Let's go back to the Eagles' first game to offer a theory about their next 15 games. On the sixth play of the Falcons' opening possession in the Eagles' 18-12 victory Thursday, Matt Ryan completed a 33-yard pass to Julio Jones on third down. The Falcons were in business, first-and-goal at the Eagles' 6, and on the next play, Devonta Freeman burrowed forward for 5 yards.
Second-and-goal at the 1. Handoff to Freeman. He went nowhere.
Third-and-goal at the 1. Ryan, out of the shotgun, tried to hit Freeman in the right flat. The pass was high and incomplete.
Now things got interesting, because two parallel narratives were about to intersect. The first regarded the Falcons. Last season, under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, they had struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone. In fact, their red zone TD percentage, 49.2, was 23rd-best among the NFL's 32 teams. Improving that facet of their offense had been a point of discussion during their offseason and a point of emphasis during their training camp and preseason.
Sarkisian and head coach Dan Quinn decided to go for it on fourth down. Freeman ran wide to the left. The Eagles smothered him for a 2-yard loss. After the game, someone asked Quinn if he and the Falcons had wanted to "make a statement" in that moment.
"Not necessarily a statement," Quinn told reporters, "but we do believe in ourselves. I wanted to make sure, when we had those opportunities, to take a shot and go for it and score."
But there was another reason that Quinn might have felt compelled to try to score a touchdown on that fourth down – another reason that he could not, would not, settle for a field goal. Which brings us to the second narrative: The Eagles' aggressiveness on offense under coach Doug Pederson.
Given a reasonable opportunity for success, the Eagles go for it on fourth-and-goal. They don't just go for it on fourth-and-goal; they run a trick play in the Super Bowl on fourth-and-goal. And they don't just run a trick play in the Super Bowl on fourth-and-goal; they steal a trick play that didn't work against them in the Super Bowl and run it seven months later against their next opponent.
Pederson has rightly been praised for the mental and emotional advantage that this approach gives his team. Wire-walkers become more relaxed and less likely to fall the more they step away from that ledge and make it to the other side, and over the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons, the Eagles went for it on fourth down 53 times and converted 30 times. Both figures were the highest in the league.
But what's rarely discussed is the psychological and strategic effect that the Eagles' approach might have on their opponents. The Eagles went 17-for-26 on fourth down last season; the Falcons went just 4-for-13. Sitting in the Lincoln Financial Field press box, watching Quinn and Sarkisian send Atlanta's offense back on the field, I thought, They're going for it because they know Pederson and the Eagles would. They don't feel like they can give away a chance to score a touchdown. They feel like they have to keep up. In turn, because the Falcons aren't as familiar with and comfortable in those situations, they're less likely to succeed in them than the Eagles are.
"We want to be as aggressive as we can in terms of our play-calling and the way that we want to attack our opponents each and every week," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Tuesday. "If that induces some sort of response from the opponent, then I guess that's the way it is."
Understand: I'm not asserting as fact that the Eagles' aggressiveness influenced the Falcons' decision. I don't know if it did, and even if Quinn and Sarkisian did take it into consideration, they likely wouldn't cop to it. Jim Schwartz, the Eagles' defensive coordinator, was skeptical himself. "A lot of teams go for it on fourth-and-goal," he said, "particularly in there tight or in an end-of-game situation when they have to go for it."
I am suggesting, though, that it's possible, even probable, that it did, and that as the Eagles' season continues, we might see more of their opponents make similar decisions for similar reasons. The Buccaneers, for instance, went for it on fourth down just eight times last season. Only one team, the Vikings, was less daring. Sunday's game in Tampa, then, could provide a fine test to see just how much validity there is to The Doug Effect.