Zach Ertz achieved Philadelphia immortality with a game-winning touchdown catch in the Super Bowl in a way that would eradicate any criticism he endured earlier in his career.
His stats are padded in games or moments that don't matter? Try a third down in the red zone in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
He doesn't get yards after the catch? He lined up wide against one of the best safeties in the NFL, caught the ball around the 5-yard line, sprinted forward, dived past contact and into the end zone.
For a player attuned to the criticism levied against him, there's a new label: Super Bowl champion.
"Last year was really a difficult year, not only for myself but for the team," Ertz said. "I never really shied away from that situation that I had to endure. There were some people that would say stuff, but it was tough obviously. … The fans never gave up on me. I told them at the time that they would never question my effort again, and I am lucky to be in this situation playing for this city. I will never take it for granted."
The touchdown will long have a spot in Eagles highlights. Ertz called the play a new "wrinkle." Ertz drew double teams whenever he lined up on the backside throughout the game. So what the Eagles did on this play – third-and-7 from the 11-yard line – was line up Ertz outside as a wide receiver and motion running back Corey Clement to the opposite side of the formation. So Ertz was one-on-one against safety Devin McCourty with no other Patriots in the area to help.
Ertz ran 3 yards before cutting inside. McCourty could not jam Ertz, who had inside position and a decided size advantage. Ertz's route-running is one of his best attributes and a big reason he became a Pro Bowl tight end this season. Ertz was the player quarterback Nick Foles wanted to find on the play – he didn't even appear to look elsewhere.
"That was a one-on-one situation with McCourty, and that guy is a phenomenal football player," Ertz said. "He definitely played a great game, but playing with Nick in that situation, he was making all the throws, and all I had to do was make the plays and that is what happened on the touchdown."
There was an extended review after the play because the ball popped out after Ertz's hands hit the ground in the end zone. Officials were trying to determine if it was a catch, which has become more debatable than it should be in today's NFL. But Ertz took three steps with possession before diving, so the officials determined that he had become a runner before the ball came loose and the touchdown stood. Ertz said he doesn't know what would have happened in Philadelphia if the play had been overturned. Players on both sidelines believed the right call was made.
"I was telling the ref that he had three feet down and that's a catch," veteran tight end Brent Celek said. "And the ref wouldn't tell me either way, and I was like, 'C'mon ref, you've got to tell me that three feet down is a catch!' And he's like, 'I don't know, I don't know.' But I thought it was a catch, a catch for sure. And obviously, it was a catch."
That was far from the only big play Ertz made in the Super Bowl. He finished with seven catches for 67 yards and one touchdown. Four of those catches came on third down, another on fourth down. If there was ever debate about whether Ertz can be described as "clutch," it should end after the Super Bowl.
Ertz extended the game-winning drive with a 7-yard reception on third-and-6 from the Eagles' 29-yard line and then a critical 2-yard catch on fourth-and-1 from the Eagles' 45. If Ertz hadn't make either play, Tom Brady would have taken the ball back with a lead. The feeling in Philadelphia would likely be different right now. Ertz caught three of Foles' seven completions on the 14-play, 75-yard drive.
"I knew that we were going to have to score a touchdown in that situation," coach Doug Pederson said Sunday night. "A field goal wasn't going to be good enough, not against Brady and the Patriots, so we stayed aggressive. Nick made some outstanding throws, guys made some plays for him – Nelson [Agholor], Ertz on the touchdown. Play after play, guys really stepped up tonight, and just had to get a touchdown in that situation."
Ertz had two other third-down catches earlier in the game, both extending touchdown drives for the Eagles. Earlier in the playoffs, Ertz said that on third downs and in the red zone, he wanted to be the player the Eagles called upon. That was evident throughout the postseason.
"I want to get the ball whenever the situation calls for it," Ertz said. "We have a lot of talented guys on this football team. They've done an amazing job building this roster. When the situation calls for it, they trusted me. That's all I can ask."
Entering the Super Bowl, it was clear that it would be a matchup of two of the NFL's best tight ends. The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski is considered the premier player at his position – he finished with nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns – but Ertz has also developed into a player who deserves to be discussed among the top class of tight ends.
Just ask the Patriots. Their defensive game plan going into the Super Bowl highlighted Ertz.
"He is a great player," said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who was named the Detroit Lions' head coach this week. "We obviously had to have a situation where we could get on him and take him away. He dictated some other things that came up, and we had to do the best that we could. He is an outstanding player."
That's an opinion that was recognized more in Philadelphia than ever this season. Ertz, 27, is a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion with three years remaining on his contract. He's going to be a core player for the Eagles for at least that long – with a spot in Eagles history to last much longer.
Ertz will no longer need to defend himself against criticism about his playing style or his statistics. He'll just need to show the game-winning touchdown.
"I mean, he had to run a slant, he had to get physical on the route, he did it, got open and made the catch and then dove over the dude," Celek said. "Ertz is one of the top two tight ends in the NFL, in my opinion. You know they got Gronk over there, he's really good. But Ertz is the man, dude, and I'm so happy for him. I'm so honored to be in the same tight-end room with him."
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