To just about any Eagles fan, just mention “fourth and 26” and he or she may not remember the exact date, but will remember that former Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, late in a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, caught an improbable 28-yard pass from Donovan McNabb that kept the Birds hopes alive to come back from a three-point deficit, which they did, in overtime.
It was January 11, 2004, in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game that the Eagles pulled off that play.
The Eagles would go on to lose in the NFC Championship Game to the Carolina Panthers the following week, but the play and the nickname have lived on in Eagles folklore.
Last week the Birds were on the wrong end of play that will live on if they do not take care of business this Sunday against the New Orleans Saints (1:00 PM, FOX).
With 8:02 left in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys Christmas Eve, the Eagles defense created a play that could live on in infamy until at least Sunday.
At this moment the Eagles were leading 34-27. They had sacked Dak Prescott on consecutive plays pushing the Cowboys from their own 49-yard line to their own 29-yard line.
Eagles game-wrecker Haason Reddick had just strip-sacked Prescott and somehow, Cowboys 316-pound center Tyler Biadasz ended up with the ball.
But it was third and 30, right? The Eagles got this, right?
Wrong, the Cowboys quickly snapped the ball to Prescott who lifted the ball downfield.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, 33 years old and playing in his first game as a Cowboy somehow got a step on Eagles 31-year-old five Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay.
As the ball hit Hilton’s hands, nickel cornerback Josiah Scott came across the field and tried to knock the ball away from the former Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl wide receiver, but it was too late.
Hilton juggled the ball for a blink, then secured the rock for an improbable 52-yard completion.
It was Hilton’s first catch as a Cowboy and his only reception of the game.
Four plays later, Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb with a seven-yard touchdown pass that tied the score 34-34. Dallas would go on to win 40-34 and keep their faint hopes for the NFC East title and the No. 1 seed alive.
The play is already getting a nickname…”3rd and thirty.”
Dallas All Pro guard Zack Martin said they went with the play to Hilton on a hunch.
“We thought we could catch them off guard, get the play off quickly and it worked,” said Martin.
The much-decorated offensive lineman said this win may not mean much without a total Eagles collapse.
“We know if we want to go anywhere this year, it’s going to be through Philadelphia,” Martin said. “They’re a really good team. We know we played them without their quarterback. So that’s even more impressive how they played.”
While the offense was offensive turning the ball over four times. The Cowboys converted those turnovers to 20 points.
But the offense can look at the fact that three of the turnovers came from backup quarterback Gardner Minshew, who hadn’t played any meaningful minutes in over a year.
The defense has nowhere to turn for allowing Prescott to go wild after his first possession pick-six to Josh Sweat.
GANNON FACED THE MUSIC THIS WEEK
Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon needs to come up big Sunday against the Saints if he wants to stop “3rd and thirty” becoming legend.
During his weekly press conference, Gannon did not shy from talking about the infamous play.
‘The 3rd and 30, what was the call’’ he was asked. ‘What was the breakdown there?’
“It's me,” Gannon said. “I have to do a better job of coaching what I want out of that call. I'm not going to get into specifics of the call, but I liked the call. But looking back at it, we have to do a better job putting our guys in position to make that play and get off the field because you can't give up a 3rd and 30.
“That was a play in that game that I felt like was a little bit of a tipping point when we let them convert and then they scored that drive, that hurts the ball club. Got to do a better job myself.”
That was not the only explosive play his defense gave up.
There were completions of 36-, 21-, and 24-yards Prescott made Saturday afternoon.
“Yeah, I mean, anytime you give up explosive passes and situation-ally conversions on 3rd down like we did, it always falls on me to coach that a little bit better and put our guys in better spots.
“Then for our guys to know exactly where their eyes have to be, what technique, what calls they have to make pre-snap and post-snap and just function at a little bit better level to do what we've been doing and really playing good pass defense in known pass. It was a good learning experience for us.”
The Eagles lost nickel cornerback Avonte Maddox to a significant toe injury at the start of the second quarter. Gannon was asked how much that changed his play-calling.
“A little bit,” he conceded “I probably could have got to some different calls when he did go out. I thought he was playing extremely well. But we always look at we feel comfortable with anyone that's out there and the spots that they're in.
“We always talk about if you've got a jersey and you're playing, we feel good about you. Josiah has played really good ball for us when Avonte has been out a couple times this year. When we set up the game plan, you always have, hey, here's who our guys are playing, here's who their guys are playing.
“Then you have to adjust that in game as it gets going if you lose people or they lose people or what they're trying to do. We'll have a good plan moving forward.”
Gannon was asked how much giving up a play like “3rd and thirty” affect the confidence of the defensive players in general.
“We're a resilient group, and we stay connected, and we've done that through the whole year,” Gannon said. “We did that last year. That's kind of a tribute to the football character of the people that are out there playing. With me, I'm literally off of it in a second because I'm thinking about, okay, now 1st down.
“I think if you don't have good leadership and they're not psychologically prepped to get hit in the face every so often and how you respond to that, then it's going to be tough to get over.
Even when we came off there, I was very proud of our group. We were ready to go back out there and put the ball out and let's play.
“I never look at certain things that go on in a game, bad or good. It's always on to the next play, and our guys have done a really good job with that.”
Gannon and his defense need to squash a legend before it becomes one. *
Email Al Thompson at email@example.com