Since last week, the Eagles won an important game against the Giants, did not give up a turnover, showed play-making ability on defense with three interceptions and took first place in their very weak division with a 2-3 record (they’re ahead of the Cowboys, who are also 2-3, on tie breakers). DeSean Jackson was named Offensive Player of the Week for the NFC.
At the same time, Philadelphia lost starting quarterback Mike Vick to a hamstring pull, and they sorely miss starting safety Patrick Chung, who is out with a vague but “unique” shoulder injury (according to the coaches). The red zone continues to be kryptonite to an otherwise mighty Philadelphia offense and the Eagles’ powerful running game vanished after Foles came in, just before halftime. The offensive line and special teams, which looked so good on paper, have been erratic at best. And this week they face Tampa Bay, a dangerous opponent with a very tough defense.
Let’s pause a moment to reflect on just how great Michael Vick is as a runner. He’s 13th in the NFL for passing, but he’s 14th as a running back — better than half the league’s starting RBs, as I discussed at Bleeding Green Nation. There’s a lot of talk about what a great year RB Reggie Bush is having at Detroit, but Vick is doing better, on running alone. The Eagles’ QB has more than 300 yards, nine more than Bush on barely half as many carries. Vick leads the NFL in yards per carry (9.3) on a lot of attempts (33).
So, losing Vick will hurt the Eagles. The Philadelphia press LOVES the “quarterback controversy” and writes that Foles “led the Eagles to victory.” No. They led 16-7 when Vick got injured and won 36-21. If this was baseball, Foles would get a save, not a win.
Scribes immediately started asking if Vick might lose his starting job now. No. Chip was very clear in the post game press conference: Vick won the competition. Reporters insisted, “Even if Foles played lights out?” Fine, Chip grumbled. I suppose, if Foles goes 100-for-100 with 27 TDs, yeah, maybe. Reporters: “So there’s a chance?” You can understand why sportswriters annoy him.
There are plenty of Vick haters on the Philadelphia comment boards, and it’s hard not to see a bit of racism in some of those comments (“athletic but dumb” – seriously, dude?). The reality is that Foles is a solid NFL quarterback, but clearly finished second to Vick in their hard-fought competition.
The hidden benefit of Chip’s competitions, though, is that both QBs worked their butts off to learn this offense and got lots of reps with the first team players. So Nick Foles is well prepared to step in for Vick. He even got a couple of first downs and a touchdown on keepers out of the zone read in the preseason, admittedly against marginal players.
In the second half against New York, though, with Foles leading the charge, the Eagles’ running game vanished. LeSean McCoy ended up with only 46 yards rushing for the game, though he had the same number receiving. It was evident that Foles was not going to run, so defenders did not honor that side of the zone read.
Coach Kelly may have told Foles not to run. After all, Vick was out with an injury and the team hadn’t activated 3rd-string QB Matt Barkley. If Foles got injured pushing for a first down, who would have been the quarterback? Slot receiver Jason Avant, who was last year’s emergency quarterback? The 330-pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who often tosses 70-yard spirals in practice? Not a good risk.
Sheil Kapadia, an incisive columnist at Birds 24/7, told me that he doubted this theory. Foles kept the ball on one zone read (for a three-yard gain) and didn’t pass up any obvious QB runs. The more likely cause was a defensive maneuver by the Giants called the “nut stunt” (described in this analysis by Kapadia), which center Jason Kelce admits he had trouble handling.
The real problem for Philadelphia has been the red zone. The Eagles are 30th (of 32 teams) in converting possessions inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns. Instead, they are kicking a lot of field goals – five against the Giants alone. Alex Henery is second in the NFL in field goals made, trailing only New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, and New England is even worse than Philadelphia in red zone percentage (31st). If Henery made just two of his three misses, he’d be ahead of Gostkowski, too.
You can beat the Giants three points at a time, but with Philadelphia’s Swiss cheese defense they are going to need touchdowns against better squads. Nick Foles has so far done better in the red zone than Vick, which gives some optimism that he may be able to carry this team during Vick’s absence.
In fact, CSN Philly broadcaster Michael Barkann has proposed a dramatic solution: make Foles a red zone specialist – a closer such as Mariano Rivera, who comes in any time the Eagles get inside the 20. The best argument for this is that Foles is better on anticipatory throws, tossing to a planned spot before the receiver makes his break. Obviously, that is a huge advantage for the tight quarters around the goal line.
I like this idea, though it’s a radical change from NFL tradition and would risk insulting Michael Vick, a very proud man. I’d love to see it tried, if it didn’t cause too much locker room dissension. I’m not sure that Foles versus Vick is the red zone problem, though. You could also argue that Kelly’s play-calling — with very few runs near the goal line — is at fault.
If you look at the entire New York game, instead of just red zone possessions, Vick scored on four of six drives while Foles scored on four of eight. Foles had to punt twice as often. (And how great is it that neither had a turnover!)
Yes, Foles had two touchdown drives and Vick only one, but it seems to me that the real difference was starting field position. Foles’ TDs came on very short fields, due to interceptions; he started those drives on New York’s 25 and 38, respectively. Vick had the only long TD drive for Philadelphia — he started on his own 29.
In other words, the real key for Philadelphia is field position and turnovers. There is no doubt that this close game broke open when the Eagles intercepted on three consecutive possessions. Philadelphia has seven takeaways in its two victories. Duck fans were not surprised when Nick Foles threw a 25-yard touchdown pass on the very first play after that first interception. That’s Chip Kelly style football: the momentum, the quick strike, the aggression. If they keep making plays on defense, this could be a very exciting season.
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/
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