Sunday, February 4th, the Philadelphia Eagles are going to be fairly heavy underdogs as a top seed in the NFC going up against the legendary Tom Brady and his New England Patriots. In fact, they are the biggest Super Bowl underdog since 2009. Why are they an underdog? Well, the reasoning is of course fairly obvious. Quarterback Carson Wentz was lost for the remainder of the season late in the year after suffering a torn ACL. Beyond Wentz, the Eagles are also playing without a good chunk of their most important pieces due to injury.
Most fans, analysts and experts have already picked the Patriots to win this game – and that’s OK. It’s only logical to go with the obvious choice. However, the Eagles are playing like a team with hardly anything else to lose. They have already lost some enormous and irreplaceable players, so why not go out and play in a bit more of a gritty, unorthodox, emotional and, as a matter of fact, mathematical way.
To say the Eagles are taking a different approach during their playoff run in comparison to the rest of their impeccable season would be false, for the most part. Mathematics and analytics have been the staple of their offensive formula for all of the 2017-2018 campaign. What is more intriguing, though, is that this all began way before the season even began.
“A lot of teams – ours is one – where it’s all [decided] is in the offseason, done with mathematics,” Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie told ESPN. “It’s not based on any form of instinct. If it’s going to be 50/50, 48/52, then a coach is going to have their instinctual predilection, right? But what we’ve found is, there have been so many decisions over time that are too conservative for the odds of maximizing your chance to win at the opportunity. I mean, you have seen certain coaches that are deemed more aggressive because the math leads them there. That’s all it is.
“When you do the math, you really want to try to be a lot more aggressive than the public would normally anticipate. So I think the smarter teams do it that way.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers caught everyone’s attention a few seasons back when they seemed like the team to make the two-point conversion a trendy option. They went for it on several occasions, and many thought it was just arrogant coaching or a bold statement by head coach Mike Tomlin. In both cases, most people would be dead wrong. In fact, going for two is one of the things that is always on the mind of Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. Moreover, a decision even more likely to be made than going for two is that of a fourth down attempt. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich explained this fact and why taking risks is worth it.
“After [Pederson has] made the third-down call the phones can be silent for a few seconds, and one of the guys might chime in and say, ‘Hey Coach, if this ends up short fourth-and-2’ — I’m using fake terminology — ‘it’s green, go for it. The charts say go for it,'” said Reich. “Or, ‘Hey, if it’s anything less than fourth-and-3, we’re good. Other than that, it’s your call, Coach.’ Or, ‘Anything more than fourth-and-10, no.’
Most coaches typically don’t take those kinds of risks. The majority of coaches will play the field position battle — and sometimes it works out. Other times, fans see where going for it on fourth and short could have paid off. Pederson giving his offensive coordinator such freedom is one reason why this offense continues to surge even after Wentz went down.
What Nick Foles has done during the postseason cannot be overstated. Nobody thought this Eagles team would have been able to put up a blistering 38 points on the number one defense in football — but that’s exactly what they did, and they did it with the same swagger they have played with all season. The Minnesota Vikings came in as a favorite — surprise, surprise — and the Eagles just continued to do what they have done most of the year.
Foles completed 26 of 33 passes Sunday — good for nearly 79 percent — for 352 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a rating of 141.4. After the Vikings marched down and scored on their first possession, things looked bleak. The Eagles offense missed some opportunities early on and it seemed like Foles and company just weren’t going to get it done. Going up against an NFC heavyweight with an opportunistic defense like the Vikings, without Wentz, seemed daunting. Don’t forget they were also playing without Jason Peters, one of the best left tackles in all of football. But, like they have all season, the Eagles found a way to bounce back from a slow start.
How did they do it? One word — coaching.
The Eagles were ready, they just hadn’t hit their stride yet. That’s just fine, because they were as prepared as ever. Just ask Pederson, who credited an important practice earlier in the week to why they were able to overcome the start that they had and turn the game into a dismantling of the Vikings. Four days before the NFC Championship, Pederson saw something in a crucial practice. He saw his players taking it easy. They weren’t practicing as hard as he wanted to see. So, he let it be known that this type of play will not be accepted.
“These games are too important. You can’t let stuff slide. And when I saw it in practice, and I saw the entire offense walk back to the huddle instead of chasing the ball, I lost my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, no … no, no, no. We ain’t doing this.’ And from then on, it was an out-of-body experience,” Pederson said.
What many average fans do not understand about the Eagles frontman is that he was mostly a backup for his 12-year NFL career. Over that span, he played for four different teams and, typically, rode the bench behind the starting quarterback for each franchise. That’s right — Pederson knows exactly how it feels to be in Foles’ position. Pederson may not be a Hall of Fame player, but he is using that fact to propel his group of quarterbacks into the upper echelon of this league.
Many had written Foles off after his first exit from Philadelphia. He never looked outstanding after leaving the Eagles, quite honestly. However, what Pederson is proving over the course of the Eagles’ combination of late season and postseason success is the fact that under great coaching, just about any player can thrive.
Count tight end Zach Ertz out of that group of people who wrote Foles off a couple years ago. The Pro Bowler had high praise for his quarterback after the game Sunday.
“He’s amazing,” Ertz said. “Obviously, people have been doubting us since the moment Carson got hurt. But the thing about this locker room is, all 53 guys kept believing. And today, Nick was ballin’, just killing it. I’m not surprised by this result. I said from the get-go this game didn’t have to be close.”
He’s right. It wasn’t close. It was a mauling. This team doesn’t buy into the underdog label they have been given recently. In fact, every player in that locker room feels the same way Ertz does about, not only Foles, but this team as a whole. Ertz’s counterpart at tight end, Brent Celek, put it perfectly:
“Listen, I’ve played a long time, and I think life, and football, are about adversity — how you handle it, and how you respond to it. And this team, all season, has responded to adversity better than any team I’ve ever seen.”
That, folks, is a credit to one thing and one thing only — coaching.