Of all the challenges that lurk amid the competitive carnage of an NFL game, getting kneecapped by your own coach generally isn’t one of them.
Well, unless you’re a Philadelphia Eagle, who on Sunday was asked to fight and battle the Washington Football Team only to have coach Doug Pederson effectively tank the game by pulling starter Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of what was, at the time, a 17-14 game.
Hurts was replaced by Nate Sudfeld, the franchise’s longtime third stringer/backup/practice squad quarterback in what can be described only as a nationally televised farce.
Sudfeld promptly threw an interception and then lost a fumble. He completed just five passes for 32 yards as the Eagles never threatened again to score. Washington received a gift-wrapped 20-14 victory that clinched the NFC East championship and a home playoff date on Saturday night with Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.
We can’t say for sure that the Eagles inserted Sudfeld in an effort to throw the game in order to improve their draft status (the loss means they’ll pick sixth rather than ninth with a win). However, if they were trying to throw the game to improve their draft status … well, inserting Sudfeld would be a pretty effective way to accomplish it.
“I was coaching to win,” Pederson claimed afterward, noting that he wasn’t receiving orders from the front office. “That was my decision solely. Nate has been here obviously four years and I felt that he deserved an opportunity to get some snaps.”
Only Pederson knows if he’s telling the truth, but even if he was, the answer makes no sense. Deserved? The competitive interests of the team — the chance to win a very winnable game — weren’t as important as what he felt an individual player “deserved?”
What is this, Pop Warner?
“The plan this week was to get Nate some time and I thought it was the time to get him in the game,” Pederson said.
In the fourth quarter of a three-point game with playoff implications, albeit for the opposing team?
Sudfeld was drafted in 2016. This was his fourth regular-season appearance. He isn’t good enough. Certainly it would be understandable to reward Sudfeld with playing time if the score was out of hand, one way or the other. It wasn’t though.
And even if the Eagles are now doling out playing time based on feelings, why not put Hurts back in the game, at least for the final two drives with victory still possible? Sudfeld got his snaps. Why stick with him? How was this humiliation fair to him?
“Listen,” Pederson continued, “if there is anything out there that thinks I was not trying to win the game I mean, [Zach] Ertz is out there, Brandon Graham is out there, Darius Slay is out there, all our top guys are still on the field at the end.
“We were going to win the game.”
Apparently those guys didn’t “deserve” to have the best quarterback available on the field in an attempt to honor their efforts with a win. Unless you think playing practice squaders is some cutting edge strategy now.
Hurts, meanwhile, stood on the sideline wearing a look that could be fairly described as disbelief. He wasn’t alone (and that doesn't even count bitter New York Giants watching from home who needed a Philly win to get into the playoffs).
“As a competitor, I play to win,” Hurts said. “You know, you’ve got to trust the coach with that.”
You’d think the rookie could use all the experience he could get in close games. You’d also think the franchise would covet the opportunity to see what he can do in such a situation. The Eagles’ offseason will be dominated by their quarterback decision — former starter Carson Wentz, who didn’t suit up Sunday, is potentially trade bait.
“I knew Nate’s worked really hard all year,” Hurts said. “And I think he’s a great player and Coach wanted to give him an opportunity at some point in the game. … Me being a competitor, talking about winning all the time, that’s what I am all about. I trust Coach with that. That’s all I can do.”
How many Eagles trust Pederson now is a fair question. Philly sat multiple top players, which isn’t unusual for Week 17 in the NFL. Still, the ones who suit up and take the beatings and the bruises expect an honest effort.
Pederson knows that. He played 10 seasons in the league.
He said after that he didn’t think it would affect the team’s “culture,” but playing Sudfeld essentially said that all the players’ effort this past week in practice, let alone the game, didn’t matter all that much.
In the end, rival Washington celebrated on Philly’s field and then whooped it up in the locker room. All the Eagles players could do was slump away, potentially for the last time for guys such as Ertz, Wentz, Jason Kelce and others whose time with this once proud franchise could be over.
Maybe they “deserved” better, but, hey, that sixth pick in the draft has been secured.
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