Behold and tremble before greatness, as it prepares for its next 7 touchdown performance.
After posting a jaw-dropping 27 TD : 2 INT season with Philadelphia in 2013 that had many touting Nicholas Edward Foles as the savior of Philadelphia football, the Pro Bowl MVP (lol) fell off quite the cliff. The 2014 season under head coach Chip Kelly was rocky enough that Foles was shipped off in 2015, with some draft capital, to the then St. Louis Rams for QB Sam Bradford by general manager Chip Kelly.
After catching the bench with the Rams, Foles bounced over to KC and reunited with Andy Reid, the head coach who had drafted him. There, he spent some time learning Eagles HC Doug Pederson’s offense while backing up QB Alex Smith—this offseason, the Eagles paid quite the pretty penny ($11M over 2 years) to bring Foles in as the backup for franchise QB Carson Wentz.
The backup QB is such an important position in the NFL—a significantly undervalued one by fans everywhere. Ask Minnesota how their backup situation is going since the Bradford injury; then take a trip down to Houston and ask them the same question regarding rookie Deshaun Watson.
Given Wentz’s physical play style, Philadelphia was wise to invest in a backup quarterback—and indeed, the chickens came home to roost. Now, Foles must prove he’s worth his contract, with a level of performance that keeps Philadelphia competitive in the playoffs.
Time to polish off the ol’ crystal ball and see if he can do it.
Nick Foles Scouting Report | Strengths
There’s limited tape of Foles receiving significant reps in a Pederson-esque offense. He had one start in Kansas City in 2016, and of course, the 4th quarter of the Rams game. Focusing on these two games, we can get a picture of the player that Foles is, and how Pederson will run his offense with Saint Nick at the helm.
A quick note before any claims are made: Nobody in their right mind would call Foles a “consistent” player. He was streaky even when he threw 27 tuddies in 13 games. As such a high-variance player, it’s tough to make blanket claims—but that hasn’t stopped me before.
Foles can throw a pretty deep ball. He reads a defense well pre-snap, so if he gets a look he likes, he’s unafraid to test man coverage down the field and up the seam. Aware of this skill, we saw schemed deep shots for Foles both in KC and against Philly. Here was the first offensive play for the Chiefs in Foles’ start:
Check out the 3 x 1 offensive set, with TE Travis Kelce lined up as the backside WR. With single-high coverage and the corner lined up tight to the WR, Foles expects man coverage on the backside, and knows Kelce has a jump ball advantage. He puts this one in a great spot.
What’s frustrating here (we’ll get deeper into it later) is how Foles completely disregards proper mechanics on this throw. Foles has an NFL arm (not a Carson arm, certainly) and can make all the throws, but he’ll often rely on it too heavily, which leads to his spotty accuracy. This time, it was a dime; next time, it may not be.
The greatest advantage that Foles brings to the table will likely be his playoff experience and veteran savvy. Foles has played in a Pederson-style offense for two seasons now, and with 36 NFL games started, he knows what he’s doing. Check it again against Kansas City: 3 x 1 formation, with TE Travis Kelce backside.
This is a crucial 3rd and 7 on the edge of field goal range. Foles recognizes once again the man coverage on Kelce. The LBs are close to the line of scrimmage, and Foles knows the screen action of his OL will keep them from dropping into the short zones int he middle of the field.
As such, Foles audibles to a 1-step slant with his elite TE in space. Despite again foregoing mechanics, that’s a great ball that hits Kelce in stride for the first down.
Nick Foles Scouting Report | Weaknesses
Let’s talk about those mechanical issues, however, because they are quite the doozy. Foles will be asked to execute a timing offense in Philadelphia, in which he must synchronize his drops with the breaks of the wide receivers, releasing the football with anticipation and without hesitation.
That’s not exactly Nick’s forte.
Let’s start with the drop: From shotgun, Foles doesn’t immediately rotate his hips, but rather begins with a little shuffle backwards. While this may seem rather the venial sin, already the timing of his drop with the eventual break of WR Albert Wilson is disrupted.
You can see this once Foles gets to the top of his drop. He buries that back foot into the turf in an effort to stop his drop and get the ball out on time. In doing so, however, he never bring his weight onto that back foot; for QB gurus, he never “loads,” the weight-bearing process that begins the throwing motion.
We can see the detrimental effect this error has on the eventual throwing motion and accuracy in the end zone view. Because Foles never really transfers his weight through his throw, he’s unable to open up (rotate) his hips toward the target; and consequentially, very little torque is generated by the rotation of his shoulders. Foles is forced to generate almost all of the necessary velocity with his arm alone—while Carson sometimes escapes with his natural arm talent, Foles simply is not so gifted.
Because the hips stayed closed to the target, the ball ends up too far outside; because the arm is asked to generate too much velocity, the ball dies in the air.
We will see more and more reps of erratic placement as we continue. Almost all of the issues are mechanical.
Sprinkle in Foles’ lack of post-snap processing speed, and add just a dash (okay, actually a hole heaping lot) of poor pocket presence, and you have a QB who really needs his first read to come open.
Kansas City runs a half-field spacing concept here. It’s a good idea—Philly will run them as well—as it doesn’t ask Foles to make a full-field read (remember, poor post-snap processor). The problem is, Foles’ lack of anticipation prevents him from pulling the trigger despite receivers flashing open against Jacksonville’s zone.
Once you read zone, hit the flat and pick up a free 4 yards. If you’re late to that, fine—you better hit that sit route that is built to beat zone coverage. The WR does a marvelous job nestling himself in a window, in front of the deep safety, but Foles simply can’t get his head to that route in time to make the throw.
As we can see from the end zone angle, Foles begins to get skittish in clean pockets, panicking when none of his reads do his job for him. He pulls the Nick Foles Special—a sigh-inducing play with which Philadelphia fans are all too familiar: two pump-fakes as he wishes he could make the throws he should have made, a frantic backpedal despite a clear lane up which he could climb, and an eventual scramble directly into pressure, to sack himself.
*Italian chef finger kiss*
The skinny: Foles can figure out what you’re doing pre-snap, and he certainly has the talent to spin it, especially down the field. But he’ll hamper his own efficacy through mechanical inconsistency, and if his pre-snap read doesn’t hold true, he really struggles to move through progressions or extend the play.
Philadelphia Offense Under Nick Foles | RPOs
We’ve got a better feeling around who Foles is; now we must figure out if we can win with him.
Spoiler alert: you can. You definitely can. If Doug Pederson is as good of a head coach as I think he is, and the offensive think tank in Philadelphia is all it’s touted to be, they will win with Foles. How far they can get into the playoffs is another matter entirely—but Foles can run this offense.
The greatest concern vocalized during the switch has been the loss of RPOs (run-pass options) in Philadelphia’s offense. A staple of Pederson’s system, Philadelphia ran these plays at the highest incidence in the NFL.
Remember, the objective of the RPO is to make the defense wrong, no matter what they do. Philly ran a ton of RPOs against Los Angeles—here, with Carson behind center, Philadelphia put Los Angeles MLB Mike Barron in a bind.
Philadelphia is running a little power sweep to the field side, while also deploying a rub concept with the receivers on the boundary side. Carson will choose which option to take—the run or the pass—depending on what the “read key” does. Should the read key drop back into pass coverage (likely a zone), Carson will hand the football off.
The defense will be without the requisite number of defenders to account for every gap in the running game, and Philadelphia should be able to pick up a good chunk of yardage.
Conversely, should the read key play downhill to defend the run, Carson will pull the ball from the RB’s belly and throw the slant to WR Torrey Smith off the rub. In this way, the defense will, again, always be wrong. Whatever the LB does, Carson has the answer.
Without Carson’s arm strength, release, and accuracy from bad platforms/arm angles, RPOs certainly become harder, but they’re still possible. The greatest concern in deploying these plays must be, however, Foles’ processing speed. He must be able to quickly read the defensive player and react before that “read key” can correct his mistake.
However, this is only one way to deploy the run-pass option. It is the truest to form, as it is a post-snap read that always makes the defender wrong. But plays abound in the Philadelphia playbook that have both a run and pass option, but don’t necessarily require a post-snap read.
Consider this play—the second passing attempt Pederson dialed up for Nick Foles (the first was a muffed snap).
Again, still a run-pass option—but this time, arguably a triple option. It’s unclear if the bubble route by the slot receiver is actually a viable option on this play, but let’s say it is.
This run-pass option is not determined by post-snap play, but rather by pre-snap alignment. From the jump, Foles notices that he has off-man coverage to the play side. With a single-high safety, he knows that WR Alshon Jeffery’s Bang-8 post should open up right away. The only thing he need fear is a linebacker dropping into that zone and undercutting the route.
But, because the offensive line/running back are playing “run,” Foles is almost certain those linebackers won’t immediately drop. Everything the ‘backers read screams run, and they simply must respect that threat.
It isn’t a pure RPO, given the lack of post-snap read. Watching from the end zone angle, you can see that Foles’ head drops at the mesh point with the RB. He isn’t reading a second-level defender, but rather selling the play action nice and hard. Predictably, the linebackers stay close to the line, and the post is open.
The throw is, markedly, behind Jeffery. RPOs do require a quick set-up for the QB, to get into his throwing stance and deliver an accurate ball. Jeffery saves Foles here with an acrobatic catch.
If we roll things back to 2016, we see that the Chiefs used almost the exact same look to help manufacture space for Foles to throw.
You can see here how good LBs can sniff out these quasi-RPOs. Telvin Smith #50 recognizes the play-action just early enough to get back into the throwing lane and force Foles to deliver this ball behind WR Tyreek Hill (though Foles was going to be behind anyway, if we’re being perfectly plain).
Philadelphia will still be able to run their RPOs under Foles, even if it isn’t the full gamut. Remember, RPOs are the beautiful love child of the read option (essentially a run-run option that makes the defender always wrong via a post-snap read) and the play-action pass (the fake run to suck in the linebackers and throw behind them). If you can’t run a pure RPO, you can still achieve the desired effect by running play-action passes, as well as the pre-snap RPOs we just outlined.
Philadelphia Offense Under Nick Foles | Comfort and Progressions
Predictably, Foles was a tad lost in his progressions when thrust into the game on Sunday. As we alluded to in the scouting report, Foles can be a bit of a “first-read, oh no, panic!” quarterback—that won’t fly in Pederson’s offense. Philadelphia rarely deploys isolation routes on clear passing downs, preferring rather to use a smattering of West Coast, spread, and occasionally even Air Raid concepts to stretch the field and provide the quarterback with a number of options.
That is one of the reasons that Carson Wentz garners such credit for being such a creator, incidentally. With 4+ receivers out on routes, and often two different concepts working on the front side and back side, Wentz has many late-developing options down the field that break open as coverage disintegrates.
Foles will never extend plays to that degree—and that’s fine. He must improve, however, at understanding his underneath route concepts and where space develops when facing zone coverage.
That’s three straight plays on which Foles missed a shallow crosser.
On the first, Philly is running a basic Mesh look—but Foles seems confused as to which receiver is the pick, and which receiver is the intended target. Despite Agholor clearly creating traffic for Mack Hollins (spotlight) to break free, Foles fails to identify Hollins’ jailbreak into space, and tries to force the ball into Agholor.
On the next, when the Cover 3 flat defender climbs upfield to bracket Alshon Jeffery, Foles simply must ask the question: “What space did that defender abandon?” He’s staring straight down the barrel—Nelson Agholor (spotlight) unquestionably crosses his vision—but he peels away to his checkdown on the opposite side of the formation.
On the final, he’s again looking at Jeffery to his right. Once the CB plays the double move excellently, he doesn’t read back to the short area of the field to find Torrey Smith (spotlight) with clear separation. Again, he bails to his RB, supposedly the final number on his checklist.
Pederson’s a good coach, but no man alive can scheme open your first read all game. On the first rep, Foles clearly just misunderstood the play design entirely—that’s an easy fix. But on the final two, Foles had a high-low read to one half of the field, and failed to execute it properly in both instances. Hopefully another week of practice will get him comfortable working that vertical read—if not, hopefully a few weeks will do the trick before the playoffs.
Developing rapport with his new starting receivers over his newfound practice time as QB1 will certainly be crucial. I expect we may see more of Mack Hollins/Trey Burton moving forward, as these are the players with whom Foles has practiced and developed chemistry for the majority of the season.
Consider this gaffe on Philadelphia’s near red zone play (inside the 30) of the afternoon with Foles: 999.
A variation of crowd favorite “Four Verts,” 999 is an all-verticals play ran from a 3 x 1 formation. That 3 x 1 formation should seem familiar to you: KC used it a ton when Foles was starting, making a distinct effort to isolate mismatch TE Travis Kelce as the 1 receiver to the backside. Without TE Zach Ertz against the Rams, Philadelphia will likely use similar formations to work Zach Ertz into advantageous match-ups, as the Chiefs did Kelce.
Philadelphia also uses Alshon on the back side of the 3 x 1, and they did so on this 999 play. Facing a big cushion, Alshon does well to eat up space, and when the CB decides to force Alshon inside instead of using the sideline to his advantage, Alshon takes the inside track.
Foles, in the mean time, has done some good post-snap processing (attaboy!) The Rams begin in a Cover 2/Cover 4 look—those coverages would fall under the umbrella category of Middle Of the Field Open (MOFO) coverages. Against MOFO coverages, the deep players are stressed with multiple players in their zones, and the deep crosser from the #3 WR often opens up.
But as the ball is snapped, the Rams rotate to Cover 3, a Middle Of the Field Closed (MOFC) coverage. Against such a look, the crosser often gets gobbled alive (watch the single-high safety close on the crosser in the above clip). As such, the correct throw is the back side WR in one-on-one coverage--in this case, Alshon Jeffery.
Foles holds the single-high safety before turning and firing to Jeffery. Both QB and WR have done their job correctly up to this point.
But Foles just misses Jeffery. He puts the ball high and outside when Alshon needed a low and inside fastball. Simply put: two players, unfamiliar with one another, were not on the same page. And Philadelphia missed out on 6.
The good news? The Chiefs dialed up a very similar play on Foles’ first near red zone attempt as well:
That’s 999 out of the 3 x 1 from almost the exact same spot on the field, folks. This time, the single-high (MOFC) safety gets caught cheating: He vacates his post to work toward the strong side of the field, leaving the Middle Of the Field Open (MOFO), and Foles drops a dime in the bucket.
Give Foles some practice time, and I expect him to shore up some of the communication issues.
The skinny: Expect 3 x 1 sets with Ertz or Jeffery isolated back side. Look also for RPOs that let Foles read the defense pre-snap (watch for hard counts, which he used effectively against LA as well). Foles must improve his half-field, vertical reads to capitalize on open receivers, as well as maximize what limited chemistry he has with his pass-catchers to account for his poor anticipation as a passer.
Winning with Foles
As I said, you can win with Pro Bowl MVP and NFL record holder and weird-lookin’ white dude Nick Foles. Like any backup QB, most of the checklist is familiar: run the ball effectively and control time of possession; protect the football; play great defense.
For Foles specifically, he can keep an offense humming if you can regularly open his first read and give him time to throw the deep ball. To that regard, Doug Pederson will have his work cut out for him on the chalkboard, as the masterful offense he has already crafted must continue to evolve to remain steps ahead of opposing defenses. Philadelphia’s offensive line, suddenly even shakier on the blindside with LG Stefen Wisniewski day-to-day with an ankle, must improve upon their already-stellar play without Houdini-wannabe Carson Wentz in the pocket.
Philly is fortunate to enjoy a lighter schedule (v. NYG, @ OAK) over the next two contests. Hopefully, Foles will find plenty of room to grow comfortable against sub-par passing offenses as he prepares to captain the (potentially) 1st-seed Eagles through the thick NFC playoff field.
Behold and tremble before greatness, my friends.