The Seahawks didn’t need dumb luck to coast to a 26-15 victory Sunday over Philadelphia. But dumb luck — with an emphasis on the dumb — is what they got, thanks to a game-changing penalty that amounted to the football equivalent of jaywalking.
The Eagles were trailing midway through the second quarter, 13-7, when tight end Zach Ertz caught a screen pass he appeared to convert into a 57-yard touchdown. And while the second-quarter leads of visiting teams are famously fragile in CenturyLink Field, any kind of lead at that point would have given young quarterback Carson Wentz an incalculable confidence boost.
As the Eagles celebrated Ertz’s touchdown in the south end zone, officials met to discuss a flag dropped on the east sideline.
Seems Nelson Agholor, placed at the point of a three-wideout triangle opposite Ertz, had failed to set one of his feet at the line of scrimmage. Agholor’s positioning had given the Eagles no competitive advantage — it had nothing whatsoever to do with the play — but fundamental rules are fundamental rules.
Wide receivers are taught to look at either the head linesman or the line judge for a cue on where to put their feet. By declining to look, Agholor, a 2015 first-round draft choice from USC, was flagged for a penalty that cost his team quite more than five yards.
Afterward, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson resisted the temptation to point a finger toward Agholor, a second-year USC product who’s in the throes of a miserable start to his NFL career.
Agholor was due “a little bit” of blame for the gaffe, Pederson acknowledged, as was the rookie quarterback and the rookie coach.
“I’ve got to make sure everybody understands situational football and formations,” said Pederson. “We have to coach them better.”
An aspect of coaching the former Ferndale High quarterback should know by now is that a first-half time out is different from a second-half time out, most valuable as a clock-stopping device for teams trailing late in the game. A first-half time out should be used, say, to prevent a penalty for lining up in an illegal formation.
Moments before the snap, Eagles coaches could be seen frantically waving at Agholor. But the receiver didn’t notice, and with Pederson reluctant to burn a time out, a perfectly executed pass play was doomed from the start.
“I should have checked,” said Agholor, “because the No. 1 thing is that you always have to check with the ref. That’s one of the first things I do when I line up.
“Mental errors like that, you can’t have. I know better than that, and I shouldn’t have done that.”
The Seahawks were the better team Sunday, and it’s likely they were going to beat a mistake-prone opponent overseen by a coach who admits he’s got a lot to learn.
But scoring a touchdown erased by a technicality seemed to undo them.
“It’s frustrating,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. “You would think you can line up, that’s the basis of football. When you give up plays like that on a small little thing, you hurt yourself. Obviously you need those points in a tough game where you’re kind of battling, but we didn’t come up with it and got what we deserved.”
Agholor, in particular, was incapable of shaking off his mistake. On the Eagles ensuing possession, Wentz found him open in a seam and delivered a 30-yard pass the typical NFL receiver can catch with one hand.
But Agholor dropped the ball, and instead of advancing into Seahawks territory with a first down, the Eagles were going three-and-out.
“I’m pressing so much and worried about so many things,” said the former five-star high school recruit, who was five years old when his family moved to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria. “I’m thinking too much and it’s a selfish thing that needs to stop. I need to give my energy to my teammates and this organization and not myself, feeling so pressured to make every single thing happen.
“Just have fun,” he concluded.
Nobody in pro football does fun better than Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who called the negated touchdown “a significant great break. That was a pretty good deal, yeah.”
Is it a different game, Carroll was asked, if Agholor lines up correctly?
“It didn’t happen, so I don’t care,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”