Can the Eagles Really Win the Super Bowl With Nick Foles?

Nick Foles and Carson Wentz are not similar. Wentz has proven to be an aggressive decision-maker with standout athleticism over the first two seasons of his career, Foles is neither overly aggressive or overly cautious as a decision-maker and moves like Pixar brought a limp biscuit to life. Physical attributes for a quarterback are like run-stopping attributes for a cornerback, they can be very important but they rarely define the quality or style of the player.

Going from Wentz to Foles does make athleticism more relevant because it is going from one extreme to another in an offense that incorporates quarterback movement.

Doug Pederson was Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City before becoming the Philadelphia Eagles head coach. Pederson and Reid built an offense that relied heavily on misdirection and RPOs (Run-Pass-Option plays) to protect Alex Smith. Smith is an athlete but not a technically-refined quarterback. He is not someone who can be trusted to execute straight dropbacks to mitigate pressure in the pocket while making coverage reads downfield. Instead, Smith needs to stretch the defense horizontally with options to simplify his role in the offense.

The Eagles can’t incorporate Foles’ athleticism into play designs, he will rarely keep the ball on run-run option plays, but he doesn’t need to be a great athlete to execute RPOs or misdirection passing plays. He can still benefit from a simplified passing game that gives him clearly-defined reads. Every quarterback can. Hence why the league is aggressively moving in this direction. (Matt Naggy, who succeeded Pederson as Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City, just became the Chicago Bears head coach)

Like any scheme these offenses need talented individual players who complement each other to be effective (the Eagles have those), but the specific scheme benefits allow the offense to be proactive and dictate where the ball goes based on what the defense tries to do. It’s not like the Green Bay Packers offense where the quarterback is expected to get creative if the initial action doesn’t lead to an open receiver.

In the Eagles offense the initial action just determines which option suits the offense best.

Before the ball is snapped Foles knows that he’s not going to give the ball to the running back. It’s not called as a play action play, but as soon as the Rams put seven defenders in the box against six blockers for the Eagles the quarterback should know not to hand the ball off. You can confirm this is an RPO by how the offensive line blocks after the ball is snapped. They are not concerned with pass protection, they are aggressively moving into run blocking postures.

Those run blocking postures and the quarterback’s play fake draws the linebackers forward, creating space over the middle of the field.

Foles has a slant route to his left, on the narrow side of the field. The slant is being run by Torrey Smith, not Alshon Jeffery, and he is facing press coverage. For those reasons Foles never looks to his left. Instead, after the snap he focuses on the deep safety in the middle of the field. He acting with purpose here as he attempts to hold the safety in the middle, keeping that space behind the linebackers.

Once he has moved past the deep safety, the quarterback only has to be concerned with one defender. If the slot receiver moves outside with his route in the flat, Foles throws the ball inside of that defender. If the defender stays inside, he throws the ball outside to the flat. Two receivers running routes that complement each other on the wide side of the field after a hard play fake make for an easy read for the quarterback. It is ultimately just an either-or situation, there is no real timing to be concerned about or coverages to diagnose.

If the defender goes outside it’s man, if he stays inside it’s zone. Simple.

The ball is ultimately thrown to Alshon Jeffery on the slant. Again, this is a simple throw for an NFL quarterback but Foles actually misses it. In QB Catalogue charting, this will go down as an inaccurate pass for Foles and a created reception for Jeffery. Jeffery should have been led towards the space in the middle of the field so he could run after the catch for a much bigger gain. Instead he has to react quickly, contort his body and make a difficult hands catch. He does so impressively.

Foles has used play action on 28.05 percent of his dropbacks so far this season, a huge number.

NFL coaches use play fakes to distort coverages and create wider passing windows. Pederson regularly uses subtle play fakes from shotgun as part of his RPO play designs but he also uses play action in different formations and with different route combinations. The goal is always the same, to simplify the quarterback’s role in the offense.

With all the grace of a wounded gazelle, Foles is capable of executing out-of-the-pocket play action designs. He has used play action to escape the pocket five times this season. In the above play you can see how the three receivers’ route combinations flow together, creating a natural right-to-left progression in a confined area of the field at three different levels of the coverage. Foles can go from one receiver to the next without turning his shoulders.

For the purposes of charting plays there are only two types of play action designs, those that set the quarterback inside the pocket and those that set him outside the pocket. That speaks to the limitations of charting quarterbacks opposed to the actual diversity of what is happening on the field. The diversity in the Eagles play action designs is vast. In the above play the offense stretches the defense wide and pulls the right-side linebacker too far inside. That aggressive play fake is paired with the slot receiver on the left running a route to the sideline. That pulls two defenders away from where the ball ultimately goes.

Against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, Pederson called one of his most brilliant plays of the year. It’s subtle so it doesn’t look like much on first viewing but what actually happens here is an RPO play design that includes a pick play to a tight end who wasn’t lined up as a receiver. That is rare. Maybe unique. Harrison Smith, the safety lined up over the slot, has his eyes drawn to the play fake and then has to evade the picking receiver. That’s an exceptionally difficult play for even a safety of his quality.

It’s also a brilliant way to create an easy first down for the quarterback on Third-and-1.

The New England Patriots defense has been awful for most of this season. They typically rely on teams to beat themselves because they don’t get a consistent pass rush or play effective coverage. By far the Patriots’ biggest issue is their lack of speed and discipline in their front seven. It’s why offenses like the Eagles’ one causes so many problems for them (such as the Chiefs in Week 1). The Jacksonville Jaguars exploited the Patriots’ lack of sideline-to-sideline speed with screens and RPOs over and over again.

If Blake Bortles can do it, Nick Foles should be able to do it.

Foles hasn’t been good this season, he’s relied on that same luck that got him through the 27-2 season a few years ago, but he might be playing the best football of his career. He’s been accurate on roughly 70 percent of his passes, a subpar number, but has been 93.10 percent accurate on throws behind the line of scrimmage and 86.67 percent accurate in the 1-5 yard range, both excellent numbers. The Eagles don’t throw the ball downfield as much now (18.92 percent of Foles’ passes have gone further than 15 yards downfield) as they did when Wentz was available(22.15 percent). Maybe surprisingly, Foles has actually been a more efficient deep passer than the Eagles’ regular starter.

This touchdown throw to Torrey Smith against the Vikings was the best play of his whole career. It’s not particularly close either. It’s the type of throw that Foles has never shown the ability to make. For the season, Foles has been accurate on 35.29 percent of his deep passes, that would have been a below average number last year with the league-wide average at around 42 percent. Wentz threw deep more often but was accurate on only 30.19 percent of his deep passes.

Where Wentz was dramatically better than Foles was in taking care of the football. Foles has thrown an interceptable pass once every 18 attempts, Wentz threw one once every 24 attempts.

It shouldn’t be a challenge for the Eagles to move the ball on the Patriots defense. Their greatest threat to them is their quarterback and his tendency to throw balls directly to defenders. Foles doesn’t need to be pressured into a mistake. He will miss simple out routes and wildly overthrow receivers over the middle of the field. When he isn’t executing simplified reads he will misdiagnose coverages and lead defenders to the ball. Foles has that slow processing speed that instinctive defenders will take advantage of if they’re not too busy reacting to a hard play fake or RPO/Misdirection design.

The Eagles have a far superior roster to the Patriots. If they get competent quarterback play, they should comfortably win this game. It’s just hard to bet on getting competent quarterback play when you’re relying on Nick Foles.

 

The 2018 Quarterback Catalogue is available to preorder now

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