The Eagles’ organizational plan to tank their final game for a better draft pick was somewhat obvious from the moment they put out their inactives list and healthy-scratched some of the veterans who could have helped them win their final game of the season.
It was slightly more evident when they rolled Jalen Hurts out on a fourth-and-four against one of the best defenses in football to try and score, in lieu of kicking a game-tying field goal with two minutes to play in the third quarter (yes, we know the math favored going for it, though one could make a sober, clear-headed argument for sensibly taking the points).
But the moment Doug Pederson pulled a seemingly healthy, effective Jalen Hurts from the football game after watching him successfully navigate one of the most aggressive defensive lines in the league (he had a poor passer rating but had two rushing touchdowns to cap long scoring drives), only to insert usual third-stringer Nate Sudfeld, the nakedly brazen maneuver quickly changed tenor from cheeky to macabre. In one minute, it went from something the NFL could laugh off and explain away through its media-sympathetic minions lacking the ability to filter critical information to something they should investigate and penalize.
Week 17’s Philadelphia-Washington game was flexed into Sunday Night Football, a mark of distinction the NFL reserves annually for a game with significant playoff ramifications. While the Eagles had already clinched last place in the NFC East at kickoff, Washington knew that a win would deliver a division title to Ron Rivera & Co. A loss would hand that division to the Giants, by virtue of their win over Dallas earlier in the day. But while we have seen eliminated teams like the 49ers and Falcons fight hard to play spoiler over the last few weeks, the Eagles did not hold up their end of the bargain.
The Eagles’ staff certainly seemed to try and lose a football game on purpose Sunday, to improve their first-round pick in the 2021 draft from No. 9 to No. 6 and any explanation to the contrary that doesn’t include an admission of zero integrity should be attacked with brute force. For the last few years, we’ve seen the growing popularity of teams selling off their assets and gutting their roster as a relatively quick way of amassing cap space and valuable draft capital. It is a sensible and palatable version of “tanking” if one could even call it that, mostly because the teams involved often begin to improve and rarely attain the No. 1 pick (see: the Dolphins and Jets in recent years). But what we saw on Sunday was something so nakedly against the ethos of the NFL and competitive sports in general; a coach purposely not putting the best lineup at his disposal on the field during a winnable game for a clear and obvious gain. It was cold and transactional. It was insulting to a prime-time audience tuning in for a glimpse of a game that had serious playoff implications for Philly’s opponent, another division rival and a third team awaiting the winner next week.
As the waning moments of the game ticked by, it was difficult to decide what the least digestible part of the entire operation was. Was it all of the Giants players live-tweeting the affair, watching their playoff chances get callously sawed off at the limb? Was it the way that the Eagles carelessly put the rest of their players at risk amid this apparent shadow plan to clearly not perform at their best? What if this shell of a roster got someone hurt? Was it the comical attempt to legitimize the idea that Pederson, a coach with more headaches at the quarterback position than any other coach in the NFL, wanted to evaluate Sudfeld when he’s barely had the chance to evaluate Hurts?
What message does this send to the players who were trotted out there on expiring contracts for the sheer purpose of acting as gravel to be run over? Or former Super Bowl champions like Zach Ertz and Vinny Curry, who may have suited up as Eagles for the last time? How should that make them feel?
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The Eagles’ brass deserve every ounce of disillusionment they’ll sense inside their locker room at the end of this year and the start of the next. Every little bit of resentment for the draft pick that was important enough to put their bodies on the line for. Best of luck to them pacifying a hive of pissed off veterans and their expensive former starting quarterback, who is also reportedly trying to muscle his way out of town. Whichever person orchestrated this ludicrous display (and it’s fair to wonder, given Doug Pederson’s job security, who above him on the chain signed off on this plan) should have to personally explain it to Jason Kelce’s face afterward, just two weeks after he stressed the importance of winning over everything regardless of circumstance.
If the NFL doesn’t drop the hammer on the Eagles—might we suggest removing some of the draft capital they seem so desperate to attain?—the league deserves the sheer tonnage of conspiracy theories that will be concocted in the wake of this game, with the door now opened that much wider to the crackpot fans who already want to believe some games are rigged. It’ll deserve the ballooning apathy from others who can’t even bother getting that worked up. It’ll deserve the middle finger from people who rightfully devoted their three hours of free time to an absolute farce.
And worse, it’ll deserve the grimy precedent that this sets for the near future.