With every passing week that goes by, the stats become more and more difficult to believe. He is 4-1 as a starter under a first year coach with a penchant for dual-threat quarterbacks. He’s thrown 16 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and has but one turnover on a team that was last in the league in turnover margin a year ago. His passer rating is nearly 10 points higher than the 2nd highest in the league, who just happens to be likely 2013 MVP Peyton Manning. Most importantly, he has a team that finished 2012 with a 4-12 record in the driver’s seat in the NFC East and is raising the expectations for the Philadelphia Eagles on a daily basis. If this was a quarterback that was selected with a top-5 pick, or probably even any first round selection, the media and fanbase would be pre-ordering tickets to Canton, OH about 20 years in advance of his pending Hall of Fame induction. Instead, the goofy, lanky, even-keeled 3rd round pick from Arizona, who is more notable for his likeness to Napoleon Dynamite than his performance, apparently still has to prove he is the long-term answer for an Eagles team that was supposed to be re-building this season.
In fairness, most Eagles fans clamoring for Nick Foles started well before the present. His similar performance, albeit under Andy Reid, in the 2012 preseason had people wondering if the team had found their ‘Diamond in the Rough’. His comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in relief of an injured Michael Vick, heightened Foles’ cult-following to new levels. After the 2012 campaign mercifully ended, many were excited about the prospect of Foles entering the 2013 season as the unquestioned starter under a new coach with a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, at the time at least, only half of that vision was true for the Eagles.
Of all the different candidates that the Eagles’ management team brought in to interview for the now-vacant head coaching position, only one appeared to employ tactics that would make Foles a poor option under center. After Chip Kelly initially declared his intention to remain at the college ranks, it was only assumed that Michael Vick had played his last game as an Eagle and the team’s new coach, most likely Gus Bradley, would hitch his wagon to Foles. The unpredictability of the NFL reared its ugly head and Kelly had a change of heart, perhaps aided by the news of pending sanctions at Oregon, and the offensive guru that dazzled the NCAA for four years accepted the head coaching position for the Eagles.
Almost immediately, the assumption was that Kelly’s arrival would extend Vick’s tenure and spell the end for the lumbering Foles. Kelly’s use of mobile quarterbacks in his version of the read-option offense had made countless defenses look foolish, as Oregon racked up points at a record pace. Even with Kelly declaring his ideal quarterback to be one that makes quick decisions and does not turn the ball over, two weaknesses of Vick, it was tough not to wonder if the new coach could tap into the limitless talent of ‘Starship Seven’ and unleash his offense on the NFL.
Sure enough, much to the chagrin of a majority of Eagles fans, the organization brought back Vick on a one-year deal, and many assumed Foles would be trade bait. Speculation only continued to rise when the team selected Matt Barkley in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. The usual storyline is that new coaches want to hand-pick their own quarterback and, while Barkley clearly was not the prospect he was in 2012, Kelly had played against the USC Trojan and many felt he was the new coach’s option for the future.
However, time continued to pass and Foles remained on the roster. The new head coach relentlessly exclaimed his support of the statuesque quarterback, and assured people that there was a place for him in his offense. Kelly made good on his word and, prior to the start of his first training camp, declared the QB #1 slot on the depth chart up for grabs, thus beginning the 2013 Eagles quarterback competition.
Throughout the preseason, both Vick and Foles had their ups and downs in Kelly’s new schemes. While the ‘Michael Vick’ version of the offense pushed the ball downfield via the vertical passing game and was littered with designed runs for the still-mobile Vick, Foles demonstrated a calmness and accuracy in the passing game that appeared just as effective. It was not until an ill-advised interception in the 2nd preseason game, a game started by Foles, that many jumped on the Michael Vick bandwagon and removed Foles from the equation.
As expected, Vick was named the starter by the beginning of the regular season. His electrifying performance in the team’s week 1 win over the Redskins made Foles’ name an afterthought. Instead, everyone wondered about all the different offensive records the Eagles would break with a rejuvenated Mike Vick under center. Weeks went by and, while the offense moved the ball at a staggering rate, some of Vick’s turnover issues and problems in the red zone resurfaced. The team lost three straight contests and many feared that Kelly’s schemes would just be another flash in the pan that could not stick in the NFL. When Vick left the team’s week 4 showdown with the Giants, we would all find out why Kelly was so fond of a quarterback who was seemingly a non-option for the team’s fast-paced attack.
Foles silenced the doubters over two straight weeks. He led the team out of a potentially devastating loss in the Meadowlands and engineered an efficient win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Returning to Philadelphia with a pair of home division matchups, one could argue that Foles had a chance to take over the position.
Instead, Foles regressed a great deal in the team’s week 7 loss to the Cowboys. Before leaving the game with a concussion, the usually accurate and poised Foles was jumpy and wild with his throws, as the team looked on at a pending loss in a very winnable situation. If Foles was going to regain the support of the organization and fanbase, he would have to recover from his injury and start from square one in a big way.
If his performance in the Dallas game was square one, Foles’ next performance would launch him ahead past where he was prior to it. His record-tying 7 touchdown showing in Oakland showed that the 2nd year quarterback could bounce back from a poor showing, as well as a head injury. The following week, albeit against a Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team, Foles led his team to a win on the road against a division leader. Finally, with a ten-game home losing streak resting on his shoulder, Foles was masterful leading the Eagles to a crucial win against a desperate Washington Redskins team before entering the bye week.
At 6-5, the Eagles lead the division with only five games remaining. To say that Nick Foles has exceeded expectations would be the understatement of the century. We are seeing an electrifying, dynamic offense, but it is not the one we all expected. Everyone had penciled in Chip Kelly as a coach that could only succeed at the highest level if all of the variables were just the way he wanted. Instead, we have seen Kelly rapidly adjust his playbook to better suit the skills that Foles brings to the table, and the results have been uncanny. With the division being as poor as it is this season, the Eagles have put themselves in a position to be in the drivers seat on their march toward the postseason.
Yet, there are those that still wonder if Foles is a legitimate option for this team down the road. With a draft class loaded with athletic quarterbacks and the tantalizing version of Kelly’s offense that Michael Vick showed in week 1, there are still detractors of Foles. Whether it is due to the fact that he was a third round pick (like Russell Wilson ), or that they’ve seen one bad game from him (anyone watch Robert Griffin III this past weekend?), or that he’s a bit goofy looking (but Andrew Luck is a supermodel right?), there is still a very recognizable lack of support for Foles among the Eagles’ fan circles.
So what does Nick Foles have to do to convince these people otherwise? Nothing necessarily, the fans don’t decide the starting quarterback. That being said, for all the critics of Philadelphia fans, they are not dumb and often have a pretty good pulse on when things have gotten away from a player. Foles does not have the same sort of slack that a 1st round pick would have, and the fact that Chip Kelly did not draft Foles makes his leash even shorter. While Kelly does appear quite happy with his quarterback situation as it is, a few rough showings and a stalled offense down the stretch could make it a whole lot easier to fall in love with a Johnny Manziel draft pick.
Fortunately for Foles, what he has been doing to this point is exactly what he has to continue doing. The thing that is so captivating about the Eagles quarterback, is that he honestly is a little boring going about his business. There have been several Joe Flacco comparisons, and the more you watch, the more warranted the praise becomes. In a division with three mercurial talents at the quarterback position, Foles is a much steadier, unassuming figure at such a high-profile position. There are many that feel that Kelly could plug anyone with a remotely similar skill set in Foles’ position and they would not miss a beat. I find this to be a very lazy argument that has several holes in it. When Michael Vick was under center, players like Riley Cooper and Zach Ertz were almost non-factors in the offense. With Foles in the game, Cooper has become a valuable weapon and downfield option for Foles, and Ertz is showing the sort of vertical potential we all salivated over. The link between Kelly and Foles is the fact that his offense is designed to create numbers mismatches at different points around the field, and it is up to the quarterback to diagnose and decide in a very short amount of time. Chip has often praised Foles’ methodical approach on the field, crediting his ‘fleet of mind’ for making up for his fleet of foot. It is abundantly clear that Foles is immersed in Kelly’s scheme 100% and is an extension of the head coach on the field.
What Foles cannot do if he wants to hold onto his starting spot is trust his talent alone to get the job done. There are countless quarterbacks over time that have dazzled with their freelance approach to the position, using athleticism and arm strength to make up for what they lack in other traits. Yet we keep seeing this quarterbacks plummet back down to Earth when either their approach is figured out, or they lose the capability of winning on talent alone. It is those quarterbacks that trust their offense and playbook enough to make it unconscious that ultimately win where it matters. Especially in the case of the Eagles, the head coach should be in charge of doing most of the ‘thinking’ over the course of the game. If the entire team is dialed in and on the same page as their coach, it makes the high-pressure situations, where one is too tired to think, much more manageable. After a loss, I would rather hear my head coach say that the opposition had the perfect play called to combat the one run by the offense rather than the quarterback saying something like, “I thought I saw an opening and it just wasn’t there.” There is little doubt that the quarterback is the most important position in sports, but at the end of the day they are on the field to do their job as their coach sees fit. Nick has done that exceptionally well to this point and, as long as he remains accurate and decisive, should fit the needs of his head coach. There is very little ‘trainwreck’ factor to Foles’ game. When there is pressure in his face, he usually goes down for the sack. He does not try to backpedal out of a tackle and lose an extra 10 yards. He knows that the offense has the weapons to make up a marginal loss, rather than giving the opposition a momentum play that flips the script of the game. Because of his acknowledgement of the numbers game that Kelly highlights in his scheme, his incompletions are often to a patch of empty grass and not an opponents’ hands. He has gotten lucky with a few dropped interceptions, but it’s an accident that he is among the stingiest when it comes to protecting the football.
As much of a cop-out as it may seem, I don’t think there is anything extra that Foles has to do to position himself to be the team’s starter moving forward. If he continues to trust the offense and himself, he will continue to succeed because the scheme is one with very few holes in it. Foles has a great connection with almost all of the team’s skill players, and it is a testament considering he was not the starter during the offseason. The longer that Kelly and Foles remained linked, the more complex and thus, more effective the Eagles’ offense can be. In a matter of half a season, Kelly has had to use three different quarterbacks and still has the 2nd ranked offense in the NFL. The team lost a legitimate starting receiver before the season started, but have had more players making contributions every week. One can only wonder what Chip Kelly could do without the built-in limitations of the 3-4 year college career of every quarterback that he has had before. From what we’ve seen, this is an offense that builds upon itself every week. For the most part, Kelly has done an admirable job of ‘counter-punching’ the adjustments made by opponents. If he is as smart as he has appeared in his first year as a coach, why would he not want to hang on to the quarterback that has helped him achieve consistent, albeit short, success?
Foles’ top priority should be gradually making the improvements to his game that have limited him, while perfecting the skills that have helped him succeed. He may not always throw the best deep ball, but it’s usually the right decision. He’s not a very fast runner, but he’s fast enough to get a first down because he makes the right decision. At the end of the day, is there that much of a difference between a 10-yard run and a 20-yard run by the quarterback? It is his job to move the ball down the field with his arm and pick up a play here and there when the opportunity presents itself. As long as he keeps working on sliding, Foles’ mobility should not be an issue when considering him for the long-term option.
As far as wins and losses, it is unfair to put that burden on one player. Even if he is a quarterback, to win late in the season and in the playoffs, it takes the effort of an entire team to win the types of heated matchups that take place. I do not think that Foles will let any sort of situation get to him from a mental / psychological standpoint, as long as he continues to trust the schemes that Kelly is drawing up and throwing the ball with a purpose.
At the beginning of the season, I thought Mike Vick had done enough to earn the starting job as long as he was healthy. As much as I enjoyed the offense under Vick when it was working, he still showed the tendencies of a quarterback that finds himself in too many ‘trainwreck’ situations. You were always excited to watch Vick play, but that excitement came with the caveat of worrying about when he was going to throw an interception or get hurt. With the exception of the Cowboys game, I have found very few occasions where I’ve had to worry about Foles. I am more excited to watch the offense as a unit than to watch one individual who happens to throw the ball. Much like the way that Billy Davis’ defensive unit is playing, an effective offense should operate as a single entity rather than a group of individuals.
As a lifelong Eagles fan, I’ve been treated to some of the most spectacular talents to play the quarterback position in this generation. What do I have to show for it? An NFC Championship trophy and Michael Vick’s Monday Night Football highlight against the Redskins. The organization made a huge splash when they hired Chip Kelly from the college ranks. From what we’ve seen so far, his philosophy works with the sort of steady, calming presence of a player like Nick Foles. Just once, lets see if the reason the team hasn’t won a Super Bowl is that their quarterback has succeeded as an individual his entire life and ran into a team that could stop him. Give me Nick Foles and an offense constructed by Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman, and I’ll take my chances.