National Post (Latest Edition)
Competitive honour goes down in Philly
When Al Michaels writes his next book, I will buy it and skip right to the part where he explains what happened in the second half of the Sunday Night Football season finale of 2020.
If ever there must be a fascinating bit of insight behind what was heard — and not heard — on the television broadcast, this was it: the Philadelphia Eagles, trailing by just 17-14 to a Washington team that was being guided by a quarterback on two bad legs, pulled starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and replaced him with Nate Sudfeld, a four-year backup who hadn’t played in two seasons and had never played a meaningful down in his NFL career.
And in the booth, Michaels and his broadcast partner Cris Collinsworth sounded ambivalent about it. Shockingly ambivalent, if those two words can be used next to one another. Michaels mentioned that Eagles coach Doug Pederson had told them he had hoped to get Sudfeld some playing time. Collinsworth floated the idea that Pederson needed to find out what he had in Sudfeld.
And in living rooms across the land, everyone else was losing their minds. There was no possible reason for Pederson making that call unless he was actively trying to lose to improve his draft position next year. He was tanking. He was, in a game the Eagles still very much had a chance to win, making it harder — much harder — for them to do so. This, in a game with playoff implications, with Washington needing a win to make the post- season, and the New York Giants needing an Eagles win for them to sneak in. Oh, and in a game that NBC had actively selected to be the marquee Sunday Night Football matchup because it was guaranteed to determine who would win the NFC (L) east. And Pederson was throwing it.
Perhaps Michaels and Collinsworth will one day explain why they weren’t freaking out along with the rest of the audience while this was happening. Were they under orders to be nice? Is there an NFL directive against acknowledging the possibility of a tank taking place? Does the league’s recent embrace of legalized gambling mean that the idea of a coach playing to lose suddenly brings new risks?
Whatever the explanation for their early reticence to sound off, the SNF fellows eventually dropped the charade. It probably helped that Sudfeld was awful, throwing a terrible interception, dropping a snap for a fumble that almost became a touchdown for Washington, and generally looking like someone who did not belong on the field. Which he was. By the end of the game, with the Eagles still somehow only down 20-14, Michaels was openly mocking Sudfeld’s performance and Collinsworth was stating flat-out that he “couldn’t have done” what Pederson had done: given up on a game that he and his team had just spent three quarters trying to win. It was an embarrassing farce of a finish to the NFL’S regular season.
And yet, it was wholly appropriate. As much as the fallout of Pederson’s call — which he mystifyingly justified post- game as giving Sudfeld some snaps that he “deserved” after all of his work as a backup — will be focused on the Eagles having destroyed the competitive integrity of a prime-time game and a playoff race all in one shameless decision, the move also comes at the send of a season in which the NFL made competitive integrity a clear secondary interest to its haste to get the full schedule completed. COVID-19-related quarantines and postponements forced teams to play games while at a clear disadvantage, even if their roster was healthy. The Pittsburgh Steelers had to take their bye in Week 4, and later played three times in 12 days, after a COVID outbreak on the Tennessee Titans scuttled their September date. But in one of those Steelers games, Pittsburgh played a Baltimore team that was missing their quarterback and top two running backs for COVID reasons. The Denver Broncos started a game with a practice- squad wide receiver at quarterback. Many teams started games in which whole position groups had been held out of practice while dealing with quarantine restrictions. And several stars known to have been Covid-positive played like people who had recently dealt with what can be a severe respiratory illness. Cam Newton on New England and Ezekiel Elliott on Dallas, to pick two, never looked capable of anything approaching their pre- COVID athleticism. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson has said he only recently started to feel like himself again after first missing time in October.
So, yes, the NFL got its season in on time, but it did so only by insisting teams and players would play even when common sense suggested they should not.
None of this excuses the Eagles’ coach’s call. The lifeor- death way some treat games has always been silly, but when a team is asking players to crash their bodies into each other in pursuit of wins, it cannot turn around — in the middle of a close game, no less — and stop pursuing a win that was far from out of the question.
But an unfathomable end to the NFL’S 2020 regular season is the end that the league deserved.