The Gambler’s Philosophy: Understanding the Arizona Cardinals coach's aggressive late-game decisions

In a dramatic showdown, Gannon's gutsy decisions propel the Arizona Cardinals to a stunning victory over the Eagles. Getting the coach a win in his first game against his former team.
Arizona Cardinals v Philadelphia Eagles
Arizona Cardinals v Philadelphia Eagles / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

The Arizona Cardinals 35-31 victory over the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles didn’t come easily, or without its share of controversy. For the second consecutive week, the offense struggled out of the gate – only six of their 35 points coming in the first half. The focal point, however, centers around head coach Jonathan Gannon's gutsy decisions late in the fourth quarter.

Down 21-6 at the half, the Cardinals came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders. They were able to erase the deficit in the third quarter with two Kyler Murray touchdown passes to two different running backs. With the Eagles striking first in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals were able to put together a solid drive in response.

A key pass interference call going their way, and some great running by both Michael Carter and Kyler Murray got the Cardinals to the five-yard-line. Facing a fourth and four from that spot, down seven points with 5:30 left, Gannon elected to keep Kyler Murray and the offense on the field against the defense that he used to call plays for.

Gannon had faced criticism during the week over his decision to go for it against the Bears in the Week 16 matchup. In that game, the Cardinals faced a fourth and six from their own 27-yard-line. Not getting the first down virtually assured the other team at least three points when they were already down by eight. In Philadelphia, failing to convert would’ve left the Eagles 95 yards from the endzone with over five minutes left.

Gannon's gutsy calls help fuel a massive upset for the Arizona Cardinals

Thankfully for Cardinals fans, that’s not how it played out. The Eagles defense sent heavy pressure and Murray was able to find Michael Wilson on a slant for a touchdown, just before the free rusher got to him. A Matt Prater extra-point tied the game and led to one of the strangest late-game decisions that the NFL has seen this season.

In a tie game with just about five and a half minutes to go, Gannon chose to do a surprise onside-kick and see if he could catch the Eagles special teams unit sleeping. Like the previous week against the Bears, this virtually guaranteed the Eagles at least three points. Only this time, it was more of a chess move than a head-scratcher.

Some call it madness; others, genius. Here's the deal: Gannon was playing the long game. He realized that his defense had struggled to stop Philadelphia’s offense on the previous drive; with eight of the Eagles 13 plays gaining five or more yards. By risking points with the onside kick, he was betting on getting the ball back and more crucially, the time.

As they tried to run out the clock, the Eagles could only manage a field goal, leaving the door open for the Cardinals. Kyler Murray, with the poise of a veteran, orchestrated an excellent game-winning drive. James Conner’s run up the middle into the endzone was the exclamation point on a strategy that was all in from the get-go.

Only having 34 seconds and no DaVonta Smith on the field, Jalen Hurts wasn’t able to make any miracles happen. With the win, the Cardinals had completed the huge upset over the second-seeded Philadelphia Eagles; and in the process, knocked them all the way down to the fifth seed.

Gannon's style is here to stay

Cardinals fans, get used to this. Gannon's style is unapologetically bold. The first-time head coach is bound to grow and learn as he makes more of those decisions; But today, they paid off. If he can keep pulling moves like that onside kick, it’ll be a real weapon to have when this team is ready to make a run in the playoffs. Like a chess player, thinking many steps ahead; gamesmanship is a great quality in a head coach.