During the first half of the 2013 NFL regular season, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning appeared to have a head-and-shoulder lead over the rest of the NFL in the MVP chase. But Manning's play has fallen off a little recently, and there's plenty of time for alternative candidates to emerge.
But what about Nick Foles?
Yeah, Nick Foles, the 24-year-old Philadelphia Eagles quarterback with 11 career starts under his belt. The second-year Arizona product who was a backup only a month ago and who was passed on 87 times in the 2012 NFL draft.
What about him?
While Manning is on pace to set new NFL records with 5,715 yards and 54 touchdown passes, Foles is actually the league's highest-rated quarterback—and by a wide margin. He has a 9.7-point lead over Manning in that category and is currently projected to break the single-season record there.
He also leads the league with 9.6 yards per attempt, putting him on track to become only the sixth quarterback in NFL history to reach the 9.5 mark in that category. No other starting quarterback, including Manning, is above 9.0.
|Foles vs. Manning vs. Brees|
|Accuracy % under pressure||65.7||68.4||68.7|
|Accuracy % on deep passes||50.0||43.1||44.0|
|Pro Football Reference/Focus|
Foles has led the Eagles on an improbable three-game winning streak, and they are now 5-1 in games in which he's taken the majority of the snaps under center. He's thrown 16 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Manning started this year 20-0 in that area, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to do so, but now Foles can trump the future Hall of Famer there with five more touchdown strikes. He's also run for two scores and has 85 rushing yards in his last two games.
I don't know where the Broncos would be right now without Manning, but I do know that the Denver receiving corps is pretty stacked and could probably make a lot of quarterbacks look more decent than they actually are. I also know that the Broncos defense has become much more solid of late, benefiting from the return of Von Miller while surrendering 21 or fewer points in four of the team's last five outings.
|Manning vs. Foles, since Foles' first start of 2013 (Week 6)|
|Pro Football Reference|
Who's had more support between Manning and Foles? That's a tough call right now. The Eagles defense has also been impressive, having given up 21 or fewer points in seven consecutive contests, and LeSean McCoy is the league's leading rusher. Neither has benefited from spectacular pass protection, as the tackle situations in both Denver and Philly have been shaky, but they've stayed pretty clean.
I won't pretend that Foles is the MVP right now, though, because the sample sizes are incomparable. The stats we're discussing are all rate-based, and Foles would have to produce in a big way for the final five weeks of the season to even stand a chance here. He's taken just 359 snaps this year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which is less than half of Manning's total. We can't prove based on that sample that this isn't merely one super-awesome hot streak.
Even in the NFL, where the season flies by at lightning speed, you don't win an MVP award based on a hot streak. Foles would have to sustain it, and even then, he'd need Manning to deliver some less-than-heroic performances.
On top of that, there will be some who ask whether Foles is just benefiting from Chip Kelly's system. That notion was floated out there Monday by PhillyMag.com's Tim McManus:
It’s hard to ignore, though, the way quarterbacks have routinely excelled under Kelly. Whether it was Jeremiah Masoli (15 TD, 6 INT in 2009), Darron Thomas (63 TD, 16 INT in 2010-11) or Marcus Mariota (32 TD, 6 INT in 2012), all of his signal-callers produced in a pretty big way while he was head coach at Oregon. Mariota continues to thrive this season (25 TD, 0 INT) running essentially the same system that Kelly installed. Michael Vick had this Eagles offense humming for the most part before he got injured.
Fine, but Foles has still had to execute, and outside of a shockingly poor performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7, he's been delivering at a rate that far exceeds anything Vick was doing. The Eagles only recorded one victory in the five games in which Vick ran the lion's share of the show earlier this season. He completed only 54.6 percent of his passes, which ranks third-least among qualifying quarterbacks.
“It’s always about the individual,” said Kelly, according to McManus. “It doesn’t matter what plays are called or scheme that is run, they still have to be executed, and I think he is executing them and all the credit goes to him."
He's being modest, but that's the truth.
According to PFF (subscription required), Foles leads the league with 11 touchdowns and zero picks on passes that travel 20-plus yards. Manning and Brees have just 14 touchdowns combined in those situations, and they've been starting all season. He's more accurate than either of those guys on deep balls, per PFF, and he's right there with Manning and Brees in the top 10 when it comes to accuracy percentage under pressure.
In that very same field, Vick ranks 36th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks. So don't tell me it's all about the system.
I really don't know if Foles can keep it up, but if he's able to remain in the same range he's been in thus far, it could become very difficult for MVP voters to ignore him. MVPs usually have to start more than 10 games, but what if Foles leads the Eagles from the hell they were in only one year ago to a division title in December?
What if he avoids throwing a pick over the final five games after Philly's Week 12 bye? What if he finishes with the league's highest passer rating and yards per attempt average?
Those types of feats combined with a touchdown-to-interception ratio in the 25-to-0 range would be nearly impossible to deny, especially if Manning can only stake claim to passing touchdown and yardage records, both of which are tremendously overrated in this pass-happy era.