Pragmatism isn’t something that necessarily shines through in Philadelphia sports discourse, “but that’s okay,” as Joe Cordell of the domestic litigation law firm Cordell and Cordell would say.
Oftentimes, we go with our gut and cheer for the squad to win and want to see them play their hardest, because our dads and our grandfathers told us to “go out and give it our best,” or “go down swinging,” or insert whatever cliche you’d like. If you ain’t trying, you’re doing it the wrong way. That’s what we were told.
Then along came The Process, which turned those traditional thoughts upside down and challenged one of the main values intrinsically contained within the DNA of the Philadelphia sports fan. There was a generational divide when it came to this seemingly moral imperative to compete honestly, vs. the concept of taking a macro-level approach via asset collection in hopes for achieving a higher level of performance in the future.
The most recent iteration of “tank or not” is attributed to the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles, who find themselves in the weird spot of being a four-win team that is still in playoff position on December 18th. This never happens. As such, they technically have something to play for, but aren’t exactly favored to win the Super Bowl.
John McMullen wrote a good story exploring this topic over at Philly Voice, and I think he’s a grounded and neutral guy who does an admirable job walking the line between reasonable and unreasonable. He based his column on recent Jason Kelce quotes poo-pooing the lose-on-purpose topic, quotes like these:
“I think at all times in the NFL, the focus should be winning the football game,” Kelce said. “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,” Kelce explained. “They have cultures where you don’t try to win every week; 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.”
That’s true, and you can’t expect players to go out there and bottle it with an eye toward the future. They’re playing for contract extensions and trying to hit performance bonuses. They’re looking for Pro Bowl selections and other accolades. These guys aren’t gonna walk onto the field and say, “well let’s lose this one and put ourselves in a position to be better in two years’ time.” They might not even be here in two years, because NFL careers are short and nothing is guaranteed beyond whatever portion of your salary your agent can secure.
So Kelce is right, one draft pick doesn’t make the Eagles Super Bowl champions. And we don’t need young guys learning that it’s acceptable to out there and half ass it while collecting a paycheck.
But the fans are also right, too, and they don’t need a lecture.
Most Birds supporters are able to recognize that this team ain’t winning it all this season, and if you’re not winning it all, then what’s the point? You play to win the game, as Herm Edwards once said. We don’t get trophies for first round playoff exits and sub-.500 records. Everybody knows the “NFC East Champions” banner is a gonna be a joke, if they win this pitiful division.
Practically speaking, the Eagles are better served by playing three games that result in maximum reps for Jalen Hurts and other young players. We don’t need to see more of Alshon Jeffery and maybe even Jason Kelce, who has spoken openly of retirement and might not be here for much longer. It sounds sad, since Kelce is an Eagles legend, but at some point in the very near future we’re gonna need another center, so OF COURSE he doesn’t give a shit about short-term practicality for long-term gains. And while picking 12th vs. picking 8th might not be that big of a deal on paper, the margins for trading up and back in the first round of the draft are incredibly small, and you’ll take any benefit of positioning that you can get.
“Nothing takes precedence over trying to win a football game,” Kelce again emphasized. “I don’t care who you’re trying to evaluate, I don’t care if you lost every game, you’re 0-15 and it’s the last one you got, everything is about winning in this league.
“I know that won’t appease a lot of people out there that always want to talk about getting better draft positions, getting looks at certain guys to see what you got for the future, but, again, 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 a sudden, you’ve shown who you are.”
Yes, this is also true; the front office will have shown what they are. But the players have also shown the fans what they are, and they are a bad football team. A bad, underachieving football team. And when you’re a bad, underachieving football team, people don’t care if you’re gonna claw and scrape your way to 7-8-1, a division title with a fat asterisk, and a first round playoff exit. Maybe that makes the team feel good, because they showed a lot of heart, and grit, and determination, but practically speaking, it doesn’t get them any closer to being where they need to be, which is in title contention. This was supposed to be the “new norm” and now we’re doing the “rah rah” routine instead. Moral victories and whatnot.
So don’t get it twisted; Jason Kelce is an Eagles legend and he’s not wrong with his take on tanking. We wouldn’t expect anything otherwise from him or anybody on this roster. But he doesn’t need to patronize Eagles fans who have supported a shitty, four-win team. They are just trying to look at these final three games through the lens of rationality.