The Puzzle Master
PHILADELPHIA — Nick Foles currently has an undone puzzle strewn across his dining room table. Something colorful, with pictures of animals. But he hasn’t put together more than a few pieces.
"Me and his mom are working on it," says Eagles practice-squad linebacker Emmanuel Acho, Foles’ one-time roommate and frequent visitor. "Nick’s not very good at puzzles."
Maybe not the jigsaw kind, anyway. But as for the kind that unfold on the football field, between sidelines 160 feet apart and against an opponent 11 men deep, the 24-year-old quarterback has a way of deciphering these.
"You try to think, but not overthink," Foles says. "I like feeling the game. I like reacting. There’s not, like, math problems going through my head when I’m dropping back. I’m recognizing the coverage; I’m seeing the defenders; I’m reading body language; I’m reading through the area.
"It’s like you’re looking at something, but you are not staring down anything," he continues. "You are seeing the whole screen at once, and you are trying to react to leverage, depth, where the defenders are that can stop the play. You’re trying to make a read in one to four seconds."
This is about as much insight as the second-year pro gives as to how he’s become the biggest quarterback surprise in the NFL this season. On opening day, Foles was the clear No. 2 on the Eagles’ depth chart. Saturday, he’ll lead their offense in a home playoff game against the Saints.
"You can see someone else’s mistakes, and not repeat those. He just learned from Mike [Vick], and has taken Mike’s good, and discarded some bad." —Jason Avant
Foles, a third-round pick last year, loathes talking about himself. His teammates, though, offer a laundry list of reasons they respect him: He’s even-keeled, a flat-liner in any circumstance. He’s humble, not wanting to keep even a single football from his record-tying seven-touchdown performance at Oakland in Week 9. He’s willing to help out his teammates, letting Acho and G.J. Kinne each crash at his place earlier this year.
But after Michael Vick’s hamstring failed him early in the season, there is an even more important reason Foles has emerged as the Eagles’ quarterback—as Chip Kelly’s quarterback—for the next 1,000 years, as his coach famously quipped. "He may not be fleet of foot," Kelly said in November, "but he's fleet of mind."
Developing this fleetness of mind was exactly what Foles was doing during those seven weeks he spent as Vick’s backup from August to October. In practice, he’d station himself 10 or so yards behind the line of scrimmage as Vick took his first-team snaps, simulating these reps for himself. Foles had never been in an offense that employed the zone read, so he’d mimic how Vick read, faked or gave the ball. He’d read the defense in real-time and make his own decision, comparing it to the 11- year veteran’s.
And while Vick steered Kelly’s new offense through its first five NFL games, Foles logged each of Vick’s live reps into what he likes to refer to as his mental "database."
"That’s what makes him smart, is that a lot of people need experience to grow, but the best growth comes through instruction," receiver Jason Avant says of Foles. "You can see someone else’s mistakes, and not repeat those. He just learned from Mike, and has taken Mike’s good, and discarded some bad."
Avant wouldn’t specify what good and bad he referred to, but Foles’ numbers speak for themselves: He completed a prestigious 64 percent of his passes this season, and his 119.2 passer rating ranked third-highest for a single season in NFL history.
|Where Nick Foles Ranks (QBs with over 250 attempts)|
|Pro Football Focus grade||5.4||15th|
The Raiders game, Foles’ third start of the season, was more than a seven- touchdown milestone. Bill Lazor, the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach, considered it "a little bit of a turning point" for his pupil. For one, it validated the way Lazor had been teaching Foles to dissect film. They’d highlighted weaknesses in the Raiders defense in the meeting room that week—defenders Foles could move with his eyes, one-on-one matchups he should exploit, players vulnerable to double-moves—and Foles executed every one on their list. Back-to-back touchdown passes to Riley Cooper, while matched up one-on-one with rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden, were surely an example.
Kelly had also given Foles a vote of confidence before that game, despite Foles missing the prior week with a concussion and having struggled in a loss to the Cowboys two weeks earlier. Kelly’s instruction was short on words but long in meaning: "Let it rip."
"I just started trusting," Foles said. "It was pretty much just giving me the green light to feel the game. We always had that, but it takes time to understand coaches; you don’t want to go against what your coach wants, you want to be on the same page with him, you don’t want to rebel."
For instance: If a certain receiver is fourth in his progression, but Foles spots a defender cheating in a way that would open up that player’s route, he feels comfortable skipping ahead to that option. If you’re wondering the benefit of Foles "letting it rip" in that Raiders game, this was his record from that day forward: 7-1.
But Foles has thrived on good decision-making this season—27 touchdown passes to just two interceptions—so this process hasn’t been haphazard. After every throw he makes during practice, Foles checks the location of each of the other receivers on the play, to make sure he’s aware of all his options. When those options aren’t there, he’ll do exactly what he did on his final decision of last week’s win-or-go-home game against the Cowboys: tuck the ball, take the sack, ride out the storm.
"He’s just more confident," Acho says. "It’s not just that he knows he can do it, now he’s seen himself do it."
There will be a rare parallel between the opposing sidelines tomorrow: Both Foles and Saints quarterback Drew Brees are graduates of Austin’s Westlake High School, where they each led the football team to the Texas state championship game 10 years apart, and Foles broke most of Brees’ school passing records. The same man, orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, even repaired the labrums in each of their throwing shoulders in the span of a year (Foles’ appointment, on the heels of his high school career, was reportedly set up for him by Brees).
Foles is working on another analogy to the player he considers a role model: Sean Payton is to Drew Brees, as Chip Kelly is to Nick Foles. A year ago, Foles and his 5.14 40-yard dash time were assumed to be ill fits for Kelly’s offense; now, the question is how much credit for Foles’ rise belongs to his coach’s system. Foles’ only perspective is that, like Brees and Payton, he needs to maximize the partnership. Foles drew from as far back as his college days at Arizona, when he played against Kelly’s Oregon teams in the Pac-10, to enhance his understanding of his coach and play-caller; during the summer, he stayed late to run the perimeter of the practice field, as a way of ensuring his body was able to embrace the run in this system.
Who’d have guessed then that they’d be leading the Eagles into the first round of the playoffs together come the first week of 2014? Certainly not Vick, who resurrected his career here in Philadelphia once already and seemed primed for a third wind in Kelly’s tricky, fast-paced offense. The four-time Pro Bowler’s desires to play "four or five" more years, and to be a starter again, now have their best chance of being fulfilled in another city.
But Vick’s best chance to get to a Super Bowl? Right now, that’s behind Foles.
"I try to instill confidence in him. I instill the fact that this is your time, this is your team," Vick says. "Take this team over and take us where we need to go."