NFL has giant reasons to be concerned about how Eagles handled final regular-season game

If one’s goal is to normalize the approach taken during Sunday’s game against the Washington Football Team by Eagles coach Doug Pederson and his staff — and anyone above him on the org chart who might have been involved — the easiest device available is to blame the New York Giants.

Indeed, the “football Giants” weren’t within 50 miles of Lincoln Financial Field when Philadelphia was, shall we say, deemphasizing victory. But they met with the greatest consequence, and they also were an easy target for online cynics because they were trying to reach the playoffs with a 6-10 record.

What if the Giants were 10-6 and these same shenanigans occurred?

See, it’s a copout. It’s not about the Giants.

What transpired with the Eagles was something we haven’t really seen before in the NFL, certainly not in this season. They appeared to choose a more advantageous draft position over making the most serious attempt possible to win the game in which they were involved. If this is to become the new norm in the league, it may be necessary for the NFL to combat it by installing a draft lottery system similar to those in the NBA and NHL.

Pederson insisted afterward that he was trying to win despite the curious decision to dump starting QB Jalen Hurts for career clipboard carrier Nate Sudfeld, but even running back Miles Sanders acknowledged “nobody liked the decision” during an interview Tuesday with radio station WIP.

Before making the QB change on the Eagles’ first possession of the final period — in five seasons since entering the league, Sudfeld had played in three previous games and thrown 25 total passes — Pederson declined the opportunity for the Eagles to attempt a tying field goal and went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard-line. Given that there were two minutes left in the third quarter, that was another curious choice by the coaching staff.

The reactions both inside and outside the Eagles family indicated that this appeared to be something different than what we’ve seen previously in the NFL.

It seems no one even has mentioned what this meant to the increasing number of legal gamblers around the U.S., at least some of whom wagered on the Eagles expecting a sincere effort.

It’s not uncommon for bad teams to lose badly. The Bengals did it Sunday, falling to 4-11-1 with a 38-3 loss to the Ravens. It’s also not unprecedented, however, for bad teams to win when they have nothing but pride on the line, and when victory could impact the franchise’s future. The Bengals were involved in one of those in Week 15, upsetting the Steelers and delaying their clinching of the AFC North championship.

More famously, the Jets were trudging along in a perfect effort to secure the No. 1 overall draft pick and the opportunity to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, failing to win once through 13 games. Then they went out and beat the Rams, a playoff team. And they won again the following week against another playoff aspirant, the Browns. Instead, the Jaguars will have the opportunity to draft Lawrence.

There have been some analysts who’ve attempted to defend what happened in Philly. Kurt Warner of the NFL Network said on Twitter that Sudfeld worked all season and “busted his butt” like the rest of his teammates and suggested that the game in which he played was “meaningless.”

On Pittsburgh radio station 93.7 The Fan, former NFL linebacker Arthur Moats defended the Eagles’ approach during his weekly appearance, curiously employing public mockery of the Jets as justification. It was an illogical contention because, in fact, the Jets did the exact opposite of what led to criticism of the Eagles — criticism that originated from inside their roster, from national media and from NBC Sports Philadelphia analyst Seth Joyner, a former linebacker for the team who declared after the game, “I have never been more ashamed to be associated with the Philadelphia Eagles than I am tonight.”

It was surprising to hear Moats defend what Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jeff McLane described as a “tank.” In the 2015 season, Moats and the Steelers reached the playoffs as a 10-6 wild card because, on the final day of the season, the 7-8 Bills defeated the 10-5 Jets. There would have been no room for Pittsburgh in the playoff that season without that assistance. The Bills wound up picking 19th in the 2016 NFL Draft. They might have been as high as 14th if they’d fallen to the Jets. But NFL teams routinely have played to win.

Those who have attempted to compare the Eagles’ decision to the approaches employed by the Chiefs and Steelers in the season’s final week are reaching hard enough to injure themselves. Those teams whose playoff positions were secure had earned the right to approach Week 17 as they wished relative to their rosters.

The Steelers chose to avoid potential injury for their veteran QB and superstar linebacker, among others, and to rest players who never got a true bye week because of COVID issues with multiple opponents. Once inside the game, however, the coaches and players competed to win — fiercely enough to come within a failed 2-point conversion of tying the Browns inside the final two minutes.

The Eagles will have to contend with whatever dissent this decision creates within their organization. It seems unlikely to linger among those who remain into next season; success is intoxicating enough that if any is attainable, the players eagerly will pursue it.

The impact on the sport, though, is something the NFL ultimately will not be able to ignore. This is one instance, and to make changes based on that would be an overreaction. If other teams perceive the league’s current silence as approval, though, they will be tempted to follow a similar course next season. It is a direction that the league cannot condone — and cannot afford.

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