Nick Foles and this Philadelphia Eagles team are set to play their biggest game of the year this week, in Dallas, under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football. This game is for all the marbles; winner gets to play in the tournament, loser gets to watch the tournament.
These are the types of games everybody loves…the fans, the players and especially the television networks!
However, with all the hype and excitement that surrounds a game with this much meaning comes a large amount of pressure for the coaches and players. Coaches can over-think things and players can press by trying to do too much on the field and getting away from their game.
So, let’s talk about pressure and what role it may have this week…
Mental pressure comes in two forms: internally and externally. Externally, teams can feel pressured by the fans who expect a lot out of them and also by top-level people within their organization (for example, an owner who may fire a coach if he doesn’t win this game).
Internally is where the bulk of the pressure comes from. Players get nervous and/or feel they need to take extra chances that they don’t normally do. They begin to play outside of the scheme because they think they need to do more and this tends to lead to critical mistakes.
Or, they get overwhelmed in the moment and fail to think properly or think too much. This also leads to mistakes because they have to hesitate before doing something that should come naturally by now.
Coaches, mainly the play-callers on both sides of the ball, can be affected by pressure as well. They can get out of rhythm in their play calling and either get away from the game plan too quickly or not quickly enough.
They could lose the feel of a game, especially if things start snowballing in a bad way.
We can likely look no further back than the last Eagles game against the Bears. By the time the game started, the Bears had an opportunity to clinch their division with a win while the only thing that mattered for the Eagles was possible playoff seeding.
In essence, the pressure increased for Chicago and decreased for the Eagles. The Eagles played extremely well in all facets of the game while the Bears folded in all facets of the game.
You can’t tell me the Bears are that bad on offense because they’ve been lighting people up all year. And more times than not this season, the Eagles defense has struggled to defend the pass.
So, what happened? If the Bears simply were off or just had “one of those games”, the question is why? They had every reason to win and save themselves from having to face a win or be eliminated scenario this week.
The most likely reason for their collapse was pressure. Then, once the Eagles started taking it to them, they just couldn’t respond well enough.
Even though it has nothing to do with this Eagles team, we can also look back to the 2011 Eagles and see a possible example of how pressure impacts a team.
2011 was the “Dream Team” season and the Eagles were expected to be good, if not great. We all know how that went, right? After an opening game blowout over the Rams, they dropped four straight.
In fact, the team ended up being 4-8 after 12 weeks and at that point they were all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Then they proceeded to go on a meaningless four-game win streak to close the season.
Basically, that team went 4-8 during the time that things mattered and could only win after they were out of the playoff hunt for all intents and purposes. In other words, they struggled when there was pressure on them to win and played better when all expectations went out the window.
That’s what pressure can do to teams.
Players and teams will never really admit to “buckling under the pressure”, but what else explains teams playing poorly in big games? I’m sure there are more reasons than just pressure, but it certainly has to play a role (and probably a large role at that).
That leads us to this game against Dallas.
With the news about Tony Romo likely not playing, combined with the Eagles’ dominating win over Chicago, the pressure shifted from Dallas to Philly to win this game.
When you lose your starting quarterback heading into this kind of game, it all of a sudden puts that team in a position of “well, we’re probably going to lose now so let’s just go out and play balls-to-the-wall and see what happens.”
That’s why teams typically love being the underdog. If they’re not expected to win, they tend to play looser because the pressure is alleviated.
Romo and the Cowboys always have expectations on them. Jerry Jones is one of the biggest perpetuators of pressure on the coaches and players in that organization. But, they’re also “the Cowboys” and get a lot of national recognition.
For the third season in a row, they are set to play a winner-take-all division game in the final week. They’ve lost the last two but were playing away from home. This time, they’re coming off of a rousing last minute win over Washington and are playing at home.
The Eagles, on the other hand, are a team in transition and were not expected to make the playoffs this year. They’d be going into Dallas with really nothing to lose except disappointing some fans who are now hyped-up because they have a shot at the post season.
But if the Eagles lose, most fans would easily revert back to the “well, we didn’t think they’d make it anyway” mentality and quickly look to the positives of how much improvement was made under just one season with Chip Kelly.
However, the Romo news has turned the tables somewhat.
Now, the Eagles are the favorite and many people are now expecting them to win this game. So, how will they respond? In particular, how will Nick Foles respond?
This is the biggest game of Nick Foles’ brief career. Much of the pressure in these types of games falls on the shoulders of the quarterback. This will be our first true opportunity to see how he performs in a big game with the season on the line.
And, he’s now expected to perform well and win. He’s still a young quarterback who’s learning, but this has come to be a scenario that could define what has been an outstanding year for him.
If he plays well and they win, he’ll be 99.5% locked-in as next year’s starter and could possibly elevate him to becoming the “franchise QB,” If he plays poorly and they lose, everything he’s done well this year gets clouded and doubted and his future becomes murky.
That may not be fair, but that’s the way it’s going to be. Losing in the first round of the playoffs won’t condemn him, but losing this game might.
The rest of the pressure will be on the coaches for preparing this team to play, implementing a solid game plan, calling smart plays during the game, and then making in-game adjustments where and when needed.
I think Chip Kelly will be okay in this regard. Sans the Minnesota game, he has shown the ability to adjust on the fly and has a pretty good feel for the game. Bill Davis, on the other hand, will be under more pressure.
Davis has the challenge of preparing the defense for both Romo and Kyle Orton because Dallas is technically saying Romo is “day to day.” The only real difference, but it’s a big one, is that Romo has excellent pocket ability to make people miss and keep plays alive.
Orton is more of a statue and should be easier to defend in that regard, but obviously Dallas realizes this and will therefore adjust the offense a little bit.
I expect a boatload of quick, short passes from Orton. Bubble screens, slants, dig routes, quick hitches, crossing routes, etc. The Eagles have struggled covering these types of plays all year, especially short crossing routes.
These plays are designed to get the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly to compensate for an attacking defense. However, if Davis doesn’t come in with a plan to be aggressive and get after the QB, we could see Orton adjust to more of a traditional drop-back and have the time to wait for receivers to come open down field.
The thing is, Davis won’t really know what to expect or what the Dallas offense will look like with Orton under center. That’s why it’s important for him to have a plan, a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan.
And, the players need to be ready for anything and everything. It’s very likely the defense will need more in-game adjusting than the offense.
In the end, the Eagles could…and probably should…look at this game as playing with house money. They can alleviate the pressure on themselves by saying hey, Dallas is the team that still has more to prove with or without Romo.
Dallas is the veteran team with veteran coaches. They were supposed to be serious contenders in the division if not the conference. The Eagles were supposed to be the team in transition that needed more than just one season to complete a total team transformation under Kelly.
The Eagles may be favored to win this game, but Dallas was favored to win this season.
Whatever outlook the Eagles need to take to reduce the pressure on themselves is what they need to do. Teams that play tight and play “not to lose” tend to perform poorly. Teams that don’t worry about anything beyond the 60 minutes of football right in front of them tend to play looser and more aggressively.
Which one will the Eagles be this week?