loss.
Pederson’s actions in the game’s closing minutes prompted outrage and debate over “tanking,” when teams eliminated from playoff contention late in the season — as the Eagles were heading into the game — deliberately under-perform in an attempt to win a higher pick in the upcoming player draft.
Fans May Support Tanking…
I can sympathize with the perspective of my colleague David Marcus on the situation the Eagles faced last week, having gone into the game decidedly ambivalent about its outcome. I couldn’t actively root for my team to lose, but I did recognize that an Eagles victory would cost them three spots in next year’s draft order (by losing, Philadelphia will select sixth in April’s National Football League draft; a victory would have meant the Eagles selected ninth).
Like Dave, I also don’t care much about the complaints of New York Giants players and fans. The Giants, with the pedestrian record of 6-10, would have made the playoffs had Philadelphia defeated Washington. Judging by their real-time reactions on Twitter, New York players watching the game sounded none too pleased with Pederson’s decision to bench Hurts and bring in an underwhelming backup — which effectively killed their playoff chances and ended their season.
If the Giants players didn’t like those moves, then maybe they shouldn’t have blown an 11-point fourth-quarter lead to the Eagles back in October, in which case they wouldn’t have needed Philadelphia to beat Washington to gain a playoff berth.
…But Players Don’t
The Eagles’ players, however, have a legitimate beef. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, several were furious with Pederson, to the point that they had to be held back from confronting him physically during the game once they heard of the decision. Star running back Miles Sanders said on Tuesday that “nobody [on the team] liked the decision,” while Hurts was seen on camera muttering “it’s not right” from the sidelines during the broadcast, likely in reference to his benching.
Center Jason Kelce also chatted with Pederson during the game about the coach’s decision, although sources told ESPN the discussion was non-confrontational. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Kelce might object to Pederson’s decision, given his eloquent comments a few weeks ago against “tanking,” in which he said teams and players should always play to win:
Now is probably a good time to bring back this video from early December of #Eagles center Jason Kelce talking about why winning should always be priority in the NFL.#Eagles did the complete opposite tonight. pic.twitter.com/gY1QbQgYbd
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 4, 2021
Kelce, who has now started in 105 consecutive games — more than six seasons’ worth, an amazing feat for an offensive lineman — has served for many years as the heart and soul of the Eagles squad, because, as one of his teammates put it, he “gives everything he’s got every day.” His passionate (and profanity-laced) speech while wearing a Mummers costume at the rally after the team’s Super Bowl victory three years ago became an instant classic of Eagles lore.
Yet, well after the game had ended, Kelce, former starting quarterback Carson Wentz, and tight end Zach Ertz lingered despondently on the field, pondering the events of that evening, and an uncertain future.
Don’t Quit on the Players
NFL players go through a lot to make it on to the field, particularly this season. Over and above the risk of concussions, brain trauma, and other physical injuries, the coronavirus pandemic added a whole other level of sacrifice, and potential medical danger, for these athletes. A total of 62 NFL players opted out of the 2020 season entirely, after the league permitted them to do so.
After all the disruptions of this season — the virtual practices, COVID-19 protocols, re-scheduled games, and on and on — the Eagles players earned the right to play the game Sunday night, and play to win. Instead, Pederson effectively quit on his players, telling them through his actions that he had given up on trying to win, and was abandoning them out on the field.
In theory, of course, coaches and owners can order players in and out of games as they like. But in modern-day professional sports, those who take an autocratic approach to doing so may soon become generals without an army.
Pederson may have benched Hurts at the behest of General Manager Howie Roseman, or someone else within the Eagles’ management. But whoever bears ultimate responsibility for this move, to say nothing of Pederson for carrying it out, will bear a legacy that Eagles players, as well as the NFL as a whole, will likely remember for many years to come.
A fairly putrid Eagles season will come and go. But only replacing Pederson — who gave up on his players — could begin to remove the stench of last Sunday night.