It was fourth down and Philadelphia had the ball on its own 26-yard line. The Eagles led Miami by just seven points. Head coach Nick Sirianni called timeout.
The fourth-quarter hesitation was understandable, but once Sirianni realized the down and distance — 1 yard, not 2 as he first suspected — there really was no decision for him to make.
“There was no discussion,” center Jason Kelce said of what happened during the timeout. “[Sirianni just said] ‘Get back out there, we’re doing this.’”
The Eagles converted by gaining 2 yards. They then did it again on the next set of downs, extending a drive that resulted in a touchdown to cement a 31-17 victory.
Philly went 4-for-4 on the play in the game and is now 41 of 44 with it across the past two seasons, according ESPN stats.
“I'd be crazy not to go for it on fourth-and-1 with the type of guys we have,” Sirianni said. “It goes back to the dudes we’ve got making the plays.”
Plenty around the league think it’s more about the play than the players. There are enough critics calling for the technique — pushing a rusher — to be banned by the NFL that Sirianni felt the need to defend it.
It is how the Eagles run the play, he insists, not the play itself.
“Again, Jason Kelce starts it off, Jalen Hurts is right there, being able to drive it … because, you've seen it, you’ve seen it across the league, people can’t do it like we do it,” Sirianni said. “People can’t do it like we do it.
“So I am making my point right there,” he continued, “don’t ban this play, because if everybody could do it, everybody would.”
Sirianni is correct. If everyone could, they would. And until everyone can — and the game of football is fundamentally and forever changed — then the NFL shouldn’t even consider changing the rule.
And right now, this isn’t a sure thing anywhere other than Philly. While the NFL doesn’t keep official stats, New England, Green Bay, the Los Angeles Chargers and the New York Giants (who lost two players to injuries while attempting it) all failed with the play this season.
Philly executes it perfectly. They also have a likely future Hall of Famer in Kelce, who is an undersized center adept at getting low. Then there is Hurts, who takes pride in his powerlifting and has squatted 600 pounds.
“It's something we feel is an advantage,” Kelce said. “If you run it right, it’s very very hard to stop.”
Pushing runners from behind was banned until 2005. The league began allowing it again because it was a near impossible judgment call for referees. The NCAA followed suit in 2013.
It’s been used here or there through the years but Philly has mastered it. Critics call it a rugby play or not in the spirit of the sport. But as long as it’s just a small number of teams — or just one — who are capable of exploiting it, then it should be fair game.
Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said the credit should go to the Eagles for their success rate.
“I’m a huge fan of things that are within the rules of football that you can’t stop,” McDaniel said last week.
The NFL is always evolving. The difference here? This is innovation based on power rather than speed and skill. There have been times when the Wildcat or the spread offense has been seemingly unstoppable. In this case, it is Philly’s brute force.
“It's first-and-9 every time,” Sirianni said. “Every first down is first-and-9 [because we know] that if you get to fourth-and-1, shoot, lot of faith in that play.”
“You’re not turning the ball over,” Kelce added. “All these teams that don’t do it, 20 percent more of the time they are giving it to their opponents. To me, that is a huge advantage to win a football game.”
The easiest way for the NFL to ban the play is to declare it unsafe. Yet while the Giants suffered injuries on it, there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly or uniquely dangerous.
“It's a very grueling play, but it is so tight-quartered it doesn’t allow for high impact,” Kelce said. “... I don’t think historically that play would have a high injury rate. [It’s not] a receiver getting blindsided by a safety or a crack-back block, things we’ve tried to take out of the game.
“You are going to get bruises, might twist some ankles or your hand is going to get caught,” Kelce said. “Things that won’t lead to major injuries, but it will add up. It’s grueling.”
The play is changing the game so teams need to change with it. Maybe it’s adding a true power runner, even as a backup quarterback, who resembles Hurts. Or maybe it’s a nose tackle who can jam it up as a fourth-down specialist.
Whatever it is, make the coaches and players adapt, rather than get bailed out by the rules committee.
The play should stay.