We know how effective the Philadelphia Eagles offense can be, but just how good is their trigger man?
Quarterback Nick Foles wasn't drafted to run Chip Kelly's offense, nor was he drafted to take a starting role so quickly. No, he was a third-round pick who—at best—was thought to maybe take over for Mike Vick someday.
The times, they have changed.
Since taking over for Vick, Foles has been electric. He's been the perfect quarterback for Kelly's high-paced attack, but it's also created some "chicken and egg"-like conundrums in the football world. Is Foles really good and we all just missed on him? Or have Kelly and the Eagles offensive coaches done that good of a job with him already?
Still yet, what if Foles isn't making the offense hum as much as it's making him look good?
Statistically speaking, it's more than feasible to make the case for Foles as a top NFL passer, but stats don't always help us isolate whether Foles is making the offense or if the opposite is true. So, while we can cite bare stats until we're blue in the face, it does little to answer the question.
Let's muddy the water a bit and hope we come out of the discussion with a little more clarity.
What Has Foles Already Accomplished?
Again, statistically speaking, this is a pretty simple argument.
Seeing game action in only 13 games last season (two of which he attempted fewer than five passes), Foles was still 22nd in the NFL with 2,891 yards passing. At 64 percent, his completion percentage was eighth in the league.
His passer rating of 119.2 led the league (and would've led the league the year before as well). Foles also led the league in my favorite "box score stat": yards per attempt. His mark of 9.12 also would've led the league two years running.
Even the advanced metrics of the guys over at Pro Football Focus point to Foles being one of the best of the best. Their proprietary passer rating? (All PFF links are premium content.) He's first. Their accuracy rating? Sixth. Passes while under pressure? He was fifth.
I love stats. I also hate stats.
I love the stories that stats can tell. A well-thought out statistical-driven narrative can be the thing of legend. Put someone like Nate Silver of 538, Steve Palazzolo from PFF or Chase Stuart of Pro Football Perspective on a case, and one can be sure that the resulting column will be near lock-solid analysis with dizzying proofs, charts and graphs...leaving no doubt to the conclusions they have arrived at.
Stats don't always work that way, though.
Stats also weave their way into the echo chamber. Stats which mean little or are easily skewed can be repeated often enough that they are given far more credit than they're due. They become talking points, iterated time and again as if the stats themselves were some sort of mantra which may imbue the success they supposedly describe.
This isn't the stats' fault. They were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wins are a favorite "metric" of the results-driven crowd. Few moments are usually allowed to pass between mentions of a top quarterback's ability to "just win" football games. Yet, simply assigning quarterbacks wins in such a team-dependent game like football is often a fool's errand (sorry, Tim Tebow fans), as is assigning losses to a quarterback when a team fails to seal the deal (looking at you, Tony Romo).
The Eagles are 9-7 when Foles has started over the past couple of seasons. In 2013, though, that record was 8-2. At best, it's a tale of two seasons type of thing or a proof that Foles has been aided—greatly—by Kelly's influence on the team. Honestly, though, it probably doesn't mean a whole lot, because in the world of contextual-free stats, "winning" tells almost nothing of the larger picture.
Rather than just trumpeting Foles as "he just wins" or citing a passer rating without any assisting evidence, a deeper dig is needed to truly answer the question.
Let's Pump the Brakes a Bit
Look, I don't want to dismiss Foles out of hand, and I won't completely ignore that statistical evidence raised above, but we need to know the rest of the story.
Part of that, simply, is time, as CBS Sports' Pete Prisco explains while naming Foles the most overrated player on the Eagles:
"Let's slow the train down some, OK. He did some good things last season, but you'd think he was a star already. It takes time. Let's see him do it again. Not saying he can't, but let's see it again."
Prisco rarely minces words, but he also tends to have a keen eye for the game. Without calling Foles a "flash-in-the-pan" (because we don't have evidence for that either), Prisco simply states the obvious truth that Foles would hardly be the first rising star to pull the Icarus act and flame out sooner rather than later.
I've often used a cross-sport reference to baseball and called this potential situation the "young starter" mentality. Take a 20-something kid out of college or Triple-A and he very well could look unbeatable a couple of times through the rotation. Some of the best may even have a string of starts that make us all think this is the next coming of Bob Gibson.
Baseball references to be over soon, I promise.
The thing is, some of those great young pitchers end up to be nobodies. Not all of them, mind you, but some. Eventually, hitters figure out their tendencies. The glass case of their supposed invincibility shatters, and that confidence never returns.
Much the same can happen to NFL quarterbacks.
No one said it will happen to Foles, but you can't say that is won't.
What happens to Foles (and Kelly's offense as a whole) when opponents have a full offseason to prepare with a full season of tape on it? While Kelly was at Oregon, his teams were good, but I missed the umpteen-straight national titles his unbeatable offense led them to.
Oh, that didn't happen? So, it can be stopped?
Sorry, Eagles fans, for being glib and throwing some cold water on your well-earned optimism, but the impenetrable aura of awesomeness around the Eagles offense may not last for long. That isn't a prediction of woe for 2014, just holding out that reality isn't as surefire as your hopes and dreams.
What does Foles do if the pressure—not from the pass rush, but from losses piling up—gets to be too much? Does his team get behind him in the same way it had in 2013, or does Mark Sanchez (eew) or Matt Barkley (ick) start drawing some love not only from the team, but from the fans as well?
I'm not going to bring up the ancient history of Eagles fans, but this isn't exactly a town known for its compassionate, patient and mild-mannered fanbase. There's passion, and that's admirable, but passion tends to do a lot better in a winning atmosphere.
Just saying: Foles better hope he's got a winning record before the snow starts falling.
A Realistic Outlook for the Future
Watching the tape, Foles isn't a very efficient passer.
Whoa there, come back, wait to go down and yell at me in the comment section for just a few more minutes and let me explain. See, I understand that every efficiency and accuracy metric out there tells a different story, but believe the eye in the sky more than that dot matrix printer that spits out the box score.
The offense in Philadelphia is an extremely efficient offense. Foles, the caretaker of said offense, is primed for incredible efficiency stats. It didn't take a whole lot to showcase the proverbial emperor's lack of clothes when a team like the New Orleans Saints forced the Eagles offense out of its comfort zone.
Andy Benoit of MMQB explains:
It was shrewd of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to not blitz very often. When you blitz, you give the quarterback an opportunity to throw a defined hot route. When you play coverage, you force the quarterback to make progression reads. Foles, because he takes such good care of the ball, is generally perceived to be an intelligent progression passer. But like most second-year quarterbacks, the reality is that he relies on his system and needs to have his progressions limited to two, maybe three, depending on the route designs.
Kelly's offense is dependent on packaged plays. The most simplistic way to describe packaged plays is that it's more "Algebra I" than "Advanced Calculus." Whereas the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world dissect and perceive dozens of points of data before or after the snap, packaged player are more like troubleshooting a faulty piece of hardware: "If this happens, do this...If this happens instead, do this."
Foles barely kept his head above water in Andy Reid's West Coast-stylized offense. He couldn't process the information presented to him fast enough, and defenses feasted upon his mistakes like vultures on a highway.
Kelly, however, slowed the game down for Foles, and there's real hope that it was the exact type of boost that his young career needed. It is almost certain that the second-year passer would not have been nearly as successful if Reid was not shown the door.
Last year, Foles was a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. As a static point in time, that's a fact that can be showcased any number of ways. You, me and the denizens of three out of four NFC East cities might disagree with that fact, but it's a pretty difficult case to make.
He was one last year (past tense), but to state that he is one—period, no questions asked (present tense)—might be putting the cart slightly before the horse. Compelling cases can be made for lots of young quarterbacks vying for the same couple of spots on that list, including but not limited to: Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and more.
Moving forward, though, Foles is still not a known commodity. His name is not yet worthy of the hushed tones usually reserved for Brady, Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. There are not busts being carved out for his impending enshrinement in Canton, nor are the All-Pro ballots being filled out already because he's such a lock.
If Foles wants to reach this top-10 status not only for 2013, but for his career as an NFL passer and without any question marks or reservations, he needs to take the next step. He needs to prove he's not another discardable quarterback in Kelly's system and that he can take that offense to heights no other quarterback could.