Speaking for the majority of the Philadelphia Eagles fan base, I would assume that, upon the announcement of Chip Kelly being hired as head coach, most people figured Nick Foles’ days of donning the midnight green for the Birds had come and gone. Despite showing flashes of potential and possessing a handful of qualities characteristic of the successful ‘drop-back quarterback’ Foles’ lack of quickness and foot speed seemed to be condemning to the former Arizona Wildcat. While not everyone followed Kelly’s Oregon Ducks week in and week out during the NCAA season, one of the captivating qualities of his high-powered offenses was a quarterback who was a legitimate pass-run threat.
What made things seemingly more bleak for Foles lovers in the Delaware Valley, was the team’s decision to bring back beleaguered quarterback Michael Vick back into the fold for at least another year. Vick, whose comments following the team’s last game echoed the notion that he would not be returning to the locker room, appeared to be, while not ideal, a much more suitable fit for the high-octane, Kelly-run offense that everyone assumed would be taking the field. Vick’s enthusiasm regarding the hire was the polar opposite of his feelings after the season, and all signs pointed to him taking the reins as the team’s starting quarterback entering the 2013-2014 season.
However, right from the get-go, where Kelly claimed he was a ‘huge fan’ of Nick Foles, the new architect of the Eagles has not given up an inch on who would be taking first team snaps for his new team. Whether it was before or after the draft, entering OTAs, entering mini-camp, or any media appearance in the area, Kelly remained steadfast in his stance that mobility was not the most important thing for his starting quarterback and that he is more than adept at adapting his scheme to utilize his signal-callers strong point. The drafting of USC’s Matt Barkley, another quarterback more in the mold of a ‘drop-back’ player, only strengthened his argument and all those who assumed Vick would win the jobs the day after the hire, were left to puzzle the approach by Chip.
So here we are. With full contact practices set to start this upcoming Sunday, the Eagles, either to their dismay or delight, are without a starting quarterback and in the midst of a full-fledged quarterback competition. Before completely dispelling the notion of Matt Barkley starting week 1 vs. the Redskins, the rookie would have to perform well beyond expectation to unseat the two elder statesmen. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the one-on-one matchup of Michael Vick vs. Nick Foles.
Kelly has come out and defended his players, noting that both Foles and Vick have the sort of qualities necessary to run his offense. While it would be a bonus to have a definitive player who fulfilled every desire of the new Eagles’ coach, the fact that both quarterbacks have impressed Kelly in some capacity is a step in the right direction. In his manuscript regarding his approach to the game, Kelly documents his ideal traits in a ‘Shotgun Quarterback’ with a heavy emphasis on a quick release (1.5-1.7 seconds), being a quarterback who can run, and even a desire for a quarterback with big hands.
While it is certainly possible that Kelly, an infant in the grand scheme of the NFL, will alter his scouting of quarterbacks to adjust to the level of play, the air of conviction in his manuscript seems to be as strong a vote of confidence as any to what he wants in the man running his offense. After going through his piece, it would be difficult to imagine the meticulous showing much patience for Vick’s untimely, unforced turnovers, as well as Foles’ tendency to plant himself in the pocket, exposing himself to the pass rush. Both players would have to make substantial improvements in their game to distinguish themselves as the ‘perfect Chip Kelly Quarterback’, and it is possible that, after this season, neither will have a grasp on the starting job. At this point though, the starting QB is already on the roster and, while Barkley has a chance, it is up to Foles or Vick to prove they are the superior option for this year’s team.
At least at this point, both players are saying all the right things. Foles has displayed a veterans’ confidence in his limited media appearances, and stresses a great deal that he is as much a contender for the job as Vick is. Michael Vick, whose opinion on not having a starter named is well documented, has reeled in his aggressive stance and seems more interested in the greater good of the team than himself. Both players, at least on the surface, seemed to have accepted the fact that it will be a few weeks before either can rest on their laurels when the depth chart is released.
To dissect this matchup, breaking down the areas of strength for each candidate is what keeps them on the roster. Clearly Vick’s shortcomings in the last two seasons were not enough for Kelly to at least give him a chance, and Foles’ apparent ’round peg in a square box’ player profile did not jettison him for the race.
At 33 years old, what you see is what you get with Michael Vick. It is hard to imagine that a quarterback who has played, and at times excelled, a certain way for his entire career will be able to make too many drastic alterations to his game. Fortunately for him; and with all his struggles, it may be tough for Eagles fans to keep in mind, even at 33, Vick is still one of the more athletic, and electrifying players in the league. While he does not possess the blinding, 4.2 speed that kept every defender in the league on his heels, Vick still has a step on almost every player on the field and is more than capable of breaking first down runs on a consistent basis. Paired with the deception and motion present in Kelly’s prospective offense, one would think that Vick’s speed would be even more a threat, even if for just an added split-second. Even missing 6 games in 2012, Vick ranked fifth among quarterbacks in rushing with 345 yards. While not many of Vick’s runs were designed, like they might be in Kelly’s offense, he still possesses the on-field awareness and skills to hurt opposing defenses with his feet and remains a focal point of other team’s defensive gameplans.
In terms of throwing the ball, there are still few things as pretty as a Vick pass down the field. Even with the aging and injuries, Vick still has the ability to launch the pigskin with a mere flick of his wrist. Prior to missing the last six games of the season, the Eagles (236.9 ypg) were 14th in the league in passing yards per game. Vick still demonstrated the ability to move the offense in between the 20s at an impressive rate and moving the ball was rarely a problem for the Vick-led Eagles.
One aspect of Vick’s game, and it is impossible to measure, is his toughness, determination, and confidence in his leadership of the locker room. Despite the team’s struggles since the start of the 2011 season, Vick remains an outspoken, accountable leader on the team and rarely places the blame, even when it might be appropriate, on others. He owns up to his statements when he does speak his mind, he plays hurt (not always to the team’s benefit), and relishes the responsibility of leading his team onto the field every Sunday. There has been very little dissent in the locker room, even with a combined 20 losses the last two years, and even entering this season, it appears Vick has the support of his comrades. While at a certain point, results are what will win the job, it may help Vick’s case considering Kelly is entering his first NFL job and might not want to ruffle too many feathers (no pun intended) in his first professional locker room.
In terms of Nick Foles, while he does not have the ‘wow factor’ that Vick possesses, he has found ways to remain on the roster, in contention for the starting job, despite everything working against him. Before the tailspin that was 2012, and when the team still had expectations to reach the playoffs, Foles figured very little into the long-term plans of the Eagles. Michael Vick was healthy, they were returning a stellar offensive line, and even if Vick did get hurt, the supreme talent at the skill positions made it so putting in a more experienced backup might give the team a better chance to win. Yet, after Vick left the team’s first preseason game, opportunity presented itself for Foles and he made the most of it. Foles was tied for the preseason lead with six touchdown passes, and demonstrated a calmness and awareness in the pocket that was well beyond his years. Foles seemed very much at home in the offense, and while the team remained committed to Vick upon the return from his injury, Foles had left an unforgettable impact on the coaching staff, the media, and the fanbase. Those clamoring for a dropback quarterback saw Foles as the savior and, as the team went from contender to punch-line, the desire to see Foles get some action reached a fever pitch. Once Vick left a November 11th game vs. the Cowboys with an injury, Foles would get his chance. All things considering, without the services of DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and 4/5 of his offensive line, Foles impressed in his six games in relief of Vick. In a season of lowlights, Foles’ comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who were still relevant at the time) was a bright spot as the team stumbled through the regular season. With a respectable completion percentage (60.8), touchdown to interception ratio (6/5), and even a rushing touchdown sprinkled in, Foles had done enough to, at least in the minds of the Philadelphia faithful, nudge Vick out the door and take over the reins moving forward.
After the team decided to part ways with head coach Andy Reid, Foles was the odds on favorite to be the new head coach’s starting quarterback. Realistically, were it any prospective hire other than Chip Kelly, it was hard to picture an argument for anyone but Foles, save someone in the much-maligned 2013 NFL Draft. Sure enough, the Eagles brought Kelly into the fold and the rest is history.
While Foles has confidently stated that he is up to the challenge of the complex Chip Kelly offense, his limitations will force him to excel in ways that Vick cannot. While critics will immediately jump at the fact that Foles runs about as fast as the now-retired Hollis Thomas, Kelly’s creativity and a plethora of weapons should allow Foles to succeed without being the running threat that Vick is. While Vick spent a great deal of his life running more of a ‘one-man offense’ type approach, Foles is well-versed in the new-school approach to offense that has emerged from the college game. He spent a great deal of his college career in the shotgun, and realizes the importance of getting rid of the ball quickly. In Eagles Insiders’ Jimmy Kempski’s blog, he notes that Foles’ release time (2.7 seconds) was faster than Vick’s (3.0 seconds) and compared well to other young QBs running spread-option offenses. Whether they are as good as we think they are, the Eagles’ skill players have excelled in the league and it figures that Chip Kelly will make finding ways to use these players his top priority. For all his talent, it seemed at times that Michael Vick was unable to take advantage of such weapons. Foles did not throw the ball downfield as much as Vick did, but with his quick release and accurate throws, he was able to get the ball in the hands of playmakers and utilize them in an effective manner. Combining the team’s skill players on the outside, with new acquisitions Zach Ertz and James Casey, one can imagine that the term ‘game manager’ will take a new meaning with all the options of moving the ball downfield.
While Vick’s exploits were mostly between the 20-yard lines, his struggles in the red zone made any success a quick afterthought. Between taking sacks and turning the ball over, Michael Vick’s inability to cash in on red zone opportunities became the main point of frustration with last year’s team. Yet with Foles in the game, while he was not Tom Brady in the red zone, the team improved and did not turn the ball over. Whether it was his ability to see over the line or having the wherewithal to throw the ball away and preserve the team’s chances for points, Foles demonstrated an impressive poise in the red zone that helped his confidence through the season. Projecting toward the Chip Kelly offense, where the downfield throws that became a trademark of Andy Reid’s gameplan will decrease drastically, Foles’ ability to operate in tight quarters should bode well for him moving forward.
While both quarterbacks certainly possess a number of favorable skills that any head coach would have, Kelly is in the interesting position where he is picking between two players who could not be any more different. Where one player excels, the other usually falters, and vice versa. There is very little that crosses over either players game, and both have demonstrated the pros and cons of their respective skill set.
If Kelly decides to side with Vick as the week one starter, not only is he putting the team in a position where their starter is in jeopardy of injuring himself on any play, but he is also hitching his wagon to a player who probably won’t stay on the team, or in the league for too much longer. Vick is a known commodity at this point. While his skills are still impressive, there is very little that he can do to surprise anyone anymore. It used to be a given that, at least during his prime years, Vick would do something that no one had ever seen before at least once in a season. He has baffled defenders, frustrated coordinators, and amazed teammates countless times over his career.
However, and it shows more and more every week, teams are deciding to take their chances that Vick will turn in a few big plays a game, knowing they can hurt the Eagles more in the scheme of the game by forcing him into turnover situations. Whether it was a good defense or a bad defense, Vick often times depended on his athleticism too much and, sometimes multiple times a game, would turn the ball over, draining any sort of momentum the team may have built to that point. While the team as a whole has turned into one of the more unsettling turnover machines in recent memory the last few years, it is often the Vick turnovers that frustrate the most, due to their avoidable nature. Whether it is trying to run for five more yards after already gaining a first down and fumbling, or taking a shot at the endzone late in a game after recording a first down and having it intercepted, ending the game. (2010 playoffs) To put things in perspective, the ‘perfect’ Michael Vick game, and there have been a few over the past few years, would probably garner a more impressive performance than the ‘perfect’ Nick Foles game. However, the Eagles don’t necessarily need a perfect performance every time considering the talent they have surrounded their quarterbacks with. While putting the team on your back and winning a game is great every once in a while, any coach would probably prefer their team to spend less time marveling at the exploits of their quarterback, and more time raising their performance to a new level to assist the men they stand in the huddle with. Save a few games over the past few postseasons, playoff teams rarely advance behind the efforts of a ‘perfect’ quarterback performance. Winning teams grind out wins, protect the ball, force turnovers, and their quarterback makes sure they are in a position to win at the end of the game. A win by 30 and a win by 1 count for the same, and it seemed like, mostly resulting from a high volume of turnovers, Vick was feast or famine.
As far as Foles goes, no matter how good he looked in the 2012 preseason and the glimpses he showed when the team was playing for nothing last season, there are still red flags that cannot be ignored. Foles’ arm stregnth, which strangely was a reason many teams saw him as an intriguing prospect, did not translate well to the NFL game last season. Whether it is a matter of footwork, arm slot, or just a poor scouting report, Foles did not demonstrate the sort of zip on his throws that kept defenses a step behind. Scheme and route-running can go a long way in the NFL, but at a certain point, if a quarterback is unable to drive the ball in a tough spot and beat the defense, a smart defensive unit will key in on the pockets where finesse throwers tend to target and feast on them. While many supporters will point to Tom Brady, who had to work on his arm strength while leading the early 2000s Patriots to three super bowls, as a beacon of hope for Foles to develop arm strength, it is very unfair to compare situations. When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, it was on the heels of their defense and a simplified game plan that Brady ran exceptionally well. Before he became the prolific passer that he is today, Brady was at his best when his attempts were limited and he could keep his team in a position to win. The team was usually in such a position because their defense made it happen. The Eagles defense entering this season could not be further away than those memorable units, and I cannot imagine Chip Kelly wants to hold anything back once games start.
Foles does not have to build up to a Matthew Stafford level arm to succeed in the Chip Kelly offense. However, it is essential that he demonstrate an ability to make throws on all three levels of the field: short, medium, and long. With the complex running schemes, emphasis on option routes, and high tempo of the play-calling, whoever is selected as quarterback must be able to do his part to keep defenses from keying in on a certain level of the field. While he might be able to dink and dunk a team down the field for a few early touchdowns, the better defenses will realize that and play underneath, forcing the Eagles to go over the top. If Foles cannot show an ability to hit seam, out, and fly routes with somewhat consistency, I have a hard time seeing him as a major player in Chip Kelly’s long-term vision.
After going back and forth on this issue for a while after the hire of Kelly, I came to a stance a little while ago. Chip Kelly was brought into this organization because he knew how to score in more ways than any coach available. Everything that he does, whether on a day-to-day basis or a long-term outlook, is geared toward making his offense the most unpredictable, effective unit in the league. While the blitz revolutionized how teams played defense in football, it would appear that Kelly wishes to take that concept and embed it onto the offensive side of the ball. Any way he can do it, Chip wishes to put the ball in the endzone at a dizzying rate. He is conditioning all his players, on both sides of the ball, to buy into that concept and keep everyone in tuned to the fact that they must score to succeed.
Because of this, I believe Foles will ultimately win the job this year. While Vick is as fierce a competitor as one will find playing quarterback in the NFL, he puts it all on his shoulders. Accountability is important in the NFL, but a player that has only succeeded when he was the most talented player on the field leaves himself vulnerable to unfavorable tendencies. While it is uncertain whether Kelly could coax it out of him, Vick plays the NFL version of ‘Hero Ball’ that has become so prevalent in the NBA. When there are that many world-class athletes on the field at once, even if you happen to be the best one by a little, the odds work against you in such a way that the individualistic approach catches up with you.
Having read enough about Kelly and trying to read between the lines of his cryptic talk on the competition, I just don’t see him having the patience to try to figure out how to get Vick to stop turning the ball over. One can spend all day in a classroom, but when the bullets are flying, so to speak, instincts take over. In the case of Vick, 33 years of instincts telling you to try to win it on your own is a tough voice to drown out. In the red zone specifically, where there isn’t enough room for ‘Hero Ball’, Vick’s shortcomings will ultimately be his undoing. Due to the expected high tempo of the offense and potential strain on the defense, coming out on the field every couple of minutes, it is imperative that this team score touchdowns in the red zone. Honestly, in Chip Kelly’s perfect world, he probably would not even have a kicker or punter on his roster and find a way to utilize two bodies in a more effective way to score touchdowns. While it is unreasonable to think the team won’t have to kick the occasional field goal in the red zone, to turn the ball over within the 20 is unacceptable if this new regime is to succeed.
Foles is a moldable commodity. He has very few preconceived notions on what works for him in the NFL, and does not have a rolodex of NFL playbooks muddling his ability to incorporate new ideas. Spending just one year on a tumultuous franchise probably has served Foles in the sense that he has very little attachment to the sort of critical and negative environment that typified the last days of the Andy Reid era. He has come into training camp hungry, eager to learn, and serious about his pursuit of the starting job. While it will require him ultimately winning the job over Vick, I feel as if Foles can be a fit for this year’s version of the Chip Kelly offense.
I was not alone when I made a snap judgement, assuming Foles was out the door when Kelly was hired. In a division with some of the most electrifying, dynamic, and criticized quarterbacks in the league, the unassuming Foles almost seems out-of-place next to the sometimes larger than life Vick. However, this offense is not about the quarterback, for this year at least. This year will be about Chip Kelly doing his best to stay ahead of his opponent and use the quarterback as a medium to drive his game plan. There may be a day down the line where Kelly finds the sort of dynamic, athletic talent that Vick once was to be the trigger man for, what would probably at that point be an electrifying offense. Yet for this year, with an entire roster learning a new way of playing the game, there is no room for a player who, while impressive at times as Vick is, breaks free from the game plan and forces the team to get out of their comfort zone multiple times throughout a game. I am not discounting the outside chance that Matt Barkley, a quarterback that Chip Kelly handpicked, could win the starting job. If you’re asking me who get the nod between Foles and Vick, I’m taking Foles and it’s not very close.