There is an old saying in football that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any.
What if you have three? How many do you have then?
The Philadelphia Eagles have three quarterbacks—injured starter Michael Vick, backup Nick Foles, who was injured in the 17-3 loss to Dallas on Sunday, and rookie Matt Barkley—and none looks like he will be the long-term answer at quarterback for Philadelphia.
Chip Kelly has nine games to figure this out, and which quarterbacks he plays the rest of the season will go a long way toward figuring out his thought process on the position.
Vick is old and often injured. His completion percentage is far lower than what Kelly needs in his high-octane, precise offense, and while he is the only true running threat from the quarterback position on the team, his tendency to hold onto the ball creates too many situations where he has to run.
Heading into the season, Vick gave Kelly the best chance to win this year, but after reworking his deal to ostensibly sign a one-year extension before the year began, it was clear Vick was nothing more than a stop-gap option before Kelly went out and found his own quarterback.
The question as the Eagles headed into the regular season was if Philadelphia has that quarterback on its roster. After seven games, there is still no answer.
Vick won the starting job over Foles but has been sidelined for two weeks after injuring a hamstring on a non-contact play against the Giants. When the Eagles face the Giants again next week, Vick, if healthy, is clearly the best option for Kelly to stay in the playoff hunt.
Should that be the goal this season? You play to win the game, and all that coach pabulum, but is staying with Vick really the best option for the Eagles' long-term goal?
If the object is to use this season as a building block for the Kelly era in Philly, Vick is probably the worst option going forward, even if week to week he gives the Eagles the best chance to win.
Much was made about Foles getting a chance in Kelly's system during the preseason after a decent end to the 2012 campaign under Andy Reid. If you choose to believe what Kelly said during camp, Foles nearly won the open quarterback competition with Vick, leading some to suggest he should get the starting job based on his potential and others (read: me) to suggest the team should create packages for both quarterbacks, playing each at different times in the game.
The idea may be outlandish to traditionalists, but there is no reason why it couldn't work in the NFL other than "it hasn't before." Kelly has never seemed to care about doing things the same way they've always been done, but even he said in the preseason that having two quarterbacks is akin to having none. As recently as last week, Kelly balked at the suggestion that Vick serve as the starter with Foles coming in as the red-zone quarterback.
It could be that the personnel is the problem, not the concept.
There's a case to be made that Kelly already knows Foles isn't his best option for the future and that short-term success with Foles running the offense this season could put the Eagles in a tough situation heading into next year when Kelly seeks a more dynamic signal-caller to run his offense.
If Foles is fantastic this year, taking the starting job from Vick and giving the Eagles a shot at the playoffs, it would be very hard for Kelly to use a first-round pick on a different quarterback next year. If Kelly has already made up his mind on Foles that he, like Vick, is nothing more than a short-term option, does playing him create more potential issues than playing Vick?
Or, as we saw against Dallas, is Foles just not that good, so playing either of them is nothing more than trying to stay competitive in a bad division?
After a good performance in relief of Vick against the Giants, a great performance against Tampa Bay in his first game as a starter this season and one of the worst performances anyone could have imagined against the Cowboys, there are more questions about Foles as a viable option going forward than ever.
Kelly was asked Monday morning about the off performance from Foles after a stellar week in his first start his season (via CBS Philly):
“Is there an explanation? No. I mean I think, Nick [Foles]—I talked to Nick briefly after the game,” Kelly told Angelo Cataldi in his weekly call to the WIP Morning Show on Monday. “I know he was just, I don’t know obviously surprised, just shaking his head, ‘I just wasn’t accurate, I've never played like that.’ I don’t know, I don’t have answer for that one.”
On multiple occasions during the 15-minute interview on WIP, Kelly admitted he had no answer for why the offense played so poorly other than a total lack of execution.
When asked if his play-calling was part of the problem, Kelly suggested the plays would have worked if they were executed properly, but in retrospect, he should have found plays that would have worked given the way the offense was playing.
In other words, Foles was so surprisingly terrible against the Cowboys, Kelly puts some of the blame on himself for not calling a better game for a quarterback who was holding the ball too long and consistently missing wide open receivers.
Even if Foles can give the Eagles a chance to win this year, the Dallas game exposed a huge concern: His skill set is severely lacking for the offense Kelly wants to run.
With Vick running Kelly's read-option offense, the Eagles have three basic options on every play: run with the running back, run with the quarterback or pass.
When it works, the offense is beautiful in its simplicity. The quarterback snaps the ball and keys on one or two specific defenders, making his read. If a lane is open to run, Vick hands the ball off. If that's blocked, Vick keeps the ball, immediately deciding whether he can run it himself or pass to an open receiver. With Vick, even if he opts to pass and all the receivers are covered, there is still an option to escape with his legs.
With Vick, there is always, at any time, an option to run.
With Foles, however, the options are much more limited. Kelly told reporters after the game that the Eagles ran a lot of power runs and sweeps, but didn't run as many zone reads as in other weeks. Was that because he felt the Cowboys were vulnerable against those plays, or was it because, with Foles behind center, the zone read loses some of its effectiveness?
Foles is incredibly slow, so even if he does keep the ball on the read option, the chances of him taking off and running for more than a few yards are incredibly slim (note: he did score on a quarterback sneak against Tampa Bay, but that play call was so telegraphed before the snap it was amazing the Buccaneers didn't see it coming).
The option, therefore, for Foles is much simpler than for Vick; he either hands it off or throws it. With fewer choices after the snap for Foles to read and react, he can focus on his receivers a split second faster, leading to quicker release times out of the pocket and fewer chances to get hit.
Kelly's offense is more dynamic with a running threat at quarterback, but he is smart enough to adapt if he doesn't have that option. His quarterback, however, better be great.
Foles was strikingly accurate in his first start this season—completing 71 percent of his passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns—but that precision was nowhere to be found against the Cowboys, completing just 11 of his 29 throws for 80 yards. He was also sacked three times by a depleted Dallas defensive front, and he should have been intercepted in the end zone on a play that was overturned upon review.
If Foles can't be more accurate and get the ball out faster, he's useless in Kelly's offense.
For Kelly to employ a long-term option at quarterback in his system who lacks the ability to create space and run when the defense presents the opportunity, that guy better be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
Nick Foles is not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Not yet, and probably not ever. Per CBS Philly:
"I think you always have to look at the body of work and Nick has done some really, really, really good things since I've been here and even before I got here," Kelly said, saying he still believes in Foles. "Nick’s a good quarterback. He didn't play up to his standards or our standards, and we understand and we got to fix it, but I think Nick is still a good quarterback."
None of this is to suggest that Foles can't be a good quarterback in the NFL. It's just that after a horrible loss to the Cowboys, it seems unlikely Foles can be a good quarterback in the system Kelly wants to run.
Foles wasn't, by the way, the Eagles' worst quarterback on Sunday. Barkley came into the game late after Foles took a hit to the head and was ruled out while undergoing concussion testing. Barkley has been injured for part of the season and certainly didn't expect to play, despite being listed as the backup on the depth chart while Vick has been out.
With the Eagles down two scores, it was clear to Dallas that Philly was going to have to throw the ball, so Barkley came into a terrible situation for a rookie. At times, Barkley looked solid—he got rid of the ball quickly and hit his targets on the run—but other times, he looked like a deer caught in headlights. He threw like one too.
Barkley was 11-of-20 with at least two drops, but he threw three interceptions on the three drives he led. He actually threw four interceptions, but his first was called back after Dallas was flagged for being offside.
Six plays later, the pick happened anyway. Per the PhiladelphiaEagles.com postgame video, Kelly said:
Matt got put in a tough situation. We were throwing every down. He can get the ball out of his hands quickly. He did some nice things at times…[it was a] difficult situation for Matt to be in to go into a game for his first time to be in that situation.
Vick was hurt. Foles was terrible then got hurt. Barkley was even worse.
So what happens next week? Heck, what happens next year?
The second question is what Kelly needs to worry about. The Eagles are 3-4 and, despite losing to Dallas, are right in the thick of the division. If playing Vick, when he can stay healthy, gives the Eagles the best chance to win, does that decision come at the detriment of next season and beyond?
Does Kelly need to see more of Foles or Barkley during the regular season when games actually matter to know if either of them has a chance to be the quarterback of the future?
Has Kelly seen enough of either of them already to know that answer?
These are the questions suddenly worth asking in Philadelphia. Nobody thought going into the season the Eagles had much of a chance to compete for a spot in the playoffs, but thanks in part to the horrible start by the Giants and Redskins, the Eagles are right in the mix in a completely wide-open and winnable division.
If the Eagles were 1-6, the decision to look toward the future would seem obvious, giving Foles and Barkley time with the first team to know what the Eagles have for next year. But in some ways, with a chance to make the playoffs in his first year as head coach, Kelly's future is now almost as much as next season.
That still doesn't help with whom should be the quarterback if everyone is healthy, both short-term and long-term.
Even after a total clunker against Dallas, Foles has better season numbers than Vick. His completion percentage is four points higher and his passer rating is still nearly 11 points better than Vick's. He has more touchdowns than Vick in 42 fewer pass attempts and has yet to throw an interception.
As elusive as Vick has been—and as immovable as Foles has seemed—Vick has been sacked nine more times than Foles, nearly double the percentage based on pass attempts.
Stats can tell a totally different story than reality, especially when Foles has such different games in his two starts. He went from NFC Offensive Player of the Week against Tampa Bay to barely looking like a professional athlete against Dallas.
Which is the real Foles, and how long will Kelly need to figure that out before next season?
Perhaps most importantly, if Vick and Foles are both healthy enough to play the rest of the season, what does that mean for Barkley?
Assuming the Eagles stay close enough to remain competitive through at least the next five weeks—the next fives games for Philly come against teams with a combined 11 victories—their playoff hopes could still possibly be alive heading into the final four weeks of the season.
Do you want to see what you have in Barkley then? Is that fair to the rest of the team, or the fans, or the quarterback? Does everyone involved have to hope the next five games are so bad the Eagles have no choice down the stretch but to see what they've got in Barkley?
If not Vick—we know it's not Vick—and not Foles—after the Dallas game it is going to be really difficult to see Foles as the long-term solution for Kelly—then it's either Barkley or someone in the 2014 draft.
(Note: my suggestion is that the Eagles could try to trade for Cam Newton, who is due a huge contract soon and would be the perfect quarterback for Kelly's system, but Carolina may not be willing to part with its star without a huge haul in return.)
Assuming the best options for Kelly are in the NFL draft, he really needs to know what he has in Foles and Barkley before the end of this regular season. The Eagles need a lot of help in all facets of the game, so spending a first-round pick on a quarterback would seem unnecessary if Foles or Barkley can show they are capable of running Kelly's offense.
In addition, the Eagles may already have too many wins to expect a top-five pick in the draft next year, so the chances of getting Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota would be slim unless Philly is willing to trade up to the top of the first round to get one of them.
Now, we're just seven weeks into the first season of Kelly's era in Philly, and what he does at quarterback over the next nine games might shape the future of the franchise for decades.
If the Eagles don't have a viable starter for the future, Kelly could not only take a quarterback in the first round next year, but he may also be willing to package picks to trade up to get Mariota—his guy at Oregon—early in the first round. Not only might the Eagles have to use a first-round pick on a quarterback, but also the right guy could be worth multiple picks to get him.
The Eagles could try to get someone like Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the first round without trading up (assuming he is available when the Eagles pick), or take a chance on Brett Hundley of UCLA in the first or second round. Early mock draft buzz suggests the Eagles could hope someone like Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel is available in the second or third round of in the draft. (Note: Here are Matt Miller's 2014 NFL draft quarterback rankings as of the start of October.)
None of that would be necessary if the Eagles have the quarterback of the future on their roster right now. Suddenly, the clock to figure that out is ticking very loudly.
The quarterback of the future is not Vick. After this week, it doesn't look like Foles or Barkley either. And yet, both probably deserve another look—certainly Barkley does—before they are completely written off as an option for the future.
Kelly has the benefit of seeing his quarterbacks in practice every day, so clearly he has a better assessment of what they can do than those of us who just see them on game day. Whatever the Eagles have in store for the rest of the year at quarterback, the future is way more important.
Kelly is smart enough to realize that, but short of writing off this season for long-term gain, he might be stuck with what's best for now, creating even bigger questions of what's right for the future.
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