The notion that an NFL team’s success only goes as far as its quarterback takes it is widely recognized enough to almost be considered fact at this point. With very few exceptions (2000 Ravens; 2002 Buccaneers), every Super Bowl since the start of the 21st century has been won by the team whose quarterback played exceptional, and better than his counterpart. Even current players who some critics are not necessarily sold on as ‘elite’ caliber, such as Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, performed masterfully and led their teams to Super Bowl titles during postseason runs. With the way the NFL has become, the quarterback is arguably the most important position in professional sports.
Whenever a new coach enters the league, or is hired for the first time for the position, the common narrative is that he immediately wants to bring in ‘his guy’ to join him in his first season and move forward together. As NFL offenses continue to take on more qualities of college-style scheming and personnel, the amount of catering of playbooks toward their quarterbacks’ skillset is at an all-time high. When Oregon head coach Chip Kelly emerged as a legitimate coaching candidate, people saw the success of players like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, and immediately envisioned what Kelly, a supposed guru of the type of offense’s run by the 49ers and Redskins, could do with the right personnel. When the Eagles won the services of Kelly, immediately the speculation started swirling as to who would be playing quarterback for the coach with zero NFL experience. After four years of staggering success with the use of mostly mobile quarterbacks, everybody naturally assumed that Kelly would want a player with a dynamic athletic ability to go along with passing prowess. Looking at the Philadelphia roster, Michael Vick went from cast-off #1 of the offseason, to the probable veteran presence in Kelly’s locker room as his quarterback. Certainly it would not be second-year signal-caller Nick Foles, whose running ability had been mocked multiple times during his rookie season.
With no intriguing names on the free agent market, eyes shifted toward the draft. Much unlike in previous seasons, where top-flight quarterback prospects came in bunches, the 2013 crop was a much scanter pantry, so to speak. That being said, two of the names that found themselves toward the top of the draft boards as the event neared did have some of the attributes that many envisioned in Kelly’s first quarterback. One was Florida State’s E.J. Manuel; a big, athletic passer who posted four straight seasons of impressive numbers in the ACC. The other was Geno Smith, a senior from West Virginia, whose scintillating start and gaudy stats in the 2012 season shot in to the top of the draft boards. Smith’s name cooled as the evaluation process, as many saw his late-season struggles and questionable approach to the pre-draft process as a sign of bad things to come.
Still, people looked at the Eagles and their 4th overall draft position and the link was instant. Most of Smith’s exploits came in the passing game at West Virginia, but he had shown more than enough athletic prowess and mobility to garner association to Chip Kelly’s name in Philadelphia. The presence of Michael Vick as a veteran mentor and an offense that had some similarities to Smith’s at West Virginia seemed to make it a perfect fit. When owner Jeffrey Lurie and General Manager Howie Roseman traveled to West Virginia to privately scout Smith at his college facilities, the rumors scorched to an inferno. With Smith’s name falling down the boards, there was even the thought the Eagles would not have to spend their first round pick on the quarterback, and could get him in the 2nd round or by trading into the late stages of the first.
The draft came and went and Smith was not taken in the first, or the second round by the Eagles. He was available at both the 4th and 35th pick, but the Eagles passed him up twice and Smith was taken with the 39th selection by the New York Jets. The Eagles stuck with Vick and Foles heading into the season, and drafted Matt Barkley in the 4th round. After a bizarre (shocking) preseason for the Jets that saw Mark Sanchez injured in relief action during one of the team’s exhibition, Smith was named the starter going into week 1. Fast-forward to week 7, many looked at the situations of both teams and one could not help and wonder if the Eagles had made a mistake. Smith had just out-dueled (relatively speaking) Tom Brady and led the Jets to a 30-27 overtime victory over the Patriots and had his team sitting at 4-3, breathing down the neck of New England. Meanwhile, the Eagles had just been handed a tall glass of reality, falling at home to the Cowboys 17-3. Nick Foles, in his second start since replacing an injured Michael Vick, had turned in his worst performance of his career, regressing substantially from his previous two games before bowing out due to a head injury. After gaining some momentum in the ‘quarterback of the future’ Nick Foles had almost completely fallen off the map as far as a legitimate option down the road. There was a contingency that effectively eliminated the Eagles as far as contention for 2013, and shifted their focus to what the Eagles would do to address the position in the offseason. There were even some that preferred a ‘tanking’ approach to try and slot the Eagles high enough to draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who played a year under Kelly. With Foles on the shelf and the Eagles floundering for a second straight week against the Giants, some discussions swirled as to why the Eagles did not draft Geno Smith, who looked as if he was blossoming earlier than many expected.
Here we are at week 13 and, needless to say, the narrative has tilted just a bit. Team’s have adjusted to the Jets offensive approach with Smith at the helm, and the rookie has regressed as opponents continue to key in on his weaknesses. In his latest debacle, a home loss to the Dolphins, Smith was benched in favor of Matt Simms and the hero of the halfway point for New York had to watch his squad fall to a solid, but not spectacular Miami team. Smith has not thrown a touchdown since that week 7 win over New England. In the games since, he has thrown eight interceptions and reached double-digit completions just once. Smith’s Jets career is by no means over, but the enthusiasm brought to the organization when he did succeed has cooled off dramatically.
Meanwhile, back on the homefront, this is becoming a thing.
Peyton-like streak puts Eagles’ Nick Foles in MVP discussion http://t.co/H4j8fsohbq
— SN’s Vinnie Iyer (@vinnieiyer) December 2, 2013
For the record, this is premature and ridiculous, fun, but let’s be honest. Foles has played so far beyond expectations, but to even have him in the same stratosphere as the season Peyton Manning is having is not even worth the consideration. What Foles has done for himself, is put himself back in the good graces of the fanbase and organization. Barring some sort of cataclysmic collapse to the season, Foles has solidified himself as the probable choice as the franchise quarterback for the 2014 season at the very least. Should the Eagles quarterback continue to operate near the clip he’s currently at, one could even make an argument that, if healthy, he is the best option beyond 2014 as the quarterback linked to Chip Kelly. Foles has demonstrated enough ‘functional mobility’ to keep opponents’ honest with his legs, and has displayed a masterful control of Kelly’s passing offense, throwing for 19 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions during the 2013 season.
So with the Eagles sitting at 7-5, tied for 1st in the division; and the Jets at 5-7, staring up from 3rd place in the AFC East one cannot help but reconsider the possibility that Geno Smith could have been an Eagle very easily. Honestly, I was shocked and a bit miffed when I saw Smith having success early on this season. More because people were praising Marty Morhinweg for putting together a uniquely simple offense that highlighted Smith’s strengths and masked his weaknesses. The way the Jets were playing seemed similar to some of the early Randall Cunningham-Buddy Ryan teams. Much like the current New York Jets, the late 1980s-early 1990s Eagles leaned more on their defense and a running game. Cunningham explained in the NFL Network Documentary, “The Football Life: Randall Cunningham” that Buddy Ryan only expected him to make a handful of plays over the course of the game and leave the rest to the other pieces of the team. For a while this season, that worked pretty well for the Jets. Rex Ryan, for all his critics, is still arguably the premiere defensive mind in the game and has a way of motivating teams that might not have the most talent. Now we see though, that Smith’s current shortcomings could not be masked long enough for a team as flawed as the Jets to maintain a playoff run. The league is so much more geared toward offense than it was during the Buddy Ryan years, that it is almost impossible to get by without at least competency at the position.
So you have to wonder what would have happened had the Eagles drafted Smith after all. There is no sure way of telling, but there would be a few similarities with more variables than what Smith had to deal with in New York. Assuming Michael Vick would start the season at the top of the depth chart, it is tough to imagine that Smith would have done enough to win the starting job out of camp. However, as we saw this season, Vick would have probably gotten hurt at some point or another, and Smith would have to take over the reins at some point or another.
After following Chip Kelly’s first season of coaching in the NFL more closely than I’ve followed most Eagles’ seasons, one can somewhat envision how things might have worked. For one, much like the Jets do, I think Kelly would try to incorporate his other two running backs more. While Smith has a strong arm for certain, he clearly has mechanical issues and anticipatory problems to overcome. Much more of the Jets offense seems to be played toward the middle of the field, with an emphasis on running plays and passes to the tight ends and seam routes. The Eagles do have the personnel that could make this work, probably even more than the Jets do. I would have imagined Zach Ertz probably would have been a priority target earlier in the season, and the team would run much more two-man routes compared to their current spread approach. Also, after seeing some of the sweeping success that Michael Vick had as a rusher in Kelly’s offense, you would have to imagine Smith would be used much more as a weapon compared to the occasional convenience run by Foles.
What Kelly has basically had to disprove all season long was that he could not work with a quarterback that did not have plus mobility. He has been pigeon-holed from the start as a read-option coach and the prolific performances of such quarterbacks during 2012 only increases the stubbornness to that assumption. All the while though, Kelly has maintained the same philosophy and approach. It is this reasoning that, ultimately, makes me think that bringing Smith in and trying to make it work with Kelly would have been a disaster with far-reaching implications.
One of the things that Kelly has harped on in his praise for Nick Foles is the young quarterback’s ‘fleet of mind’ making up for his lack of footspeed. You can see it on the field, Foles is the puppet to Kelly’s puppeteer. Through relentless reps, tireless film work, extensive communication, and most importantly trust, Kelly and Foles have synced up to form a formidable offensive mind-power that is unstoppable at times. While luck has a lot to do with Foles’ lack of turnovers, a lot of it is a numbers game that the Eagles quarterback seems to have bought into. Rather than trying to make plays when there are none available, Foles trusts enough that Kelly’s scheming, gameplanning, and playcalling will provide low-risk opportunities to make equally big plays. Even without the threat of Michael Vick running the ball, the frequency of big plays by the Eagles offense is still high. You have to tip your cap to the collective effort of what we now know as two very sharp football minds to have the Eagles are where they currently are.
I do not know Geno Smith, nor do I want to come off sounding like I think he is not a bright young football player. What I do know, is that there is no way that Chip Kelly would have stood for a quarterback completing more than 10 passes just once in over a month of games. Geno Smith has shown the tools that, if brought up with patience and teaching, could translate to a very strong NFL quarterback. However, Chip Kelly has shown that he had no interest in waiting for contention and was willing to do whatever he thought would work to get his team to win. With a heavy emphasis on protecting the ball and completing passes to establish rhythm, the meticulous Kelly might have been driven to insanity with Smith at the helm. The emphasis on the running game would have to increase substantially, and teams would approach the Eagles with that knowledge. While the Eagles might have the personnel to run the ball effectively at an even higher clip than they currently are, their defense is not of the same talent level as New York’s and the trade-off would not be in the Eagles’ favor.
Honestly, after mildly entertaining the thought of Smith on the Eagles, it seems more and more like it would be a disaster. Ironically, Mark Sanchez being the whipping boy of New York for the last few seasons has allowed Smith to enter the league with much less pressure than what he probably would have had to deal with in Philadelphia. He still does not appear to have the mental toughness to bounce back from turnovers or poor throws that Foles has shown.As an Eagles fan, let’s just be happy that it is starting to look like Howie Roseman and Co. might know what they’re doing at the draft and that they passed up on Geno Smith. I can think of 19 reasons (at least) I wouldn’t want him on my team and, as it stands, zero reason to think the current option isn’t the answer we were looking for.