Of all the NFL preseason quarterback competitions we’ve obsessed over this month, I liked the way that noted pigskin innovator, Chip Kelly, handled his in Philadelphia best of all. Kelly’s motto, loosely translated, seemed to be “Keep them a little uncomfortable.”
The news that Kelly came out on Tuesday and named Michael Vick his starter and Nick Foles his backup for the regular season opener at Washington was no great surprise if you’ve been paying attention. Both quarterbacks have played well and with poise in the Eagles’ first two preseasons games, but the more experienced Vick has been better at taking care of the football, and seems rejuvenated in Kelly’s up-tempo, attacking offense.
But clearly Kelly is writing nothing in cement at quarterback this season in Philadelphia, and Vick should think of his starting designation as a status he’d be wise to earn a week at a time, for the next four-plus months. I listened to Kelly’s comments over the weekend, and I came away convinced that he’s on to something with the idea he introduced into his hotly contested quarterback derby: Namely that Vick at this point in his less-than-conventional career is better served by never being allowed to feel completely secure in the starting job.
In other words, here’s the carrot, and here’s the stick. Keep chasing.
Kelly on Saturday said the uncertainty of the QB competition could help Vick “tremendously,” in that it would continue to bring out his best. “Once you think you’ve arrived in this game, you’re going to get passed on by,” Kelly said. “Just because … you become a starter, that doesn’t mean all of a sudden you can kick your feet up and say, ‘Now I’m all set, this is a good deal.’ It’s about getting better every day, and there’s always something you can learn, whether it’s as a coach or as a player. I think that mindset will really benefit Mike in the long run.”
It’s a smart move, and that Kelly provided a starting point of definition to his quarterback depth chart just three days later changes little in reality. The rookie head coach is saying in his football worldview, stability and continuity at quarterback is over-rated, and it’s not necessarily advantageous to give anyone a 100 percent commitment at that position. At least if you have no Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers at your disposal.
It’s an idea he has only hinted at thus far, but Kelly throughout this season may be planning to play both Vick and Foles, using their different skill sets as he sees fit and as different situations arise. It’s not beyond the realm of belief that even rookie fourth-round pick Matt Barkley may get a start or two at quarterback before 2013 is done. Kelly seems to think he might get the best of everyone concerned that way, and purposefully doesn’t want to ever let the competition completely end.
Even with Vick named the Week 1 starter, it doesn’t mean Kelly can’t pivot anywhere he wants to from here, perhaps rendering as folly the notion that you can’t make quarterback moves lightly in the NFL, or have multiple switches without wrecking your team and your locker room. Vick won the job fair and square, but Kelly didn’t exactly anoint him. The Eagles’ No. 1 QB slot is not yet hallowed ground, and the foreseeable future at the position in Philadelphia is even shorter than it appears in most NFL cities.
Kelly, of course, has been telling us since he took the Eagles job in January that he questions the “why” in everything when it comes to football tradition and the practice of coaching, and maybe he’ll use his quarterback situation to prove it to us this season. Besides, what exactly have Vick and Foles done lately to deserve a declaration of lasting and complete job security? If either one of them had seized the Eagles’ job and made it their own last year, there wouldn’t have been a QB competition to begin with. For that matter, there probably wouldn’t have been a Kelly coaching hire in Philadelphia.
Keeping Vick on his toes just makes sense, given his history. Kelly sized that up pretty quickly in the short time they’ve worked together. Throughout his pro career, whenever Vick has had too much job security, good things have not always resulted. It was true in his heady days in Atlanta, where his work ethic, dedication level and off-field focus were eventually criticized (the dog fighting scandal was Exhibit A, sending him to prison and ending his Falcons tenure), and it was true in Philadelphia, where he played his best when he was the hungriest in 2010, before the Eagles traded their once-presumed starter, Kevin Kolb, to Arizona and awarded Vick a six-year, $100 million contract extension.
If Kelly chooses to play musical chairs at quarterback this season, riding the hot hand, it wouldn’t be a revolutionary concept. As Kelly is quick to remind us, nothing is completely new in football. In the early ‘70s, a couple of teams in the Eagles’ division, the NFC East, made Super Bowl trips with a pair of starting quarterbacks splitting the No. 1 job, but never locking it down completely. The ’69-’71 Dallas Cowboys of Craig Morton and Roger Staubach, and the ’71-’74 Washington Redskins of Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen may be Kelly’s model in the short term for all we know.
From a league perspective, teams being willing to let their quarterbacks sweat it out a little and prove themselves seems to be something of a recent trend. The demand for absolute clarity at the game’s preeminent position has diminished slightly.
For example, the Bears and general manager Phil Emery didn’t rush in and try to get a contract extension done with free-agent-to-be Jay Cutler this offseason, a move that might have been a no-brainer even five years ago in the league. With Emery entering his second season, and new head coach Marc Trestman on hand, Chicago wants to see what the inconsistent Cutler has in his pivotal fifth season as a Bear before it re-invests, or perhaps opts for the one-year franchise tag route.
Cutler was dealt from Denver to Chicago in 2009, and it’s instructive to look back at the four biggest quarterback moves of that offseason: Cutler’s trade, and the drafting of three first-round quarterbacks: Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, the Jets’ Mark Sanchez and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. Of the four, only Stafford has any long-term job security at the moment, and not everyone in Detroit is absolutely convinced he’s the Lions’ future. Cutler and Freeman are in the final year of their contracts, and Sanchez is battling rookie second-round pick Geno Smith for New York’s starting job, in a season that represents his last shot at making good on the early promise of his Jets career.
Maybe Baltimore and Joe Flacco unwittingly showed the rest of the NFL the allure and power of some uncertainty at starting quarterback last year, when Flacco turned down the Ravens’ contract extension offer before the season began and gambled on himself that he could do better. He did, of course, and the Ravens won, too, earning a Super Bowl ring when Flacco played the lights-out best ball of his five-year NFL career in the postseason.
Teams certainly seem more willing to roll the dice, and are unafraid to disrupt the situation at the game’s glamor spot, eschewing the belief that the sooner you bring closure to your quarterback competition, the better. The Browns, Jets, Eagles and Bills haven’t been in a hurry to take the mystery out of their quarterback battles this preseason, and the Jaguars only did so on Monday, naming the injured Blaine Gabbert their Week 1 starter over challenger Chad Henne.
Not long ago, when you drafted a first-round quarterback, you were married to him financially in a major way. But with the new rookie wage scale making it cheaper to draft a quarterback high, or to walk away and find something better if he doesn’t work out, that grass really is getting a little greener on the other side of the fence.
This year in the NFL, there are so many crossroad seasons unfolding at quarterback, you need a GPS to figure out where this is all heading. Vick, Cutler, Freeman, Sanchez and Gabbert join the likes of Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Tennessee’s Jake Locker and perhaps even San Diego’s Philip Rivers with a lot on the line in 2013. Many of them, if they don’t nail their prove-it seasons, could have different NFL addresses next year, leading to another hyper-active quarterback market in the spring.
Tuesday’s starting announcement aside, what Kelly seems to be saying with his decision-making at quarterback is that there isn’t one formula that works for everyone any more. The days of going to great lengths to make sure your guy knows he’s the guy may have passed. In Philadelphia, Kelly is trying to keep his quarterbacks hungry and wanting more. The hope is a little discomfort goes a long way.