Philly’s Perfect Pitcher
For the second straight year, a sophomore backup QB in September is making serious noise in December. This time it’s Nick Foles, who’s climbing statistically over the league’s best passers while willing the Eagles back into playoff contention
What a day. What a weekend. And it’s not over: Game of the Century(Link) tonight in Seattle: Saints (9-2) at Seahawks (10-1), and the only thing up for grabs is home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs when both of those teams view the road as kryptonite.
There will be time to get to that. Lots to cover before then, including:
1. If the season ended today, Houston would have the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Question is, who will be coaching Teddy Bridgewater?
2. An officiating snafu roiled the end of the Sunday night game. Just what the NFL wants: Robert Griffin III’s trying to redeem himself, and the Monday morning headlines are all about Jeff Triplette.
3. Nick Foles will never throw an interception the rest of his life.
4. Jacksonville’s 3-1 in the last month. The bronze statue of Gus Bradley outside EverBank Field will be unveiled this morning at 11.
5. Denver’s most recent four foes are a combined 32-16. Next four: 16-32. The Broncos have a one-game lead for AFC home-field over New England, and they don’t play a winning team the rest of the way.
6. So You’re Telling Me There’s A Chance Dept.: Tom Brady set the single-season touchdown record of 50 in 2007. After 12 games that year, he had 41. After 12 games this year, Peyton Manning has 41.
7. I’m not saying the Jets have a problem at quarterback or anything, but Geno Smith’s last touchdown pass was three days before the start of the World Series, and Rex Ryan wouldn’t commit to yanking him after the latest debacle Sunday.
8. The Mike Tomlin discipline for his bizarre or calculated (doesn’t matter which) pas de deux on the field in Baltimore Thursday will be discussed inside 345 Park Avenue today, with a decision likely by Wednesday. I expect a heavy fine, but no suspension or loss of draft picks. What has to happen is real enforcement in the six-foot white-striped “No Fly Zone,” which coaches and players shouldn’t be in during game action. It’s a penalty. Call it.
9. The Colts essentially won the AFC South Sunday. Actually, their magic number now is one—one loss by Tennessee or win by Indy clinches the division. With the Titans at Denver Sunday, that shouldn’t take long.
10. Detroit’s reward for earning the third seed in the NFC playoffs—if that’s where the Lions end up, and it’s no lock—would be one of the most rugged roads to the Super Bowl ever. Consider this possible slate: a Wild Card home game against San Francisco, a divisional game at New Orleans, a championship game at Seattle. Who survives that?
Now, a little bit of a different lead to the column, featuring a trip into a subject I’ve never been able to cover.
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“We are a necessary part of the game. We’re not a necessary evil of the game. We have a role to play, and our role is truly to not be recognized.”
—NFL referee Gene Steratore, on the place of officials in the league.
Give me a few paragraphs before we get to the current events of Week 13.
Among the educational experiences I’ve had in 30 seasons covering the NFL, what I did between Nov. 11 and 17 ranks with spending a week in the life of the Green Bay Packers in 1995, being embedded on a four-day Dallas Cowboys pre-draft scouting trip in 1991, and being inside the Denver Broncos’ team meeting the night before the AFC title game eight years ago; it’s a bit ahead of draft-room experiences in many places, as recent as last April in St. Louis. Last month I trailed Gene Steratore’s officiating crew—one of 17 seven-man officiating teams in the NFL—for a week, for a three-part series that will begin Wednesday at The MMQB. I’d have to put this story right behind that Packers week. That week was a trip. Mike Holmgren had to spend 20 minutes one day chastising two rookies for keeping a lion in their apartment and telling them that if the lion wasn’t gone by the next Monday, they would be.
But this week with the officials … this was unique. Throughout the week—Monday evening and Tuesday morning with Steratore, Tuesday night with field judge Bob Waggoner, Wednesday with back judge Dino Paganelli, Thursday with head linesman Wayne Mackie, Saturday at the officials’ pregame meeting at their hotel and Sunday at the Ravens-Bears game—I kept saying to myself, I didn’t know that. Well, no kidding. We typically know very little about the lives of officials or the inner workings of the jobs they do. The linguistic shorthand they use (“UNR” for “unnecessary roughness”) and the way jobs change just before the snap of the ball (the head linesman has the slot receiver, but if the slot receiver goes in motion beyond the quarterback, the head linesman switches to the innermost receiver on his side) become dizzying to keep track of. Poor Steratore. In a week, he answered a hundred questions from me approximating, “Why did this happen?” Because so many elements of officiating are hidden under rocks. We’re not supposed to know how the sausage gets made. I hope in this series to shine a light on so many things about officials’ lives and jobs that you don’t know.
I’ll give you an example that just reared its head Thursday on the controversial Mike Tomlin play. Did you know that before every game, the head linesman asks the head coach: “Who is your get-back coach today?” That, of course, made me ask Mackie on the day I spent with him, “What in the world is a get-back coach?”
“Every team designates one man on the sidelines to keep the coaches and players back from the field,” Mackie said. “Usually it’s an assistant coach, somebody like the strength and conditioning coach or the assistant strength and conditioning coach. And if I’m having an issue keeping people back, I tell him, and he has to handle it.”
That six-foot-wide white stripe on the sidelines, called the “No Fly Zone” by some crews, is supposed to be free of everyone during the game. But as you saw Thursday night, the enforcement of that is too lax. There were several breakdowns when Tomlin strayed too far on the stripe and actually had his right foot on the field, forcing Baltimore kick-returner Jacoby Jones to slightly alter his path. Pittsburgh’s designated get-back coach didn’t do his job. The two officials on Clete Blakeman’s crew running the sidelines following Jones, line judge Ron Marinucci and field judge David Maslow, should have flagged Tomlin for unsportsmanlike conduct (amazing they didn’t see it, or chose not to flag it) and didn’t do their jobs. Tomlin, of course, erred by being so far out. Those kinds of mistakes cannot happen in games, and if they do, cannot go unchecked. I anticipate both of those officials will be downgraded for missing the call, and Tomlin, of course, will be disciplined.
Now you know what the “get-back coach” is. I hope I can educate you about a few other officiating things this week. Check out The MMQB Wednesday through Friday for my series, and for our videographer John DePetro’s inside look at the lives and jobs of these officials.
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Nick Foles is one of the stories of the year in the NFL.
Passer rating through 13 weeks: Nick Foles 125.2, Peyton Manning 115.3.
Touchdown-to-interception differential: Nick Foles plus-19, Tom Brady plus-11.
Interceptions thrown: Nick Foles 0, Matthew Stafford 14.
Yards per attempt: Nick Foles 9.14, Tony Romo 7.14.
Perhaps most significantly, the Eagles are 5-0 in Foles’ complete games.
So the Eagles are tied for the lead in the NFC East with Dallas this morning at 7-5—though Dallas holds the tiebreaker—and Philadelphia can thank Foles for that. Since he wrested the job from an injured Mike Vick a month ago, the Eagles are 4-0 and Foles has been close to perfect. For the season he’s a 63 percent passer, with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s December, and that’s right: no interceptions.
Well, no interceptions that have stuck, anyway.
On Sunday, trying to get some insurance for a 24-21 lead with four minutes left, Foles had a 2nd-and-7 at his 34-yard line, and he faced a heavy rush. Instead of throwing it away, Foles floated one down the middle of the field into coverage. Cornerback Patrick Peterson picked it off—and there went the Foles streak. But a late flag came flying, and Tyrann Mathieu was called for holding wideout Jason Avant.
“Man, horrible throw, horrible decision,” Foles said from Philadelphia an hour after the game. “When I saw the flag and heard the call, I said, ‘Thank you God.’ I learned my lesson there. But that’s what I try to do: I build a database with decisions like that, and I learn from them. If I get that same look the next time, I’ll make a different throw, or I’ll throw it away. The good thing about it is, Coach has confidence in my decision-making.”
I wondered if Foles looks at his gaudy stat line, ever, and whether he ever thinks, I can’t throw an interception. Wouldn’t that thought naturally occur to you? It would to me. Maybe that’s why I’m not an NFL quarterback. Well, that, and a few other physical reasons.
“No, I don’t think about it,” he said. “You can’t. You throw the ball into some tight spaces, and if you’re going to say, ‘Don’t throw an interception,’ there are throws you wouldn’t try to make. In the NFL you have to try them. I’m not afraid to make a mistake. As a quarterback, you can’t be. One of the things that’s helped me in this position is my parents taught me attention to detail. And if you’ve done all the work and play one snap at a time and do the best you can on every snap, you’re going to be confident enough to make those throws.”
Foles is not an athletic quarterback, which everyone can see. But this game showed he has the kind of functional athleticism that works even against an aggressive and quick rush such as Arizona’s. On the first Philadelphia touchdown of the day, Foles used the Cards’ aggressiveness against them. He fake-pitched left to LeSean McCoy, who entered the game as the league’s leading rusher. When McCoy runs left, Foles moves to pitch left and most of the line runs left, what’s the defense going to do? Follow McCoy. But Foles held the ball, scrambled right, and found rookie tight end Zach Ertz (well-covered, to Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ credit) for a six-yard touchdown strike. “I knew they’d flow to what we were doing with that fake pitch,” said Foles, “and Zach was right where he should be.”
Foles said he appreciates how magnanimous Vick has been, both in the quarterback room and publicly; Vick has said Foles should keep the job because he’s playing so well. “One of the most dynamic quarterbacks in NFL history is also an incredible teammate,” Foles said. “He helps me every day.” He thinks he’s proven you don’t have to be a Vick to succeed in the Chip Kelly offense, and who can argue with him?
I don’t know if the Eagles, who will have to beat Dallas in Week 17 and probably need other help before then, can win the division. I do know Foles has given Kelly and GM Howie Roseman a lot to think about after the season in draft prep. Maybe Philly ignores the strong crop of quarterbacks in the 2014 draft, re-signs Vick at a reasonable, incentive-based wage, and goes with the same three passers next year: Foles, Vick, Matt Barkley. The physical toll of the position has shown this year, with Vick and Foles being out for periods after big hits. Kelly might figure he needs three he trusts to make it through a 16-game season.
“I feel I’ve played well, but not as well as I can,” Foles said. “I’m 24. There’s still a lot of growth in my game. I need to improve a lot of things, especially my game management. But I think everyone tries to overanalyze the kind of quarterback that’s best for this offense.”
It’s a moot point now. Foles, a clear No. 2 on Labor Day, is one of the most important players in the league as the NFL heads into the final quarter of the season.