PHILADELPHIA — Jonathan Gannon just wanted to get the ball last. He thought the best way to do that was to give the opponent a short field.
The Cardinals head coach decided to turn a football game into a chess match when he chose to execute an onside kick in a 28-28 game with 5:26 left against his former team. Arizona just tied Sunday’s showdown with the Eagles for the second time in the second half, with Philly about to get the ball back.
Gannon called a timeout, one of the three he had in his back pocket. Calling a timeout after a converted extra point was awkward, showcasing signs the first-year head coach had something up his sleeve.
Matt Prater didn’t kick the ball deep, as the Cardinals defense wasn’t going to start on the Eagles’ 25-yard line. Arizona opted to start in its own territory, as Prater executed an onside kick — giving Philadelphia excellent field position to take the lead (at the very least). Eli Ricks easily recovered the onside kick, which Gannon just shrugged off.
Gannon didn’t care about the result. He just wanted an opportunity to have the ball again.
“It worked. That’s what we talked about. That’s what I’m talking about,” Gannon said after the game. “The reason for that is you don’t want to get bled out. That team is too good.
“I trust the defense to get a stop right there and make them kick a field goal, which is what they did, but with five minutes left, what they’ve [Eagles] shown is they’re not going to give you the ball back.”
The plan worked even better than Gannon thought, even after his team was offsides on the free kick to give Philadelphia five extra yards. The Eagles actually started on the Cardinals’ 39-yard line as Jalen Hurts hit A.J. Brown on an 18-yard pass on the second play of the drive to get Philadelphia to the Arizona 20.
The Eagles were going to score. They were in the red zone with 4:18 left. The Cardinals were going to get the ball back, which was the plan.
“They knew what we’re going to do and we didn’t obviously, you want to recover that,” Gannon said. “But they knew they were going to get the ball back and have to score to win or tie the game.”
The plan worked even better because of the Eagles’ own issues on offense. A D’Andre Swift run was negated by a holding penalty on the next play, setting up first-and-20 from the Cardinals’ 30. The next three plays played right into Gannon’s hands.
First down, quarterback draw. Second down, run-pass option in which the quarterback kept. Third down, bubble screen to Kenneth Gainwell. Jake Elliott converted a 43-yard field goal with 2:37 left to take a 31-28 lead, plenty of time for the Cardinals to go down the field and score again.
Even in the chess match Gannon was playing, his “Queen’s Gambit” couldn’t have worked out any better for the long-term result. No matter what Gannon says, he didn’t expect his defense to hold Philadelphia to three points.
“I wanted to make sure at all costs Kyler [Murray] had the ball in his hand,” Gannon said. “At the end of the game, whatever you’re down, and that’s what we did. So it’s just funny how it came up, but no, I thought the defense did excellent. Held them to a field goal there.”
The Cardinals, who scored touchdowns on their first three possessions in the second half, got the ball with 2:28 left. Arizona needed just 2:01 to score the eventual game-winning touchdown, a James Conner two-yard run with 32 seconds left.
Murray went 3 of 3 for 58 yards on the drive, including a 36-yard pass to Greg Dortch to set up Arizona inside the Philadelphia 5-yard line with 41 seconds left. The Cardinals were the ones set to bleed the clock out, forcing Nick Sirianni to use his final time out for an opportunity to get the ball back. Gannon was the chess master.
“I felt really good after the two-minute [warning] there to look and once I got on the headset and said ‘guys, we’re going to win the game.’ I could see it in his face. And that’s what he did,” Gannon said. “Kyler went down, Dortch had a big play. Had a couple of runs in there. And then we pounded it in. James [Conner] will not be denied. So it’s a good job.”
Sirianni admitted he had “no idea” the onside kick was coming. The Eagles couldn’t bleed the clock out (Gannon’s words) when they recovered the onside kick, nor could they score a touchdown and force the Cardinals offense to score a touchdown to tie the game instead of needing just a field goal to tie it.
If the Cardinals recovered the kick, it was a bonus. If the defense held the Eagles to a field goal, it was a bonus. The Cardinals got the latter.
“Go score,” Sirianni said with the field position in his favor. “You’re into a four-minute mode but you’re still being aggressive because they still have all the timeouts. So, you’re able to pass. You’re able to get out of bounds. You’re able to get the first down. All those different things.
“Hey, they executed and they got off the field and they held us to a field goal. Just didn’t work out tonight.”
This was much better than being held to a field goal. Gannon took advantage of the Eagles not being in their onside kick formation on the return team, the Eagles going conservative after beating themselves and the number of timeouts his Cardinals had (three before the kick) to put the game in their favor.
The move was bold, risky, potentially stupid. Gannon didn’t get lucky, either — the plan worked. Gannon has confidence in his players and wanted to make sure they were rewarded in the end.
The onside kick was the best way to execute that.
“Wanted to make sure that our offense had a chance to tie or win the game,” Gannon said. “That’s the reason for the decision.”