Sometimes things don’t go as you planned.
Just ask the 2017 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Coming into the season anticipating big things from second-year starter Carson Wentz, Eagles fans got that and then some as the team cruised to a 10-1 start, with dominating performances from both sides of the ball.
That all looked to end in week 14 against the Rams where, despite an NFC East clinching win, the team lost Wentz for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. While the offense put up a dominating performance the following week in a 34-29 win over the Rams, they only put up 13 points in the next two weeks.
Naturally, odds were against them, especially with journeyman quarterback Nick Foles, making his return to Philly, at the helm. The loss of Wentz’s running ability took a toll on the style of play calling the Eagles were so good at in the regular season. Most people expected the team to be one and done.
Of course, things didn’t go as planned.
The Eagles were underdogs in all three postseason games, winning a nail biter at home against the Falcons, destroying the Vikings the following week, then taking down the Patriots and preventing a sixth Super Bowl ring for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It was the first Super Bowl in franchise history, and the Eagles’ first championship in 57 years.
Foles finished the postseason completing 77 of 101 passes (72.6%) for 971 yards, 6 TD to 1 INT and a 115.7 passer rating in three games, collecting Super Bowl MVP in the process and cementing himself as a legend in Philadelphia sports lore for helping bring the Lombardi Trophy home.
The natural response to this sort of success is to proclaim Foles is a big time quarterback that shows up in playoff games. After all in four career starts, Foles has thrown 8 touchdowns to 1 interception. Foles obviously isn’t a stranger to success. His 27-2 touchdown-interception ratio in 2013 is constantly brought up as one of the biggest flukes in quarterback history (not that he’d care now with a Super Bowl ring and MVP in his hand).
But in his three regular season starts this year, Foles completed 40 of 87 passes (54.0%) for 439 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT, and a 77.7 passer rating. So something seems off with calling him a big time player. If he was so productive in the postseason, what changed?
A couple of things occurred as Foles shocked the football world. First, he was able to get more comfortable in the offense, gradually improving his accuracy and hitting the throws he was supposed to hit. This allowed the offense to thrive in the playoffs even with the absence of Wentz.
Second, head coach Doug Pederson’s presence made it clear that the Eagles were a team that wasn’t quarterback driven, but coach driven.
But wouldn’t it make more sense to have every team be coach driven instead of QB driven? Well, that would imply every coach thinks the same. For every Bill Belichick or Doug Pederson, there’s Hue Jackson, Mike Mularkey, Mike McCarthy, or Chuck Pagano.
The former coaches put less stress on the quarterback with comfortable situations placed instead. Receivers are constantly open and the quarterback occasionally calls plays, executes trick plays, or audibles at the line of scrimmage.
The latter places more stress on the quarterback showcasing a flawless performance. You can do that with a quarterback that can overcome a flawed offensive design like Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton (but you shouldn’t have to), but if you have a rookie like Deshone Kizer, it’s only going to lead to more turnovers and more losses.
So Doug Pederson deserves as much credit as he can get. I’ve already illustrated why he was the true driving force of the Eagles offense before the postseason, and of course he was a major proponent in allowing Foles to play at the level he did.
When Doug Pederson controlled the strings for Carson Wentz’s rookie season, he ran a quarterback friendly offensive scheme, limiting vertical throws and giving him plenty of play action and read option plays that put his running ability first. Despite all the drops from the receivers and the injury to right tackle Lane Johnson, Pederson’s coaching made it far from a hopeless situation for the rookie.
Looking at the film, Pederson clearly did his homework on Wentz’s rookie season, starting by addressing his struggles. He knew Wentz sailed passes too high, that he struggled to adapt after the first read was covered, that his mechanics were sloppy, and that he was better on unstructured plays than he was on structured ones.
So in the offseason, the Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to add to the vertical game. LeGarrette Blount was also signed to help open up the run game, and undrafted free agent running back Corey Clement became a pleasant surprise contributor to the offense.
With more resources and the return of Lane Johnson, Pederson greatly expanded the playbook, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. Wentz was able to hold the ball in the pocket behind the best offensive line in the league with a variety of mesh plays, misdirection, run pass option plays, and other unique route combinations at his disposal. With receivers creating more separation, catching with more consistency, and improved poise from Wentz, the Eagles dominated in the regular season.
Pederson stressed an easy environment for his quarterback, one that allowed him to constantly see first reads and complete passes with little pressure. Combined with excellent field position granted by the defense, and the offense exploded throughout the year.
So even when Foles came in for Wentz, Pederson still used the misdirection, RPO heavy environment he did with his Pro Bowl quarterback. Like Wentz, Foles was not consistently asked to go through his progressions, as designed plays were usually successful and first reads were numerously open. Of course, this was sprinkled in with a handful of legitimately impressive throws, some under pressure at that.
Nick Foles did everything you could ask from a backup quarterback. Like the Vikings with Case Keenum in the regular season, the Eagles rarely missed a beat with Foles in the postseason.
When Texans star rookie Deshaun Watson was lost for the season after a torn ACL in practice, head coach Bill O’Brien altered the offense for his backups, but not in a way that made it any easier. With Watson, O’Brien called an offense that heavily favored play action and run pass option plays. This made the pass protection better and put Watson in a comfortable environment where he didn’t have to constantly make outrageously difficult throws into tight windows.
This was not the case with Tom Savage and T.J. Yates. With these two quarterbacks, O’Brien abandoned the play action/read option style of offense in favor of a more difficult, isolated vertical offense that demanded perfection from a slew of bad quarterbacks. Abandoning this offense due to a lack of mobility or running ability is a bad excuse, and Pederson proved it when he kept the same style of offense for Foles.
As the above play shows, while Wentz’s injury prevented the Eagles from executing RPOs, it did not prevent them from running read option. Pederson knew Foles didn’t have to run for them to continue to call these plays. And because the Eagles’ route designs are extremely creative and are run by talented receivers, it was still easy for them to create yardage.
One notable part of Philadelphia’s offense was the constant use of mesh plays, where a combination of close routes (mostly two) go in opposite directions intentionally setting up the opening of a third one. Two tight ends are usually involved. Pederson carried this over working with Andy Reid in Kansas City as the offensive coordinator, and adapted it with the Eagles.
Like the tight end throwback with the Falcons a year ago, the Eagles ran the mesh concept to near perfection, and it was especially effective on short down situations. Foles was able to execute these plays because it didn’t require insane composure in the pocket or deadly accuracy. Thus, this is one of those easy plays where the quarterback doesn’t need to do all the heavy work.
With that said, In the last two games of the season Foles was playing the best football of his career. He was never known as a precise pocket passer or one that throws with anticipation, and his lack of mobility makes his skill set more limited than a guy like Wentz.
But like Case Keenum this season, Foles was able to get the most out of his limited skill set in the final two playoff games. In both of these games, he avoided the mistakes of the past and did what was asked of him to a near flawless level. Clearly, he had something to prove.
In the Super Bowl, Foles made really impressive plays without making any boneheaded decisions. This pass is especially impressive because of the tiny window it’s thrown into. There’s very little margin for error if the pass isn’t on target, and an off throw could very have easily led to a pick. But Foles’ timing on this pass is beautiful, and obviously it was key in the Eagles retaking the lead for good.
Before that, this was the key play of the game. If Philadelphia didn’t convert the fourth and 1, the Patriots would’ve gotten the ball back and very likely would’ve made it an eight point game. The left tackle gives up pressure on another mesh design, but Foles side steps it, keeps his eyes downfield and delivers to Zach Ertz, who barely manages to keep his feet on the ground to convert the first down. It’s an impressive play for Foles, and one that helped cement him as Super Bowl MVP.
This is perhaps the best throw of Foles’ 2017 season. It’s a play where he’s required to withdraw from his first read and progress to another one. While under pressure.
Rolling out of the pocket, Foles finds an open receiver downfield and delivers a dime on the run for an explosive gain. You would never expect Foles to make this kind of play, which makes it all the more dumbfounding that he didn’t drag the Eagles offense down like he was supposed to.
Simply put, Nick Foles may never play to the same level he did in the 2017 postseason ever again. He very well could be a trade commodity in the offseason or sign a ludicrous contract after the 2018 season, when he is a free agent. For a guy who has shown a limited skill set in the past, what he’s doing likely isn’t sustainable in a lesser offense.
But that’s also why the underdog story is such a good one. Foles wasn’t expected to keep the Eagles offense flowing, and shocked the NFL when he delivered in the Super Bowl. That was a legitimately great performance, one where he was rarely off target and made a few difficult plays as well.
So Foles’ performances aren’t just a testament to his story, but are also a testament to the coaching of Doug Pederson. Pederson could’ve easily changed the offense without his starting quarterback in, but he didn’t. He gave Foles the near identical help he gave Wentz, with QB friendly routes, mesh plays, heavy play action and read option, all under the best offensive line in football. And it all led to a storybook ending.
Sometimes, it’s good when things don’t go as planned.