Yesterday’s 32-27 comeback win over the Washington football team was filled with a plethora of delightful Eagles highlights.
DeSean Jackson caught two touchdown bombs of more than 50 yards. Carson Wentz sprinted out of collapsing pockets and piled up 3rd down conversion rates reminiscent of 2017. The defense swarmed all over the place in the second half and made life miserable for Case Keenum. The running game got going. Alshon made some plays.
It was all a lot of fun, but it’s possible none of it would have happened were it not for one key decision by Doug Pederson on the opening drive of the third quarter.
The offense had been sputtering for most of the afternoon and it appeared their drive to start the second half was going to do the same when, on 3rd and 5 from their own 30, Pederson called for a run up the middle to Darren Sproles, a play that netted four yards.
So, down 20-7 and facing the prospect of giving the ball right back to what had been, to that point, a red-hot Washington offense, Pederson decided to go for it on 4th and 1 from his own 34.
If Philadelphia doesn’t convert, they essentially put Washington in field goal range and potentially suck the life out of the stadium entirely. But as we have seen throughout Pederson’s tenure as head coach, aggression often turns into gold (clip at 3:26 mark).
A Carson Wentz quarterback sneak easily netted the Birds a first down on a drive that would ultimately end with a gorgeous touchdown toss to Jeffery in the back of the end zone, drawing the Eagles to 20-14.
That was a seven-point decision by Doug Pederson, but it came with substantial risk. Sure, in a vacuum, the odds were high that Wentz would convert that sneak, but failure may have meant the game totally slipping away. But it worked and it was perhaps the turning point in the Eagles Week 1 victory.
Around the league in Week 1, two coaches in particular were faced with similar decisions and went a different way. Neither won their game.
On Sunday night against the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, down 20-0 with 10:19 to play in the third quarter. If ever there was a time for a coach to be aggressive, it was here. Getting seven points would have turned a three-score game into a two-score game and, at the very worst, a failed conversion would have pinned New England deep in their own territory.
Instead, Tomlin went the coward’s route (clip at 3:07 mark).
Sure, the Steelers kicked the field goal and got three points, but that only made the score 20-3. They were still down by three scores. Not only that, it sent a message of passiveness, that Pittsburgh was afraid of the big bad Patriots.
Not surprisingly, the Steelers lost 33-3. But hey, at least they weren’t shut out, I guess?
Earlier in the day, Arizona rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury was equally passive, and this example of cowardice may be even more egregious. With the score 27-27 and just 1:13 left in overtime, the Cardinals had the ball across midfield at the Detroit 47 where, on 3rd & 7, Kyler Murray threw an incompletion (clip at 7:55 mark).
The Cardinals are a rebuilding team. They are not going to the postseason in 2019. This is a developmental season for Murray and the Cardinals and a perfect opportunity for Kingsbury to show his young squad that they were not going to be scared in crunch time by going for the win.
And yet, on 4th & 7 from their opponent’s 47, they punted. With 1:10 left in OT. With no hope of getting the ball back.
Kingsbury settled for the tie instead of trying to convert seven yards. Had they failed to make it, Detroit would have only needed about 25 yards to move into field goal range and, yes, the Cardinals may have lost. But would that really have been worse than tying the lowly Lions at home?
Not all of Pederson’s gambles are going to work out. They went for it on 4th and 2 early in the 2nd quarter from the Washington 30 and gave up the chance to get three points when Wentz’ pass was knocked down. But he also went for a two-point conversion in the 4th quarter up by seven and converted it, turning what would have been an eight-point lead (if they had kicked the extra point) to a nine-point cushion, ensuring Washington would have to score twice to win the game.
The totality of these three plays netted the Eagles five extra points yesterday, which perhaps not coincidentally was the exact margin of victory.
Pederson’s aggressiveness in Super Bowl LII was a huge reason they defeated the Patriots that night, and Sean McVay’s lack of aggression the following Super Bowl was a big reason why the Rams lost.
Head coaches continue to be terrified of taking chances and using the analytics in these situations for fear of making a mistake, because they haven’t learned from Pederson’s example.
Sometimes, taking chances will cost you. But more often than not, you will be rewarded for not being a coward.