The incredible season of Nick Foles is a credit to Andy Reid's vision, Chip Kelly's flexibility and the Eagles' ability to grasp the big picture.
Few coaches saw what Reid saw in Foles, who was an afterthought in the great quarterback class of 2012. Many suspected Kelly wanted a more mobile quarterback, or that he would promote his hand-picked passer, Matt Barkley, ahead of his football stepchild, Foles. But one of the reasons Kelly was hired in Philadelphia is Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman knew he would fit his systems to the talent.
"It wasn't, 'This is what I need; this is what I have to have to run my system,'" Roseman said as Foles prepares for his biggest test yet, a wild-card playoff game against the Saints on Saturday. "It was, 'Let's see what you have and we'll adjust to their strengths.'"
The Eagles drafted Foles in the third round to play in Reid's West Coast system. When former Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg saw Foles on tape, he was intrigued immediately. Reid quickly agreed, and Roseman and the personnel staff also got on board.
But Foles was no stranger to Kelly, who knew him and liked him from Pac-12 wars between Oregon and Arizona. Kelly's Ducks beat Foles' Wildcats three times, but Foles had a 139.8 passer rating in those games, with 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
Most NFL coaches and scouts were unimpressed, though, because they thought Foles was a system quarterback who lacked NFL athleticism. At 6'5", 243 pounds, he ran a 5.03-second 40-yard dash at the combine. And he averaged minus-2.8 yards per rush in college. But Roseman said the Eagles saw a quarterback who could avoid pressure.
"He had the ability to extend plays, so I think the bigger question was his speed as opposed to his feet within the pocket," he said. "I know there were a lot of knocks on his athleticism, but his basketball background showed what kind of athlete he was. He may not have great speed, but he has the feet."
When Foles was a high school junior, he drew more attention for basketball than football, reportedly being wooed by Gonzaga, Georgetown, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma for hoops. That spoke well of his foot quickness.
Still, the Eagles were the only team to work him out individually and to bring him to their facility. They went into draft day targeting two quarterbacks in the third round. The first, Russell Wilson, came off the board before the Eagles picked. That left them with Foles.
Wilson finished the 2012 preseason with a 110.3 passer rating. Foles was right behind him at 110.1. He would play in seven regular-season games as a rookie, but without the benefit of a healthy offensive line, his No. 1 wide receiver and lead running back, Foles' performance was a far cry from Wilson's.
But the Eagles saw something in Foles they liked. "Just like at Arizona, every time he was knocked down, he bounced right back up," Roseman said.
This season, Foles has been the NFL's most improved player. His passer rating of 119.2 is not only the best this season, it's the third best in any NFL season. His interception percentage of 0.63 is the best in history. Foles even has escaped the pocket and run efficiently. His 221 rushing yards are 12th most among NFL quarterbacks.
There hasn't been much to criticize Foles about, though NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth last week took him to task for taking his eyes off receivers when the pass rush gets close. Others, including ESPN's Ron Jaworski and Roseman, have not seen the same thing.
"I think one of his strengths is his ability to keep plays alive downfield," Roseman said. "That's a great testament to his ability to be in the pocket, keep his eyes downfield and not look at the pass rush."
Foles' size is a double-edged sword. While it may take away from his ability to run fast, it enables him to see the field well. It makes him difficult to take down. And as Roseman points out, his long arms help him make throws from different angles.
Foles has the traits and intangibles to continue doing what he's doing—and that means making 31 other NFL teams regret not evaluating him correctly.
• Lovie Smith was not the only former Bucs coach the Glazers checked out. Sources say the team also was interested in rekindling the flame with Jon Gruden, but he was not interested in returning to the team he won a Super Bowl with. After Gruden rebuffed them, the Bucs moved quickly on Smith, and Smith was more interested in the Bucs job than any other. Smith, in fact, showed little interest in some of the other openings once the Bucs were in play.
• As Chris Mortensen of ESPN has reported, Chris Ballard appears to be the lead dog to join Smith in Tampa as general manager.
As expected, Bucs reach deal w Jeff Tedford as OC. Source: Chiefs director of personnel Chris Ballard is leading candidate as next Bucs GM— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) January 3, 2014
Sources say other general manager possibilities for the Bucs include Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, former Bears GM Jerry Angelo and Redskins director of player personnel Morocco Brown, who also could be given more juice with Washington if he stays.
• Seahawks assistant head coach and former Raiders head coach Tom Cable would be viewed as an outstanding head-coaching candidate if not for his allegedly violent history. Cable was accused of breaking the jaw of former Raiders assistant Randy Hanson. Two women, including his former wife, also accused him of violent behavior. But the word out of Seattle is Cable has found religion and cleaned up his act. What's more, Pete Carroll has been a great influence on him personally. Cable gets a lot of the credit for the Seahawks' excellent run game, and he is respected as a strategist. More than one team has considered him strongly as a head coach but backed off because of his past.
• The 49ers lost their first assistant coach under Jim Harbaugh when Tim Drevno left to go to USC. But they might not have lost their last this offseason. Some NFL teams in need of a defensive coordinator are eying defensive backs coach Ed Donatell, whose contract expires at the end of the season. Last year, the 49ers blocked teams from interviewing Donatell because he was under contract.
• The Browns appear to have settled on their defensive coordinator before they have settled on a head coach. Former Lions boss Jim Schwartz is believed to be in place to run the Cleveland defense barring a veto from the new head coach. Schwartz could bring Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham with him as well. Why Schwartz? Browns personnel boss Mike Lombardi and Schwartz were part of the old Browns mafia in the early 1990s under Bill Belichick. Insiders say when the Raiders were searching for a head coach in 2006, Lombardi, who then was Al Davis' right-hand man, pushed for Schwartz after Bobby Petrino turned them down. Davis, however, settled on Art Shell instead.
• If the Dolphins give offensive coordinator Mike Sherman the boot, a prime candidate to replace him will be Green Bay's Ben McAdoo. The QB coach and free-agent-to-be previously worked with Miami head coach Joe Philbin and is of like mind philosophically.
• The firing of Leslie Frazier by the Vikings can be traced to Oct. 16. That's when Frazier unilaterally decided to make Josh Freeman the starting quarterback only 10 days after the team signed him. Against the Giants that week, Freeman looked ill prepared, and it was the only time he played all year. The initial plan with Freeman was to work him in slowly and let him get acclimated before throwing him into the fire.
Draft Tip of the Week: Bridgewater vs. Bortles
With the Texans owning the first pick in the draft, many have assumed Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater will be the selection. But NFL scouts are saying Central Florida's Blake Bortles could leapfrog Bridgewater if he enters the draft.
Two of three front-office men polled by Bleacher Report said they rated Bortles ahead of Bridgewater given what they know at this point. Certainly, Bortles has better measurables. "He's bigger and stronger and has more arm strength," one college scouting director said. "He's a good athlete, and he's tough in the pocket."
Bortles is a late bloomer who continues to impress NFL teams with each exposure. He wasn't highly recruited out of high school, and more colleges wanted him to play tight end than quarterback. He doesn't have a long history of production against a high level of competition, but it's impressive what he did this season with lesser talent around him than Bridgewater had. The thinking on Bortles is he could continue to improve, and that his potential is greater than Bridgewater's.
The case for Bridgewater is this: He has been on the big stage and is more NFL ready. He is more of a known commodity, and his intangibles and instincts are really impressive. Bridgewater puts a better spin on the ball than Bortles, the scouting director said. He has been well-coached, and he knows his reads. He even has been given play-choosing responsibility at the line of scrimmage.
"He's a little like Russell Wilson in that he can move around and stay alive and look to throw," said one national scout. "He throws well on the run. He is pretty accurate, whereas I wonder about Bortles' accuracy."
It is possible NFL teams will be split on the two quarterback prospects. But it also is possible the more teams dig on Bortles, the more they will like him.
The Broncos scored 125 more points this year than last on their way to an NFL scoring record. How did that happen?
Even though Knowshon Moreno rushed for 307 more yards and six more touchdowns than 2012 leading rusher Willis McGahee, Denver's scoring offense was all about the pass and Peyton Manning. The Broncos had 18 more passing touchdowns than they did a year ago, and only four more rushing touchdowns. They actually had five fewer rushing first downs than they did in 2012, but 60 more passing first downs.
They were a much more effective red-zone team, with a red-zone conversion percentage of 76.12 compared to 59.09 one year ago. Their red-zone passer rating this year was an NFL-best 120.7, up from 97.1 last year.
The Broncos passed for 910 more yards than they did last year, but rushed for only 41 more yards.
So the improvement in the Broncos offense really was about the improvement in the passing game.
• It's a pity the Steelers are on the outside looking in at the postseason. But it's a bigger pity the Cardinals aren't in the playoffs.
• I'm with Bill Belichick. There is no point to the extra point.
• The Redskins say they have not had a conversation with Bill Cowher. However, that does not mean they did not call Cowher, make a pitch and then hear only laughter, a click and a dial tone.
• Browns owner Jimmy Haslam denied that his team is being run by The Three Stooges. But eyewitnesses have testified there were in fact vestiges of cream pie on the walls at the team's Berea, Ohio, facility.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.