Two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, Nick Foles was the best quarterback in the NFL. He was the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, throwing for 22-of-31, for 296 yards and 3 TDs, and even ran in a touchdown. His QBR (ESPN’s quarterback rating) was 89.8, and he was leading the NFL in completion percentage (at 58.3%) for passes of more than 15 yards.
With Mike Vick out because of a hamstring injury, fans were thinking “OK, I prefer a QB who can run the 40 in under a minute, but I forgot this dude is 6-foot-6! He’s awesome!” The starting QB job was his – if he had a good performance in the big showdown with the Dallas Cowboys. The lead in the NFC East, and inside position for a playoff berth, was on the line.
This Sunday against the Cowboys, Foles was the worst quarterback in the NFL (unless you count Josh Freeman of the Vikings), going 11-29 for 80 yards with 3 sacks. He missed all eight of his long passes. Foles’ total QBR fell more than tenfold, to 7.5; only Freeman (in a disastrous Monday Night Football game, soon after joining the Viks) was lower, at 6.1. It was ugly. Sheil Kapadia identified nine wide open receivers who Foles missed, including Jason Avant all lonely in the end zone.
That play took a bizarre turn. The pass was horribly underthrown and, as Avant dove forward to catch it, the ball appeared to bounce off his fingers, off his foot and into the air — at which point Cowboys safety JJ Wilcox hurdled Avant’s body and caught the ball in mid-air, for an interception. The INT was overturned after a review because the nose of the ball touched the turf before it hit Avant’s hands, but the play summed up the Eagles’ futility in one neat package.
Then, on the last play of the third quarter, Foles dropped back and held the ball for 9.3 seconds until a sack knocked him out of the game with a concussion. Matt Barkley came in, threw three interceptions within nine minutes, and STILL had a total QBR of 20.5, nearly three times better than Foles’. It was that bad.
It wasn’t just that Foles couldn’t throw; he couldn’t move the team down field either. Jimmy Kempski summed up the results of the Eagles’ 14 drives: “Punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, missed FG, punt, punt, FG, INT, INT, INT. And the one FG they did get was a 10-play, 17-yard drive.” Ouch.
So what could have possibly turned Foles from the NFL’s best QB into its worst, in seven short days? No one is really sure. It could’ve been the pressure, though how can you ever know? Coach Kelly thought it was “fundamentals,” specifically footwork. Some speculated that Foles had an unknown injury, perhaps the mild groin pull that the Eagles had reported earlier in the week, or an unnoticed concussion early in the game. Neither seems very likely though.
At an excellent new X’s-and-O’s blog named “ChipWagon,” the unidentified author illustrated how Foles’ inability to run undermined Chip Kelly’s read option in general, and LeSean McCoy’s running game, in particular. That was certainly a factor. Also interesting is that Foles’ two best games, Game 6 this year and his only win as a starter last year, were against Tampa Bay. They have a decent defense despite their record, but they also play zone defense — and it’s clear that teams have better luck against these Eagles playing man up. But that doesn’t explain why Foles would miss easy pitch-and-catch passes.
The sad thing is that the Eagles played very well, aside from Foles, a few missed blocks by the offensive line and McCoy, who was off his game. This team is actually coming together very nicely. As Kempski put it, the Eagles would have won this game if they “had gotten so much as a bad performance (as opposed to an absolutely awful one) from their QB.”
The offensive scheme got receivers open all the time, and — as the ChipWagon article notes — the offensive line is routinely getting to the second level, even on failed plays. Most impressively, the defense was excellent, limiting the Cowboys — the NFL’s second-most powerful offense before this game — to three points in the first half and 17 overall. Dallas punted nine times and got only 74 yards on the ground. Tony Romo had not been intercepted more than once in a game this year, but the Eagles picked him off twice. One INT set up their only score, the field goal after that bizarre Avant-almost-interception in the endzone.
The best theory I saw came from Brad Gagnon over at Bleacher Report, which noted that Foles was sacked on the first drive, then pressured into an intentional grounding call. After that, he just seems to have lost his composure — he abandoned the pocket even when he had good protection, often couldn’t see open receivers and threw wildly when he did find them.
More broadly, this game underlined the fact that Foles is simply erratic. He started several games last year but was up and down – with a lot of down. Even this year, he did poorly in the fourth preseason game, when the pressure was off. At a certain point, you just have to accept that starting Foles is a roll of the dice. You might get a great game, or a poor one.
Chip Kelly had another controversially cautious play call Sunday; the website Grantland called it the worst coaching decision of the week. The Eagles had a 4th-and-1 at the Cowboys’ 42-yard line with 14 seconds left in the half. They had a time out left. Kelly decided to try a 60-yard field goal, even though kicker Alex Henery’s longest made FG was 51 yards. Predictably, he missed (though wide, not short). The Cowboys had great field position, a time out left and time for two bombs or a 20-yarder that would put them in field goal range. Luckily, Earl Wolff intercepted a Hail Mary in the end zone.
A punt or a run would have been much safer. The Eagles had a time out, so they could have called a pass of any length, or a run. How about a 15-yard pass to a tight end up the seam? Low risk, potential to score and you can always call time out to try an easier field goal.
Kelly seems to have forgotten how much of a vote of confidence he gives his team when he goes for it, and how much doubt he communicates when he doesn’t. That swagger of aggressive play calling was a big part of the Ducks’ success in the Kelly years, and still is after his departure. Or maybe that’s the answer, staring us in the face: that Kelly simply doesn’t trust this Eagles team to deliver. And, given Nick Foles’ erratic play, it’s hard to blame him.
Mark Saltveit’s best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at the Oregon Ducks Stores in Portland, Eugene and Bend, at Powells Books, at the Multnomah Athletic Club M-Porium in Portland, various bookstores in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/