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PHILADELPHIA – They gained no yards in the first quarter. They scored three points in the first half.
There was a new banner hanging at the top of Lincoln Financial Field that declared the Philadelphia Eagles the 2017 World Champions, but that didn’t spare the 2018 edition from hearing boos as they stumbled around in the season opener against Atlanta.
So facing third-and-five in the middle of the third quarter Thursday night, with the offense still stagnant and the fans uneasy, Doug Pederson and Nick Foles met on the sideline and both offered up the same play call.
The play was mostly chosen because they thought it would gain the requisite yards to get a first down. A secondary goal was to ignite what had become a listless crowd with a play that fans would no doubt recognize and, if for nostalgia’s sake alone, greet with unbridled enthusiasm.
And third, well, it was either a nod to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the opponents the Eagles defeated in the Super Bowl last February, or it was a bit of an NFL troll job, kind of like how the Patriots put 283 diamonds on one of their championship rings to signify coming back from a 28-3 deficit to Atlanta.
All’s fair in football. Especially stealing plays.
All that is certain is that Philadelphia wide receiver Nelson Agholor was soon tossing a pass over a confused Atlanta defense and into the flat to quarterback Nick Foles, who had slipped out of the backfield undetected. Foles grabbed it cleanly and gained 15 yards for a critical first down.
The play didn’t just keep the Eagles moving, it sparked the entire stadium and changed the game. Five plays later, Jay Ajayi scored on a 1-yard run and the Eagles were on their way to a hard-fought 18-12 victory to start the season.
“Offensively, we were sort of misfiring a little bit early in the game,” Pederson said. “And we came out in the second half and just the same type of thing. And just looking for that big play, somebody to make a play, and you kind of look for that from time to time. [It] just felt like it was the right time to make that call, and the guys executed it well.”
The executed well part was the key to everything.
Initially, Philadelphia fans thought Pederson ran the “Philly Special,” which he’d also called in last season’s Super Bowl. In that one, Foles caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to trick the Patriots and press on to the championship. The play is beloved around here, a signature moment that showed the pluck of the Eagles. Fans wear T-shirts and, yes, even tattoos with its diagram.
Only what Philadelphia ran Thursday wasn’t the “Philly Special,” it was the “Philly, Philly,” which isn’t the same as the “Philly Special” but is almost the same as a quarterback throwback that New England unsuccessfully ran against the Eagles in the Super Bowl. (Presumably, the Patriots do not call it “Philly”-anything.)
That play is famous because a wide-open Brady failed to catch the pass, the ball bouncing off his hands and causing New England to punt. The play is different because it features a hand-off to a running back who then pitches it to a wide receiver who then throws it to the quarterback. In the Eagles’ case it was Corey Clement to Agholor to Foles. For New England it was James White to Danny Amendola to, well, incompletion.
It was bold enough for the Eagles to call a similar play in the same Super Bowl, Foles doing what Brady couldn’t. It’s even more notable they tweaked their play to be more like the Patriots and then Foles truly did what Brady couldn’t. Again.
“That’s where we got the play from,” Pederson acknowledged.
There is a slight personnel difference, but it’s minute enough that only a coach would recognize.
This was the Patriots’ play … run by the Eagles … successfully.
It was so subtle, that many of the Eagles didn’t even know the difference between the “Philly, Philly” and the “Philly Special.” Defensive players said they hadn’t seen it and didn’t know it was installed. Tight end Zach Ertz knew about the play but not the connection to the Patriots.
“That’s the first I am hearing of it,” Ertz said.
Agholor was just concentrating on making a good throw. He was a backup quarterback in high school but had thrown just one in-game pass in his entire career, during a spring game at USC.
“Interception,” Agholor said.
Agholor put most of the credit on Foles, whom he called “an absolute athlete” and noted was an “Ultimate Frisbee All-American.”
“As long as I just give him an opportunity, he’ll get to it,” Agholor said. “He’s an ultimate athlete.”
He wasn’t saying that to say that Brady isn’t the ultimate athlete. Just as no one was saying that the Eagles were sticking it to New England by using its play, although if the skin is thin enough in Foxborough it’s possible it could be construed that way.
No one should be upset. Sure, maybe Brady didn’t catch the pass that Foles did, but they are quarterbacks not wide receivers and there is no comparison there. One is the greatest of all time. The other is a backup waiting for the starter to return from injury. And if Brady needs cheering up, he can always dust off his five Super Bowl rings.
Really though, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, even if it churns up replays of one of Brady’s most embarrassing moments.
“I mean, it’s a good play,” Foles said. “It’s just one of those things, even the ‘Philly Special,’ it had been run at different levels of football, just not at that certain time in a Super Bowl. … I think in this league there are a lot of great minds, so when you see something that works well, you try to execute it like they do.”
Except for New England it didn’t work well and for Philadelphia it did because the Eagles actually didn’t execute it like the Patriots. They executed it successfully.
“Everybody loves a good trick play,” Foles offered.
In this case, maybe not everyone, but on the night when a long-awaited banner was hung, the champions get to have all the fun.
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