We know that tanking isn’t fun for the players, but for sports fans it does offer an engaging thought exercise. Talking heads can fill hours of radio about the idea. Fans can consume those hours of content. Reasonable people can wind up on opposite sides of the debate and that’s OK.
So long as teams are given higher draft slots for losing more games — or better odds to «earn» a higher draft pick — there will be an incentive to tank. And what we understand about tanking is that management gives coaches a paltry cupboard of players and says good luck. Everyone with a jersey or a headset is supposed to give it their all.
That’s what made Doug Pederson’s tanking Sunday night so jarring. He broke the rules to which we had all agreed. And that’s why it doesn’t feel right.
No, the league does not need to intervene on what Pederson did Sunday night. No one needs to talk to the manager here. And no, I don’t care that it ultimately screwed the Giants out of a postseason trip. They shouldn’t have started 1-7 just to wind up relying on a division foe to beat another division foe.
Pederson actively made his team worse in the second half of a competitive game. Even though he had dropped hints throughout the week of his plans, like telling Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels during their production meeting that he wanted to see what Nate Sudfeld had, it still didn’t have to go down like this.
The first obvious sign was not taking the points at the end of the third quarter. The Eagles had fourth-and-goal from the 4, down 17-14. Washington’s offense was stagnant coming out of halftime, registering two three-and-outs and a first-play interception on its third second-half drive. After failing to get into the end zone on five attempts from inside the 10-yard-line, the play here was to kick the chip-shot field goal and tie a game that still had 17 minutes left to play. Even the analytics say so!
I shudder to think what depths Pederson would have gone had Jalen Hurts actually completed that fourth-down touchdown pass. Nevertheless, it was the Sudfeld Show after that, and he displayed a level of play deserving of the Arena Football League.
«Yes, I was coaching to win, yes that was my decision solely,» Pederson said after the game. «Nate has obviously been here for four years and I felt that he deserved an opportunity to get some snaps. Listen, if there is anything out there that thinks that I was not trying to win the game, you know, (tight end Zach) Ertz is out there, (defensive end) Brandon Graham is out there, (cornerback) Darius Slay is out there. All our top guys are still on the field at the end, so we were going to win the game.
«Pretty simple, the plan this week was to get Nate some time and I felt it was the time to get him in the game.»
Sudfeld committed two turnovers within his first five plays on the field. He finished the game 5-for-12 for 32 yards while being sacked on two other drop-backs. Sudfeld has been with the Eagles and Pederson since 2017. He’s a 27-year-old quarterback. What he brings to the team, at this point, should be known.
And because it should be known, I believe Pederson did know. And what he understood was that Sudfeld gave the Eagles their best opportunity to lose. Coaches aren’t supposed to be in on the tanking insofar as in-game decisions, so pulling a more capable quarterback in the fourth quarter of a one-score ballgame is as blatant as it gets.
No, this isn’t like resting key starters before the game. The Chiefs were not intentionally trying to lose the game against the Chargers by resting Patrick Mahomes, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill. Were they trying their best to win the game? Of course not, but we as football fans understand, they weighed the risk of injury in what amounts to a meaningless game for the purposes of repeating as Super Bowl champions and decided that some players earned a 0% risk and others could go out there and play.
Did the Steelers try to throw their game against the Browns? After all, it was a divisional game where Pittsburgh could have built off their comeback win in Week 16 against Indianapolis, potentially get the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and knock out the hated Browns from playoff contention.
Again, Mike Tomlin did not field his most competitive team. However, he made decisions on his team’s makeup based on competitive reasons. He’d rather win next week (coincidentally against the Browns) with a healthy-ish roster than win in Week 17 with a roster that may be banged-up by the wild-card weekend.
The fact is, the decisions of Reid and Tomlin and every other coach in their right mind in late-season games over decades have been rooted in competition. Live to fight another day. Don’t shoot all your bullets. Choose your axiom.
The closest thing to in-game tanking that comes to mind is the 2014 Week 17 game between the 2-13 Buccaneers and 6-9 Saints. The Bucs built a 20-7 halftime lead and then Lovie Smith pulled receiver Mike Evans, linebacker Lavonte David and others for the second half. The Bucs maintained that lead into the fourth quarter before the Saints mounted a comeback.
And up 20-14 with 5:33 left to play in the game, on third-and-5 near midfield, quarterback Josh McCown attempted his first pass of the second half that was intercepted. (See! Even they were still trying to win at this point.) That gave the Saints a short field to score the go-ahead touchdown and ultimately win the game. At 2-14, the Bucs held the tiebreaker for the No. 1 overall pick over the Titans and wound up selecting Jameis Winston.
I want to avoid phrases like protecting the integrity of the game. I’m not that guy. But Pederson engaged in coaching behavior that made his team worse in moments where we learn from an early age it’s Go Time.
I do not believe Pederson went into the game trying to lose. I believe his attitude shifted in the second half to being more than OK with losing. He achieved a certain comfortability with losing during the course of a game that should be abhorrent to anyone who values competition. And he did so without readying his players like a coach might by announcing he’s resting starters earlier in the week.
Pederson’s method of tanking is unique. He clearly went into the game with the assurance he’d be back next season. Because he’s a smart man, he recognizes there’s a difference between the No. 9 overall pick and the No. 6 pick in the 2021 draft. And if he and Howie Roseman want to move up, it’s better to deal the sixth pick than the ninth.
Perhaps the Eagles will secure a franchise-changing player with where they pick in April. Maybe this will be the greatest move for the organization since Philly Philly. But it came at a cost to Pederson.
His players know what he did. We all know what he did. And you can use whatever pretzel logic you want to explain it away, but an intentional, in-game tank job took place Sunday night. And I hope no other coach anywhere got any ideas.