They were both unconventional play calls and they both could have been disastrous.
One was a running play early in the fourth quarter on a 3rd-and-11, the other a touchdown pass later in the fourth quarter that gave the Eagles the lead after the two-minute warning but also gave Washington a chance to tie the game.
After the Eagles hung on to beat Washington 34-31 in overtime at the Linc Sunday afternoon, head coach Nick Sirianni defended both unconventional 4th-quarter play calls.
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There’s no way to know whether the two calls were solely made by offensive coordinator and play caller Brian Johnson, whether they were Sirianni’s idea with Johnson’s execution or whether they were Johnson’s idea and Sirianni signed off on them.
But they could have cost the Eagles dearly.
THE GAINWELL RUN: It was the first play of the fourth quarter. The Eagles led 21-17 and faced a 3rd-and-11 on Washington’s 16-yard-line. Normally, 3rd-and-11 is a down where you’re aggressive, especially when you’re trying to make it a two-possession game in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles came into the game having converted five of 68 running plays of 3rd-and-11 or longer under Sirianni into first downs. Four of those five first downs were by Jalen Hurts and one by Kenny Gainwell – in the fourth quarter of the playoff win over the Giants with the Eagles already up 28-7 and the Giants knowing their season was over. Last time an Eagles running back converted a 3rd-and-11 or longer in the regular season was in 2015, when LeSean McCoy picked up 21 yards on a 3rd-and-15 late in a 30-27 win over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
For the sake of comparison, Jalen Hurts on 3rd-and-11 or longer has thrown for a first down on 16 of 63 attempts under Sirianni.
So basically, running in that situation is a 7 percent play and throwing is a 25 percent play.
Gainwell had nowhere to run, picked up no yards and fumbled, recovered by Lane Johnson. Jake Elliott’s short field goal made it a seven-point game and needless to say Washington responded by driving 64 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 24 with eight minutes left.
THE JALEN TOUCHDOWN: With 1:49 left and the game still tied at 24, the Eagles had a 2nd-and-4 on the Washington 28-yard-line. Washington had one timeout left.
Conventional wisdom says you have two plays to run for four yards and Washington can only stop the clock once. Worst-case scenario, assuming the Eagles don’t pick up any yards and Washington uses its timeout after second down, the Eagles would have snapped the ball on third down with about 1:43 left, and then run the clock down to about 1:05 before sending Jake Elliott out for a 45-yard field goal, giving the Eagles a three-point lead with under a minute left and Washington out of time outs.
If the Eagles picked up four yards on second and third downs – the more likely scenario - they would have gotten a fresh set of downs and could have run the clock down to 0:01 before Elliott attempted what would have been a bit shorter field goal. And for the record, Elliott is 85 percent in his career from 40 to 49 yards with one miss since the end of the 2021 season. And he’s 93 percent overall this year.
But instead of playing it conservatively, the Eagles got super aggressive. Jalen Hurts threw a beautiful 28-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown, giving the Eagles a 31-24 lead with 1:43 left. That was a lot prettier than a couple running plays up the middle, but it gave Washington a chance to tie and send the game into overtime. Which is exactly what they did.
Sirianni defended both play calls, and he may have been covering for Johnson, who’s in his first year as offensive coordinator, but here’s what he said about the two play calls:
SIRIANNI ON THE GAINWELL RUN: “Last week on that call — I think it was 3rd-and-8 against Tampa - we converted, so, hey, we convert on those, we’re high fiving. If we don’t convert, I understand there could be criticism there.”
An aside: The Eagles didn’t convert a 3rd-and-8 in Tampa. They converted a 3rd-and-6 on a 13-yard D’Andre Swift run in the first quarter. Over the last 10 years league-wide, 3rd-and-6 is a 19 percent play on a run on 3rd-and-11 and a 42 percent play on a pass, according to Stathead.
“All those calls — again, Brian and I make those throughout the week. That’s what we thought would give us the best chance to get the first down.
“It’s always a call that we think about. And like I said, last week, the run worked. This week, it didn’t. The field shrinks sometimes in there. It’s a little bit tougher to throw in there with the field shrinking, you don’t have your whole playbook at your disposal. We trust our offensive line, we trust Kenny.
“That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an option to pass the ball there, if the defense showed that we could. We’ve run that play in the past against that same coverage and scored on that play. Hey, but you know what, it didn’t work this time.
“But everything we do, like, there’s an aggression in everything we do. Aggressiveness doesn’t look the same at all times, right? Aggressiveness can look many different ways. In that particular case, we thought we were being aggressive there with the play that we had on. And you know what, it didn’t work. Credit to the defense for stopping that play.
“I know Brian doesn’t regret that call because we talked a lot about it. I don’t regret that call. But it didn’t work this time.”
SIRIANNI ON THE HURTS-BROWN TD: “The main goal is to score, right? Sometimes it happens where — you know, we ended up getting a big play. We saw a corner that was aggressive. We took an opportunity there and it worked. Jalen and A.J. made a great play.
“You’ve seen it, a lot of times, that when maybe a team gets too conservative in that area, then they don’t score. Right? And so, we saw an opportunity. Did we think it would go for a touchdown? We didn’t know. I mean, we thought it was an opportunity.
“And even if you don’t score on a scenario when you’re aggressive, it backs them off for the next play to help you get into where you want to get to. I’m not sure I’m going to apologize for scoring too quick.
“And I thought Brian Johnson did a great job calling it and the players did a great job executing it.”