National Post (Latest Edition)

Competitiv­e honour goes down in Philly

- Scott Stinson sstinson@postmedia.com

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.

 ?? BIL STREICHER / USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Philadelph­ia backup quarterbac­k Nate Sudfeld was a human blooper reel after
entering Sunday night’s divisional showdown with Washington.
BIL STREICHER / USA TODAY SPORTS Philadelph­ia backup quarterbac­k Nate Sudfeld was a human blooper reel after entering Sunday night’s divisional showdown with Washington.

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