CLEARWATER, Fla. – By now, it’s unlikely that there’s an Eagles fan anywhere who hasn’t watched, re-watched, and re-re-watched the NFL Films Sound FX replay of Super Bowl LII. The telecast, with cameras and microphones picking up what the coaches and players said and did throughout the game, is as intimate a look at the Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the Patriots as the NFL will permit, and for the Eagles and those who love them, there are dozens of little moments of ecstasy.
Several of those moments, of course, revolve around “Philly Special,” Trey Burton’s fourth-and-goal touchdown pass to Nick Foles. There’s the tiny slap of the football hitting Foles’ hands when he catches it and Foles’ screaming, “LET’S GO!” There’s coach Doug Pederson’s reaction when Foles suggests the play; he looks at him with the same disbelieving respect with which Patton regarded Rommel. Nicholas, you magnificent bastard… But perhaps the most revealing exchange took place along the Patriots’ sideline, between running backs Dion Lewis and James White, as Pederson and Foles were huddling.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Lewis said to White. “He ain’t gonna go for it.”
Lewis’ assertion betrayed his and maybe a broader ignorance of how Pederson and the Eagles had operated all season – all of the last two seasons, actually. No one who has paid attention to the Eagles since Pederson became their coach should have been surprised that he decided to go for it on fourth and goal at a critical point in the Super Bowl against the defending champs. Nervous, maybe. But not surprised.
More important, not only weren’t the Eagles’ players and coaches surprised by Pederson’s decision, they were comfortable with it. It was what they were accustomed to, and by making it part of the Eagles’ routine, part of their culture, Pederson gave them a psychological edge. The uncertainty, the second-guessing, all the natural doubts that might creep into someone’s mind at that pivotal moment – Pederson had minimized them long ago. For coaches, for athletes, for any team in any sport, the whole point of doing unorthodox things over a long period of time is that, when it comes time in a big game to do something unorthodox, it’s not unorthodox anymore.
Which brings us, of course, to the Phillies and their new manager, Gabe Kapler.
During a spring-training game against the Detroit Tigers last Tuesday, Kapler put Tommy Joseph in the starting lineup, which isn’t necessarily unusual. What was unusual was this: Joseph started in left field, even though he had never played left field at any level of baseball. Then, before the Tigers’ Victor Reyes batted in the second inning, Kapler had Joseph and rightfielder Collin Cowgill switch positions, putting Cowgill, the better defensive outfielder, in the area of the field where Reyes was more likely to hit the ball. Once Reyes struck out, Joseph and Cowgill switched back.
“It may be that we pull it out just once during the season,” Kapler said. “However, yes, we have to practice it, and we have to rep it. … Is it unorthodox relative to what’s done every day? Sure. But at the same time, we want to be prepared for it.”
“It makes sense with the way baseball is moving,” said Scott Kingery, who has played second base, shortstop, and center field this spring. “You want to try these things while you can, while the games aren’t on the line. You have the time to try these new things. Why not see what works?”
Now, this sort of gambit has become pretty commonplace in Major League Baseball, as more and more teams have compiled data and used it to inform their pitching and defensive strategies and alignments. It’s just that it hasn’t been all that commonplace around the Phillies, who until recently had stuck to more traditionally conventional thinking. Former manager Pete Mackanin, for instance, was fond of batting former shortstop Freddy Galvis second, even though Galvis never walked more than 45 times and his on-base percentage never reached .310 in any of his five seasons with the Phillies. But hey, middle infielders who aren’t Cal Ripken or Alex Rodriguez bat leadoff, second, or eighth, right? That’s the way it’s always been done, right?
If you listen closely to the repetition of those outdated tropes, you can hear the echoes of every longtime NFL fan or follower who shouted, Punt the ball, Doug! whenever the Eagles sent their offense back on the field for fourth and 3 from their own 47-yard line. More than just playing the long-term percentages, though, Pederson was acclimating his team to his approach. The Eagles actually went for it on fourth down more frequently during the 2016 regular season (27 times) than they did during the 2017 regular season (26), but their success rate jumped from 48.1 percent in 2016 to 65.3 percent in 2017.
Yes, the Eagles had better offensive players, but that wasn’t the only reason for the improvement. Pederson already had established this approach as the team’s new normal. Kapler is doing something similar. He’s shifting outfielders mid-inning. He’s playing Scott Kingery everywhere. He’s sending Tommy Joseph to a part of the field once unfamiliar to Tommy Joseph. It might seem flighty and silly now. Give it some time. When nothing is a no-brainer anymore, the results just might surprise you.