ARLINGTON, Texas — With 6:34 left in the fourth quarter on Sunday night in North Texas, the Eagles had a seven-point lead and an opportunity to try a 54-yard field to go up two scores.
Instead, they punted the ball and the game away.
The Cowboys made them pay, scoring a touchdown to tie the game before winning the game 29-23 in overtime at AT&T Field (see Instant Replay).
“(I) felt comfortable doing that, making that decision,” said Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, who had to answer for several questionable decisions in the minutes after the loss dropped the Eagles to 4-3. The Cowboys are now 6-1 and in control of the NFC East.
The choice to punt instead of kick a 54-yard field goal loomed large. Especially because kicker Caleb Sturgis has made his last 17 field goals, including a 55-yarder at the end of the first half.
With a 23-16 lead, Sturgis stayed on the bench, while Jones punted the ball and the Eagles lost their opportunity to pull off an upset on the road (see Roob's 10 Observations from the loss).
“The thing is, field position at that time is critical,” Pederson explained. “[Sturgis] did kick the one before half, which was an excellent kick with no time left on the clock. Had we executed on the third-down play, we would have been in a little better position to kick the field goal at that time and we just didn’t execute on the play before.”
The punt was a good one, though, pinning the Cowboys at their own 10-yard line. The Eagles’ defense then gave up a 90-yard drive in 3:22 as the Cowboys tied the game.
Just before the punt with 6:34 left, the Eagles ran a little screen-like pass to Darren Sproles (see standout plays from the Eagles' loss). But instead of picking up yardage to make the kick easier, the play lost six yards and Pederson said it “knocked [them] out of field-goal range at that time.”
While Carson Wentz didn’t handle the snap cleanly, he said he didn’t think the muffed snap — which he recovered — affected the timing of the play (see breakdown of Wentz's performance).
Still, it was a curious decision in hindsight.
“The first one, 3rd-and-8, play designed to get Sproles the ball out in space and the linebacker actually made a play on it,” Pederson said. “Designed actually for that look, for that coverage. Give them credit.”
Before the Eagles’ defense gave up the game-winning drive in overtime, they had a chance to force the Cowboys into a punt, but elected to let the clock run out.
When Connor Barwin sacked Dak Prescott on second down with 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Eagles still had timeouts and could have forced a punt to get the ball back. Instead, Pederson decided to let the game go to overtime.
“I just felt too at that time, because our defense was playing extremely well, I had made up my mind at that time to go ahead and get us into overtime,” the head coach said. “Hopefully win the coin toss, take the ball and be in a position to score. And/or put our defense out there who had just come off a great drive and they were fired up, to put them back on the field. So it was just my decision to do that.”
Another questionable move Pederson made — although perhaps not as egregious — was the decision to give rookie Wendell Smallwood his first carry of the game in a crucial moment of the fourth quarter.
While veteran Ryan Mathews has had trouble with late-game fumbles and with Sproles running well, Pederson inserted Smallwood and called a handoff to the rookie with 13 minutes left in the game.
Smallwood promptly put the ball on the turf and gave the Cowboys the ball at the Eagles’ 36-yard line, which led to a quick field goal and cut the Eagles’ lead to 23-16.
Did Pederson think about getting Smallwood involved earlier in the game instead of a crucial moment of the fourth quarter?
“No, it was the way the game was going at the time,” Pederson said. “It was a safe play, safe run. We had a couple of assignment issues up front. But, you know, just have to learn to hang onto the ball in those situations. We know it was going to be tight running and running lanes and just gotta hang on to the ball.”
After the tough division loss on the road, Pederson said his message to his team was: “We’re still a good football team.” He also said it was a learning moment for many of his players. And for himself too.
What did Pederson learn?
“I think just, for me, staying aggressive, No. 1,” he said. “I think that’s been something I’ve prided myself on, but being smart with it at the same time. I think, No. 2, you learn to, I think one of the positives was Darren was hot. Darren was having a great game and you gotta keep feeding him the ball and get him the ball as many times as you can, as many touches as you can and let a guy like Darren use his athleticism to make plays. I think you learn from that. It’s definitely a learning situation all around.”