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Doug Pederson has played it much safer in 2018

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The end of the Dallas game featured another instance this year in which Doug Pederson played it safe.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, after three quarters of horrendous play by the Eagles offense, they had a chance to steal the most important game of their 2018 season.

With 1:22 remaining in the fourth quarter of their do-or-die game against the Cowboys, running back Darren Sproles punched in a touchdown that somehow brought the Eagles to within 23-22. It was a minor miracle, as Dallas’ offense had been on the field virtually the entire game (they would eventually finish with 93 plays run to the Eagles’ 48 and an edge in time of possession of 45:33 to 22:32) thanks to a Philadelphia offense that couldn’t string together three good plays in a row until the final quarter.

And yet, here they were, within one point of tying Dallas with just over a minute remaining in the game. And tie them up they did, with Jake Elliott hitting an extra point that made the game 23-23 (a missed extra point earlier cost the Eagles a chance at the lead outright). However, after a Dallas unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the kick, the Eagles had the chance to move the ball to the one-yard line and take a shot at a two-point conversion that would have given them the lead.

Instead, Doug Pederson elected to play it safe and kept the extra point on the board. And while Dallas’ attempts to win the game in regulation failed, it forced an overtime in which an exhausted and out-manned Eagles defense could not get off the field and Amari Cooper lucked his way into a game-winning touchdown with under two minutes left.

Had the Eagles gone for two in regulation, it’s very possible they would have won the game 24-23.

At his Monday news conference, Pederson was asked about his decision to keep the extra point on the board rather than try to win the game right then and there.

He noted that if they went for two and missed it, it’d be game over, but if they went for two and made it, the Cowboys still had two time outs left and some time left on the clock. Compared to kicking it and tying things up, when even though Dallas still had two time outs, they’d be less likely to end up going for it on fourth down in a tie situation.

After some back and forth with reporters who were questioning the call, particularly in light of his book being titled “Fearless” and that call being anything but, Pederson doubled down that he stood by his decision and in that situation, would call it the same way.

Furthermore, he explained that he didn’t call a timeout following the final sack of the game (with 10 or 11 seconds still left on the clock) to force Dallas to punt because they wouldn’t have used their timeouts anyway and if they did punt, Pederson said it’d have probably gone into the endzone resulting in them kneeling it and having no timeouts and four seconds left, and ultimately, it wasn’t worth it to him.

There is logic to Pederson’s argument, and it appears to all come down to how the Eagles executed the ensuing kickoff from the 50.

In the end, the Eagles didn’t force a touchback, which would have brought the ball out to the 25. Instead, Dallas returned the ball to their own 18, a difference of about 7 yards. Those 7 yards would turn out to be pretty important as Dallas approached, but eventually fell short of, field goal range at the end of regulation.

But there is also an argument to avoid overtime altogether.

According to numberFire, after winning the coin toss the Cowboys had a 41.7% chance of winning the game while the Eagles were at 29.9% (there was a 28.4% chance the game would end in a tie). Sure, the Eagles would have likely been favored had they won the toss, but 41.7% is still less than the 57.6% chance they had of converting the two-point conversion and far less than the 70.8% to win had they made the conversion.

People can debate the numbers and, in the end, it’s entirely possible the Eagles would have missed the extra point, had to try for an on-sides kick (which historically works only about 20% of the time when the other team is expecting it), and not even gotten as far as they did. But in addition to the raw numbers, the situation in the moment should be considered. The Eagles defense was running on fumes and putting them back on the field, as gallantly as they played, was a risky proposition.

Long story short, the decision on whether or not to go for two at the end of the 4th quarter on Sunday was not a slam dunk one way or the other. But there is a larger philosophical point that others have noticed in a number of decisions made by the coaching staff this year.

Doug Pederson and his offense have gone the safe route on a number of occasions, seemingly in conflict with the aggressive tendencies that helped them win a title a year ago.

In the Super Bowl, the Eagles ran the Philly Special on a 4th and 1 play just before halftime and went for it on 4th and 1 from their own 45 with 5:39 to go in the game. Both moves paid off beautifully, as the coaching staff knew they couldn’t take their foot off the pedal if they were going to beat the Patriots. In fact, Pederson noted in his book “Fearless” that he watched the Jacksonville Jaguars fail to do the same in the AFC Championship Game and that he wouldn’t do the same thing.

“I was there thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me right now,’” Pederson wrote. “It made me mad because Jacksonville had New England right where they wanted them. I was screaming at the TV in my office. When they knelt right before halftime, inside I was like, ‘I’ll never do that.’ It fueled me. They could have least tried for a field goal. They took it out of their quarterback’s hands, and they didn’t give to their big back Leonard Fournette. I thought, ‘If they lose this game, this is why.’ Sure enough they would go on to lose the game.”

And to be fair, it’s not as if Pederson and the Eagles have stopped going for it on 4th down this season. They are tied for 4th in the NFL in 4th down attempts, but are just 9-for-17, for a 52.9% rate that is 21st in the NFL. Last year, they were 2nd in the NFL with 26 attempts and converted 17 of them for a 65.4% rate, 3rd-best in the league.

And yet, Sunday’s game against Dallas wasn’t the first time Pederson has opted to play it safe.

In their Week 10 match-up at home against the Cowboys, the Eagles faced a 4th and 5 from their own 45-yard line in the 1st quarter, trailing 3-0. Instead of going for it, they punted the ball to the Dallas 8. The Cowboys moved the ball to their own 40 before punting back to the Eagles who drove down to the Dallas 20. Faced with a 4th and 1 with 11:54 in the first half, Josh Adams lost three yards and the Eagles failed to convert.

With 2:59 left in the 4th quarter of their Week 4 game against the Titans, the Eagles trailed 20-17 and had a 4th and 4 from their own 42. Instead of going for it, they punted the ball away, resulting in a touchback for Tennessee. The defense forced a three-and-out and the Eagles got the ball back with enough time to kick a game-tying field goal with :21 seconds left. In this case, the decision to play it safe seemed to work OK.

But there were a couple more egregious instances in New Orleans where Pederson could have been more aggressive but chose not to be.

Down 3-0 in the 1st quarter with 8:13 left, the Eagles had a 4th and 4 from the Saints’ 49 yard-line. With New Orleans’ offense running at peak efficiency and a defense that was playing multiple guys off the street, this would seem to have been a prime spot for some uber-Doug aggressiveness. However, the Eagles punted to the Saints’ 14. New Orleans then went on a long touchdown drive to make it 10-0.

A bit later, down 17-7 with 3:25 left in the first half, the Eagles punted with a 4th and 8 from their own 49 yard line. Now, eight yards is a lot, but the New Orleans offense looked unstoppable and the Eagles defense was woefully undermanned. Perhaps this would have been a time to roll the dice on a 4th and long with favorable field position. Instead, Pederson punted and the Saints went right back down the field and scored another touchdown to make it 24-7.

Ball game.

Look, a team can’t go for it every single time. Aggression is good, but they can’t be stupid about it. And in some of these cases, the decision to punt and not “go for it” proved to work out well enough. But it is clear that there are some situations this year where the Birds have played it safe where I don’t think they would have last year.

At the end of the day, if you’re going to claim to be a “fearless” coach, you would think that, all things being equal on a 50-50 call, that coach would lean toward the fearless option. But that hasn’t been the case this year as much as it was last year.