You have to hand it to Doug Pederson. Even ending a disastrous season with a home loss to the division champions, to go home and watch the playoffs on TV for the first time in four years, has been achieved with the Philadelphia Eagles centre-stage, underneath a blinding spotlight of negativity.
The Eagles’ head coach quite clearly tanking the loss to Washington achieved that, with a best supporting role nod to the New York Giants players having social media meltdowns further up the East Coast.
Despite the cries of outrage from all directions, it does not matter whether he was trying to genuinely win the game (clearly he wasn’t), but how much of a mess he has made in the way he went about it both with regards to his own players, and with the media.
Pederson appears to have received a belated show of faith from the ownership and swiftly tried to make them second-guess their decision.
As 2020’s all-round failure in Philadelphia drew on, speculation grew as to who owner Jeffrey Lurie would hold responsible. The triumvirate of Pederson, GM Howie Roseman, and franchise quarterback Carson Wentz all were in the firing line for the collective failure.
Wentz, in the middle of a $128 million contract, suddenly looked like the worst starting quarterback in the NFL and was eventually benched for rookie Jalen Hurts.
Roseman has assembled an expensive roster, already due to be over next season’s salary cap, filled with old and injured players.
And Pederson appeared to have no answers as to how to deal with the slide, all the while repeating increasingly defensive and meaningless soundbites as each loss piled up.Embed from Getty Images
If you have been within several lightyears of the Eagles since 2017 you will have heard that that they recently won the Super Bowl, their first no less.
It was achieved under the leadership of the same three, with the caveat on Wentz that his MVP-calibre season was ended by a torn ACL in their 13th game and Nick Foles actually led them through the playoffs.
As such, reports emerged before the game with Washington suggesting that Roseman and Pederson would be back next season, along with ones suggesting that Wentz himself wanted out.
Were Pederson’s job security still up in the air heading into the season finale it is likely that none of the ensuing debate about tanking would have occurred, not least because Pederson and the Eagles have shown plenty of ability to lose games they were trying to win this season.
However, apparently buoyed by the vote of confidence, Pederson set about a two-stage tanking operation. If he had left it at simply not suiting up a list of players that included Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Mailata and Alshon Jeffery, probably not much would have been said about it.
Aside from Cox, who picked up an injury last week, all of them have been out of the line-up at points during the season, and by Week-17 everyone is carrying some sort of issue, but you can be sure that most, if not all, of them would have been playing if the playoffs were on the line for the Eagles rather than Washington and New York.Embed from Getty Images
The fact that Pederson chose to pass up a game-tying field goal in the third quarter, with the Eagles instead failing to complete a fourth-down pass in the endzone, before pulling Hurts for Nate Sudfeld made it impossible to ignore.
Despite the subsequent focus being on putting Sudfeld in, who looked exactly like a third-string quarterback who hadn’t been in a game for over two years, choosing not to tie the game with a short field goal arguably made it more obvious.
Pederson has a reputation as a risk taker who goes for it on fourth-down, but the Eagles had been punting inside Washington territory earlier in the same game, and let’s not forget that earlier in the season Pederson opted to punt at the end of overtime against the Bengals in order to secure a tie.Embed from Getty Images
Hurts was not playing especially well against Washington and his stardom has probably been overblown simply by being better than the ghost of Wentz, but he was undoubtedly the Eagles’ best chance to win.
For Pederson to stand in his post-match press conference insisting “I was coaching to win” makes no logical sense to anyone.
If he wanted to do Sudfeld a favour and let him have a run out in a meaningless (for Philadelphia) game he should have just said that, and made it clear beforehand, to the players if not the media. The fact that Wentz was inactive for the first time since his benching, and Sudfeld was the backup certainly supports that.
Instead, by waiting until a key point in the game to pull Hurts, he has both made it look like he was actively trying to avoid winning and done Sudfeld the opposite of a favour by making everyone discuss how bad of a player he is.
The pious judgments on the morality of tanking, and the wailing from the Giants, are frankly a bit rich, however.
Clearly the Giants are going to be upset that they missed the playoffs as a result but, as New York’s Logan Ryan admitted to Peter King for Football Morning in America, they won four fewer games than they lost this year, so they hardly have any moral right to be in the post-season.
And while the draft system is the way it is tanking will always happen, and it makes sense for teams to do it. Lurie could have even told Pederson to do it. Everyone can have a personal opinion on whether they like it or not but suggesting this is a great affront to the sanctity of the NFL is ridiculous.
Many Colts fans gleefully spent the 2011 season imploring their team to ‘Suck for Luck’ in order to secure the first overall pick and draft Andrew Luck to replace the injured Peyton Manning. This season has widely been seen as a race to the bottom between the Jets and Jaguars for the right to select Trevor Lawrence first overall.Embed from Getty Images
It is not what Pederson did that is really the issue, it is how he managed the situation that might make Lurie think twice about his head coach’s judgment.
By not making things completely clear to his own players, by waiting until the game was on knife-edge, and then dealing with the inevitable questioning afterwards badly, he has created a negativity around himself and the team which could last years.
There was confusion and discontent from Eagles players, including from a visibly unhappy Jason Kelce on the side-line, forcing veterans like Brandon Graham and Kelce himself to now come out and try to smooth things over.
It will have upset the NFL, who have always been happy to deny tanking exists in true Fight Club style, by forcing them to confront the issue, and making their decision to flex the game to prime time look stupid.
And it has given the media, fans, and other teams, not least Giants coach Joe Judge, the opportunity to lord it over the apparently dishonest and unsporting Eagles.
Management is a key role for any NFL head coach, so for Pederson to manage a situation of his own making so poorly that he displayed a lack of team-management, game-management, and media-management has got to factor into his future evaluations.
After a season where very little went right in Philadelphia it is probably fitting for it to end this way. For reasons both justified and not it is unlikely the whole episode will be forgotten in a hurry.
Click here to read the match report from the game between Washington and Philadelphia.