In benching Jalen Hurts, the Eagles risked planting seeds of a losing culture

With 13:45 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s regular-season finale between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team, an NBC camera panned to Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts. With the Eagles trailing 17-14 and presented with a valuable moment for arguably the most important player heading into the franchise’s offseason, Hurts sat on the bench and nursed an expression fitting his surname.

Then he shook his head and mouthed some telling words for a national audience.

“It’s not right.”

We’d find out within minutes precisely what went sideways, as backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld began warming up on the sideline, making it clear the Eagles were pulling Hurts for the third-stringer who hadn’t taken a live snap all season. Philadelphia head coach Doug Peterson was making the move on national television in a close game that had playoff implications for the opponent.

Predictably, it devolved into a mess. The NBC crew of Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels reacted in disbelief, while repeated camera shots ensued showing what appeared to be despondent offensive linemen. New York Giants players, who would have punched their ticket to the postseason with a Philadelphia win, were up in arms on social media as they watched the Eagles sputter to a 20-14 loss. Soon after the game, surprised Washington rookie defensive end Chase Young hinted in the direction many were already echoing: That the Eagles had tanked the game with Sudfeld to improve their draft position, which went from ninth overall to sixth with the loss.

Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts scratches his head on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Jalen Hurts was a spectator in the second half of Philadelphia's defeat to Washington on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Take it all in from a wider vantage and what you see is a train wreck. Not because this isn’t something that happens in the NFL as teams bench players in meaningless games for a variety of reasons in season finales. But the incomprehensible mess of this comes because Pederson did it on the season’s final prime-time stage of the regular season, while simultaneously undercutting a young quarterback who could have benefitted from the moment. And the coach did it without the immediate consideration for Hurts and some veterans who apparently didn’t appreciate it. So much so, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Monday that two defensive players had to be “held back” from approaching Pederson after the game, adding that Hurts was also “distraught.”

And if all that wasn’t enough, the always quick internet mob found a clip from Eagles center Jason Kelce from early December, when he ripped the thought of tanking for better draft position. The same Kelce who appeared to be particularly ruffled on the sideline after Hurts was pulled from Sunday’s game. For those who haven’t seen the clip, one way to describe it is to say that a presidential speech writer couldn’t have drummed up something so stinging and prescient — even if it was exactly known what was coming in just a few weeks.

“I think at all times in the NFL, the focus should be winning the football game,” Kelce said while speaking to the media in December. “Nothing else takes precedence. No player evaluation, no amount of curiosity from anybody within the organization. Everything is focused, in my opinion in this league, about winning games. You see a lot of losing teams sustain losses for a number of years when they have bad cultures. They have cultures where you don’t try and win every week. Where you’re trying to figure ‘what are we going to do in the draft, what are we going to do in free agency, what can we do over here.’ In football — this isn’t basketball — one draft pick isn’t going to make us a Super Bowl champion. It might be a big start to a Super Bowl championship, but it’s always going to be about the team. That’s the greatest thing about this sport. In culture and the way guys fight and the way guys go to prepare and the way guys go about their business is a huge reason for success in this league and in this sport. Nothing takes precedence over trying to win a football game. I don’t care who you’re trying to evaluate.”

That is a hammer. And Kelce struck the nail that might as well have been driven into Pederson on Sunday night: This is how bad cultures come to be and locker rooms are lost in the leadership ranks.

“The moment a team feels like you as an organization aren’t doing your job for me to go out there and win, all of the sudden you’ve shown who you are,” Kelce said. “You don’t care about me or this team. You care about the future.”

Given that Pederson and the Eagles appeared to do exactly what Kelce was talking about, that diatribe is one hell of an indictment on a coach who appears to have lost some locker room capital. Of course, some will point to other teams that sit players in meaningless games — like the Pittsburgh Steelers did against the Cleveland Browns on the same Sunday — and say that it’s standard practice. There’s some intellectual dishonesty inside that statement. Good NFL teams often sit players to protect them in a season finale or let them rest before the postseason. But you’ll struggle to find any regularity to support what the Eagles did.

Pulling a developing young rookie quarterback at a key moment in front of a massive NFL audience in the middle of a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter just doesn’t happen. Nor does a coach then come out and suggest that he did it to be nice to the backup quarterback, who “deserved” playing time, rather than the much more lucrative reality of improving draft position.

And don’t think Pederson’s excuse about making sure Sudfeld got some snaps will fly. As one AFC general manager put it on Monday:

“From the draft perspective, it makes complete sense what they did,” the GM said. “I think it was the right decision, actually. The difference between the ninth pick and the sixth pick in this draft is going to be a pretty big difference. Especially if a bunch of quarterbacks go in the top five. Having that sixth pick, they’ll probably get the best receiver or the best defensive player on their board — or they’ll be able to trade it if a quarterback that someone wants is there. It makes a lot of sense. Which is why I also don’t think Doug did this on his own. I’m sure they had this scenario already gamed out during the week and knew the exact draft implications of a win or loss before kickoff.”

It’s not a surprise to hear someone in personnel defend the decision. This is the disparity that always exists between the front office and the locker room, the always tricky dynamic of long-term builders executing their plans through the use of short-term workers. In a lot of cases, the bigger picture is always the priority. Especially when nursing that bigger picture doesn’t threaten to poison the culture well.

That latter point is the precise problem the Eagles have now. This move did some damage. It took a franchise that was already in the middle of a mess and then it threw a whole other layer of nonsense on top of it, one that could complicate Pederson’s relationship with Hurts, which is important given the recent narrative that the last starter, Carson Wentz, has a fractured relationship with the coach and is dying to get out of town.

It takes some serious mismanagement to smash the bond with the previous franchise quarterback and then quickly follow it up by bruising the trust of the successor. Especially if it’s done for the sake of Nate Sudfeld and three spots in the draft. That’s the kind of searing mistake people tend to notice. And not just the NBC crew and some cameramen, or the Giants and head coach Joe Judge (who had his own speech Monday accusing the Eagles of “disrespecting the game”).

No, this is the kind of thing that can resonate in a locker room and with leaders who are supposed to be part of a monumental offseason rebuild. From the looks of things, it will echo for a while inside the franchise. And if the losing ways of 2020 spill into next season, everyone will know where it began – on a Sunday night sideline, with Jalen Hurts speaking words that are still resonating.

Something is not right in Philadelphia.

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