Nick Foles: A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Foles took the starting job by storm when Michael Vick went down in 2013. That being said, his play had some noticeable deficiencies that left Eagles fans groaning at times. We all want to see some growth from Nick in 2014, but the question is: which kind of growth is best?

You've read it and heard it a thousand times: Nick Foles had a historic season in 2013 and statistically one of the best seasons put together by a quarterback ever. This puts him in an interesting position because he is unlikely to replicate the production he had this past season. While he can certainly develop and grow as a leader and as a professional quarterback, his numbers are virtually guaranteed to regress.

As fans, this leaves us in an interesting position - what exactly should we expect from Nick Foles next season? We would all like to see him play at a high level, of course. But what's good enough? How much should we temper our expectations from what we saw out of him in 2013? How do we balance our optimism for the future with the pragmatism of the present?

There is always a good place to start answering questions like these: numbers. Other contributors to this site such as Brent have already dabbled into analysis of Foles' eye-popping statistics from last season. I'm going to go with a somewhat basic rundown of numbers that are commonly used to scrutinize a quarterback.

Statistic Nick Foles (2013) League Average (2013)
Yards Per Attempt 9.1 6.7
Interception Rate 0.6 2.8
Touchdown Rate 8.5 4.6
Completion Percentage 64.0 61.8
Fumbles Lost 2 2.3
Sacked Per Game 2.15 2.53
Passer Rating 119.2 87.0

As you can see, Foles was far and away exceptional in several major quarterback statistics. This implies that he will experience some sort of regression to the mean next season. But a drop in the quality of the numbers on the stat sheet may not be as significant if he shows growth with his intangibles. In other words, while statistics are important, they aren't everything. So what would you rather see: gaudy numbers or polished intangibles? Below I'll run through both scenarios.

Building a Solid Resume

This is the scenario where Foles puts up great numbers but continues to show a lack of experience in several unmeasured areas (think taking sacks instead of throwing the ball away). Obviously, he has the ability to do both of those things, but for the purpose of this exercise he gets either one or the other.

But what type of numbers are we talking about? To give us an idea, here is the career passer rating for six current starting quarterbacks that routinely compile good statistics, regardless of their reputation as "clutch quarterbacks" or "winners."

Quarterback Career Passer Rating
Tom Brady 95.7
Drew Brees 95.3
Peyton Manning 97.2
Philip Rivers 96.0
Aaron Rodgers 104.9
Tony Romo 95.8

So, the thought in this scenario would be that Foles posts a quarterback rating between 95-105. There are a lot of things to note here, such as the fact that four of these six quarterbacks own a Super Bowl ring. This makes sense; the more you play consistently good, the more likely you are to win on a regular basis.

Another interesting thing to ponder is how these quarterbacks got these numbers. The two most likely explanations are that the statistics are either a direct result of the quarterback's intangibles, the talent around them, or their physical ability (or a combination of the three). Looking at talent, the list divides quite nicely: Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, and Drew Brees were consistently surrounded by talent while Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady have all had to work with either average, injured, or declining players for a lot of their careers. I'm going to put Foles in the talented category since he has DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, and Zach Ertz with him on the field. When talking about physical ability, we all know that Nick ins't the most mobile of quarterbacks and doesn't have the strongest arm, so I think calling him "average" in that category is fair.

He wins, but only when defending a lead.

Now let's actually look at this scenario. Foles posts a great stat line during the season; let's say he has a quarterback rating of 96.2 for the year. He hasn't shown much growth in the way of getting rid of the ball faster and doesn't throw it away when chased out of bounds. His play still shows some inconsistency as he has periods of time where he misses wide-open receivers. He wins, but for the most part only when defending a lead. Regardless, he still takes care of the ball and the numbers are good enough for the team to be successful. Let's say the Eagles make the playoffs and win a game where they blow out their opponent (Foles isn't asked to put the team on his back to win), but then lose in the second round. If Foles had a season like this in 2014, how would you feel about him going into the offseason?

"There's Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics."

It can probably be said that of all the positions in sports, statistics say the least about a quarterback. It's a position that is as much mental as it is physical, so the numbers on the page will never tell the whole story whether or not that story is good or bad. It is for precisely this reason why the jury is still out on Foles, at least to some degree. A casual fan will look at his numbers from 2013 and fall in love, but seasoned followers like us know better. Foles still has something to prove and we all hope that he crushes all vestigial doubts next season. But what is the acceptable statistical cost for that proof?

Before we can answer this question we need to decide what exactly Foles needs to show us that won't end up on a stat sheet. I think we all know that Foles had an amazing season overall, but that doesn't make it wrong to nitpick. It's in our duty as Philly fans, if the national media knows anything. But I digress; here is the list I came up with of things we should look for in Foles next year:

  • Make better decisions when there is a "sack impending" (e.g. throw the ball out of bounds, do not throw across the body, do not take a twenty-yard sack, etc.).
  • Eliminate "rough patches" of inconsistency. If a receiver is wide open on an intermediate pass, Foles should be able to hit him every time.
  • Lead a comeback. We all remember the Bucs game from 2012, but in 2013 Foles really only won when he was able to build a lead and then defend it. As we saw in January, that doesn't always fly in the playoffs.
  • Tighten up throwing windows. Foles' ability to throw receivers open is well-documented, but he never really seemed comfortable attempting passes where you could only complete it by putting the ball exactly where it needs to go. This led to him holding onto the ball too long when coverage got tight and taking some drive-killing sacks.
Let's say that next year Foles noticeably improves in all of these areas but at the cost of a large regression statistically. In 2013 the average passer rating was 87.0, so we'll peg Foles somewhere around there. Now, you might say, "But how could Nick improve on those things but have a lower passer rating?" It's entirely possible, which speaks volumes about how subjective a quarterback's play is. Andrew Luck, for example, has a career passer rating of 81.5. Nick Foles, on the other hand, has a career rating of 101.0 (albeit with a much smaller sample size). Nobody thinks that Foles is better than Andrew Luck, even though the stats say he is. It's the intangibles that Luck brings to the table which make him better. And that's what this scenario focuses on: the intangibles.

During his campaign, Nick "threads the needle" with a fair number of his passes.
In these circumstances, Foles sees a major dip in his statistics as his passer rating falls to 84.8 in 2014. Even though his play isn't outstanding, he gets enough support from the rest of the team to earn a playoff berth. During his campaign Nick stays very consistent with his play, tosses the ball away when appropriate, and "threads the needle" with a fair number of his passes. For good measure we'll throw in two fourth-quarter comebacks and another where he helped the Eagles erase a three-score deficit. In the playoffs the Eagles win a playoff game in a thrilling comeback where Foles puts the team on his back to win the game, but they lose in the second round. If Foles had a season like this in 2014, how would you feel about him going into the offseason?

The Breakdown

I realize that the above scenarios are a fabrication of extremes used to illustrate a point. In all likelihood, Nick Foles' play will fall somewhere between the two circumstances I described above. But this does bring up the intriguing "fork in the road" that Foles will end up taking. Will he be a system quarterback, who is extremely successful in an offense that disguises his shortcomings? Or will he be a more of a hero-of-the-day quarterback, who is moderately successful but can put the team on his back?

I think you can make an argument for both sides. In the first case, wouldn't we all love an Eagles team that doesn't need a hero to win the game? Wouldn't it be nice to just be worrying about defending a sizable lead instead of having to make an epic comeback? Sure, the games wouldn't be as exciting, but the Eagles would be winning. A lot. If Foles' shortcomings become an afterthought, then do they really matter?

In the second case, wouldn't it be nice to see a quarterback that can be counted on to deliver when the pressure is on? No team is perfect; somebody has to pick up the slack when others fall behind. In football, you want that "somebody" to be the quarterback. Of course, we would all want Foles to post stats like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but if he can be counted on to win you a game that you absolutely need to win, would we really care in the end?

For what it's worth (hopefully at least two cents), I would take the second scenario, but only because I find it to be more realistic. There will never be an offense that isn't tested by a great defense and that test usually comes in the postseason. Just look at the last Super Bowl. Ultimately, I would rather see a seasoned team with character from fighting for a few wins than a team with a sense of entitlement after breezing through the regular season.

I think I've been rambling on long enough (almost at 1900 words here); what about you? In this Jeckyll-and-Hyde study of two possible Nick Foles, who would you take, the stat-sheet hero or the comeback kid?

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