On Sunday, in Week 17 of a wild season, with little to play for and the future in mind, an NFL team from Pennsylvania sat its quarterback.
Its opponent on the day, an oft-dysfunctional division rival, needed a win to make the playoffs. Others around the league, with postseason ambitions themselves, hoped the Pennsylvanians would triumph.
But coaches and management didn’t care. In the fourth quarter, down one score, they leaned on their backup QB. He came up short. And the opponent clinched a playoff berth.
That Pennsylvania team, of course, was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But it was also the Philadelphia Eagles.
What they did six hours apart on Sunday was, at its core, the same.
And yet while the Steelers saunter ahead with pride, unbothered by any supposed moral failings, the Eagles have become the scourge of the league. Legends are “ashamed to be associated” with them. Current players and fans are calling them “disrespectful to the game.”
What the Steelers did on Sunday – rest Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, and other veteran stars – has been commonplace around the league for years now. Division champs with only seeding to play for in Week 17 often leave their best players at home. The Steelers effectively handed a win-and-in game to the Cleveland Browns, because doing so, in their mind, gave them a better shot at a championship. Specifically, they reasoned that ensuring Roethlisberger’s health, and that of other stars, was more beneficial in the long run than anything a victory in Week 17 could bring them.
What the Eagles did Sunday night was less commonplace. Out of playoff contention, they too deactivated veterans. Then, in the fourth quarter of a tight game against Washington, they pulled their rookie quarterback for a third-stringer.
Their rationale was very similar to Pittsburgh’s. They handed Washington a win-and-in game, because doing so, in their mind, gave them a better shot at a championship. Specifically, they could reason that ensuring Jalen Hurts’ long-term health, and moving up three spots in the draft, was more beneficial in the long run than anything a victory in Week 17 could bring them.
The principle at the heart of any Eagles criticism is that NFL teams have a competitive obligation to try to win. And the Eagles, you could argue, didn’t do everything in their power to win on Sunday. That statement, to some extent, no matter what Doug Pederson says, is accurate.
But did the Steelers?
Neither committed malpractice, though, because nowhere does the NFL’s moral code require a team to try to win now. The Eagles, on Sunday, were trying to win another Super Bowl. They couldn’t do that this year. So they made an immediate-term sacrifice for a long-term benefit that in their mind brings them closer to that goal. And that’s something NFL teams – such as the Steelers – do all the time.
The long run, of course, is a little longer in Philadelphia’s case than it is in Pittsburgh’s. Perhaps you could draw a semi-arbitrary line in between seasons and argue that NFL teams have an obligation to try to win this season. But teams bench starters for youngsters to plan for the future every single year. Nobody moans that they’re disrespecting the sport. The Eagles’ apparent tank job happened in prime time, after they flirted with winning, which is why it raised so many red flags. But the players on the field didn’t actively try to lose. They battled, just like Pittsburgh did. This, therefore, was no different than forward-thinking personnel decisions that we see in the NFL regularly.
“We’ve put a lot of resources into this team, in terms of money, and free agents and trading draft picks,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said Monday. “There’s a time where — that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win — but there’s a time that you have to pivot, and understand what you’ve been doing, and make sure that you’re also taking care of the future of the team.”
There is indeed a valid argument that it will backfire. That Pederson, as the public face of the tank job, will lose players’ trust. That he’ll never shake this. That free agents will shun him. That the team’s culture will rot. Those are real, albeit unproven, risks.
But the Eagles had every right to take them. They have every right to value tangible assets – namely, the sixth overall draft pick instead of the ninth, and by extension a better choice of a player who’ll help them win in 2021 and beyond – over intangible ones like locker-room trust and morale. Just as the Steelers have every right to value a tangible asset – health – over intangible ones like momentum and confidence entering the playoffs.
The Eagles, by the same token, had every right to weigh the value of experience vs. injury risk, and decide that three quarters was the right amount of playing time for Hurts. Pederson said Monday that his “plan was to get Nate [Sudfeld] in the game” all along.
We can bicker about whether losing was smart. And perhaps, in two years, we’ll look back on Sunday and realize it wasn’t.
But immoral? Unprincipled? Wrong?
The Eagles are just trying to win. That’s their duty to the league, and they’re fulfilling it, no more or less so than the Steelers fulfilled it on Sunday, no more or less so than 30 other teams always do. Stop treating them like some dishonorable anomaly.
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