“Because Carson Wentz is objectively a better quarterback. He has a stronger arm, better mobility, great accuracy. He’s younger and cheaper, too.”
“No, I get that Foles won the Super Bowl, it was amazing, but—”
“Yes, he did bring them back to the playoffs for the second year in a row, I acknowledge that, but—”
The sense of futility should have dawned by now.
Arguing Carson Wentz and Nick Foles is quite the nightmare. That which seems obvious —that Nick Foles keeps winning, and the team has played better as a whole recently — clashes against that which seems...obvious: that Carson Wentz is more talented and has a higher ceiling.
Which side is right? I side with Carson. But Foles’ case is neither wrong nor weak, and therein lies the rub: Considering the degree to which the modern game is covered, how thoroughly it is dissected, the expectation among analysts and fans alike is that everything that happens on a football field can be explained.
At least not easily and not fully. The joy and despair of football is that it’s outside of any one person’s control: the quarterback, the head coach, the analyst, and the fan. No stat, film breakdown, or narrative can bridle chaos; and it is that wild element that keeps us on the edge of our seat for all four quarters of the game that we fool ourselves into believing we understand.
Those who didn’t turn on Nick Foles’ third start this season forgot this simple fact. They only saw the bits and pieces we can grasp: Philly’s banged-up secondary; Los Angeles’ need for a bounce-back game; Philly’s waning playoff hopes. And as Foles lead the 6-7 Philadelphia Eagles into Los Angeles against the 11-2 Rams, the barely predictable and hardly explicable once again mustered itself to save the Eagles’ season.
As lightning strikes twice for Philadelphia, we’re stuck trying to explain the shock: how is Philadelphia winning with Nick Foles yet again?
How is the offense different?
Let’s start here: per Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic, Nick Foles’ numbers over the last three weeks:
- 962 passing yards (1st in the league)
- 77% completion (1st)
- 8.5 YPA (1st)
- 8.0 Net yards/pass play (1st)
If we start there, it’s clear what is different about the offense: Nick Foles is playing better than Carson Wentz. Across Carson’s active weeks this season (Wk 3 - 14), here’s how his numbers stand up.
- 3,074 passing yards (8th)
- 69.6% completion (6th)
- 7.67 YPA (19th)
- I can’t get net yards/pass play
But we can only say that Nick Foles is better than Carson Wentz if the offense looks the same when both are under the helm — and it doesn’t. We can illustrate that pretty clearly through both analytics and film study.
For one, we know that Philadelphia has changed their base offense in recent weeks. They’ve moved away from 3 WR sets (11 personnel) and now primarily use 2 TE sets (12 personnel) — which has been a generally more productive personnel grouping for Philadelphia this season.
12 personnel is valuable for Philadelphia for a slew of reasons, which is something we covered extensively in this film room piece. We’ll show a bit of that in the clips below.
For two, we know the offense’s target distribution has changed as well: we’re seeing quicker throws, shorter throws, throws to different players — and that’s changing how the complexion of the offense at a drive level. The yards/pass play is significantly higher for Foles’ tenure (8.09) as compared to Wentz’s (6.55), but the depth of target is down (Foles is T-Last in the league at 6.7 Intended Air Yards, while Carson is more middle of the pack at 7.8). Put another way: Next Gen Stats has Carson Wentz throwing, on average, about 1.1 yards short of the sticks on any given down; Nick Foles is among the worst of the league at a -2.5.
These numbers should prick the ears of those following the Foles saga closely, as Foles has been called on national broadcasts a better downfield passer than Wentz. That’s a common narrative, and like a lot of common narratives, it’s a hunk of fetid bologna. Foles’ and Wentz’s numbers are basically identical on passes 20+ yards down the field:
|Stat||Carson Wentz||Nick Foles|
|Stat||Carson Wentz||Nick Foles|
The downfield passing is not different at all. What’s different is the depth of target, and in tandem, the target share by position. Again, over the three-game Foles span, we can see that running backs have significantly spiked in target share — likely due in large part to the return of Darren Sproles, who re-entered the lineup in Week 14.
That was a whole lotta dataviz there. Let’s recap and review.
Since Nick Foles was inserted into the lineup on Week 15, the Eagles have won three games in a row, made the playoffs, and looked significantly more effective on offense. While Foles’ stellar numbers therein may lead us into believing he’s operating the offense better than Wentz, the truth seems to be that he’s operating a different offense entirely.
- The base personnel of the offense has changed
- The depth of target has changed
- The target distribution of the offense has changed
These changes also lead to some secondary changes, as we will discuss through the film: changes like %YAC and time to throw — but I call these secondary changes for a reason. They are more so the results of the changes of the offense, or the results of improved play from the other 10 men on the field — not the original, deliberate changes authored by the coaching staff.
Why is the offense different?
The anecdotal value of the veteran backup quarterback is that he “knows the offense.” He can step in and “keep things on schedule.” Good backups “prepare like they’re going to start” and “know the game plan.” The narrative implication here is that the backup is a lesser version of the starter; a player who can, at his best, pull off a passable imitation of the starter such that the offense does not need to change for the backup.
This is not the case with Nick Foles.
Foles, rather, is a player who is good in a certain offense. He has proven wildly successful, productive, and resilient in offenses that rely on a few umbrella ideas — and as such, he is not difficult to build an offense for. That doesn’t mean the game plan for a Carson Wentz-led offense is the same as the game plan for a Nick Foles-led offense — it’s not. It means you can win with Nick Foles, when you cater to his strengths.
Those strengths, as illustrated by the changes we’ve seen in the offense, include shorter throws, heavy running back targets, and the usage of mismatch personnel (12, for Philadelphia). Let’s take a look at what that means in practice.
This is a good example: Philadelphia here draws up an easy Hi-Lo read between two of their most productive targets in the past few weeks: TEs Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. That’s 12 personnel, with their stud TE and sneaky good TE as the focal points of the concept.
This curl/drag concept is a Reid staple — Reid loved to use vertical stretches (Hi-Lo) to put defenders in conflict. It beats zone coverage, as it will stress the hook defender (circled in red) to gain depth against the curl route but still be in a position to tackle the drag route underneath. It beats man coverage, because a slower LB will have to track Goedert, a plus straight-line athlete, across the width of the field.
This concept requires the reading of one player — the Mike LB — and hits very quickly, which allows Foles to get rid of the ball immediately. An experienced veteran, Foles identifies what is likely man coverage given the blitz look presented in the box, and the tight coverage from the outside corners. He knows Goedert on a linebacker is his best one-on-one match-up, and one that he can target quickly after the snap.
With the WR clearing out the wide side of the field, Goedert has plenty of space to turn and run, and a short throw becomes an explosive play. This is where Foles is at his most effective: making an underneath zone defender wrong, hitting an athlete in stride, and allowing YAC to do the rest of the work. The majority of the work was done pre-snap and post-throw: Over the past 3 weeks of the season, 56% (539) of Foles’ league-leading 962 passing yards have come after the catch, as compared to the 46% Wentz saw over his tenure.
This isn’t news, in terms of Foles’ strengths. You can find very similar concepts back in 2013, in Nick Foles’ record-setting 27 TD:2 INT season under first-year head coach Chip Kelly:
Again: favorable match-up for a free-running crosser. This ball is batted at the line of scrimmage, but you can easily see what underneath crossers do for a quick-trigger QB like Foles, especially when there is congestion over the middle of the field.
That’s the story of how Mesh Sit Wheel, or the appropriately monikered “Chip Kelly Mesh,” made its way into the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles’ playbook. It shows up occasionally in Carson Wentz tape — this key fourth down conversion against Dallas is a good example — but it’s recurrent across Foles’ film. The compilation below is from 2018, but you don’t have to look hard in the 2013 film to find the concept as well.
So heralded as “Chip Kelly Mesh” because of how popular it has been in the NFL since Kelly’s arrival and exit, Mesh Sit Wheel has origins as deep as Mike Martz and Alex Gibbs. The progression works from Wheel to Crosser to Sit to Crosser — and again, this concept takes advantage of the pre-snap alignment and disadvantageous match-up in space for the defense.
When the defense plays man coverage, the wheel often opens up, as the linebacker in man assignment has to work through two points of congestion (the sit route and the crossing route) to get connected to the speedy running back. Against zone, the curl/flat defender will be pulled outside by the wheel route, which leaves space for the crosser entering the flat area from the opposite side of the field.
Again, we’re seeing concepts that stress underneath defenders. If you can accurately predict man/zone coverage looks pre-snap, you can anticipate where those underneath defenders will drop, and who exactly will be put in conflict by the constant crossing, curling, and quick-breaking routes.
If we were to take a step back, and suss out a more general takeaway from Nick Foles’ success under Chip Kelly and now again under Doug Pederson, it would be this: he can quickly make your defenders wrong. Arm strength and ball velocity are not strengths of Foles’, but processing speed and pre-snap recognition are. He’s also a risk-averse passer, whose interceptions are almost entirely the result of inaccuracy and not poor decisions (unlike Carson Wentz) — he wants to throw into space.
That strength of Foles — the ability to capitalize on the quick conflicts of zone defenders — explains how the ball gets out of his hands so quickly (Foles’ Time To Throw of 2.24 across Weeks 15 - 17 is a league-low number). It explains the low depth of target. It even helps explain the absurd, record-tying 25-straight completions he saw against the Washington Redskins in Week 17: he made the smart, easy throws.
Here, the Curl/Flat defender is Cory Littleton (No. 58). Once Foles sees his hips facing inside, he knows he can hit Sproles on the flat route with plenty of time for his running back to get upfield for some positive yardage. If Littleton gets connected, Foles can take the out-breaking route from Zach Ertz, who has a one-on-one match-up and good leverage against the Cover 3 corner.
This is a Hi-Lo vertical stretch, by the way.
Next up, a spot concept. This time, the Curl/Flat defender is Zach Cunningham (No. 41). Once Foles sees him work through the congestion caused by the two vertical releases from the receivers to get to the flat route, he knows he’ll have Agholor open on the quick curl route. If someone got connected to Agholor, Foles would have Ertz one-on-one downfield on a corner route.
The spot route has horizontal (curl/flat) and vertical (corner/flat) stretch components — in other words, a triangle read.
And finally, a short post route from Alshon Jeffery that goes for 50+ yards. Foles again reads the hips of the hole defender, who opens to the three WR side (the default choice). It opens a window in the middle of the field that the dropping DT can’t get to in time — and the underneath curl defender is too worried about gaining width that he leaves space to the middle. Anticipation throw into space for some good YAC.
By alignment alone, this is a horizontal stretch. That’s another staple of Chip Kelly: line up your receivers as wide as possible to pull the defense to its limits and open up interior windows.
This one might be a bit helpful to see in the still frame:
If you play zone coverage against Foles, he’s smart enough to make you pay — but it’s more than that. It’s his patience that’s so deadly, as he doesn’t put the ball in harm’s way and maximizes the ability of his teammates with timely, in-stride throws.
This style of play isn’t outside of Carson Wentz’s repertoire by any means, but it isn’t his strength. (Remember, the offense has changed — Carson wasn’t seeing nearly the number of crossers and Hi-Lo stretches Foles is.) Carson has significantly greater ball velocity than Foles does, and accordingly, attempts to jam the ball into tighter windows and often attacks the intermediate areas more readily against zone coverage. Carson is also guilty of playing hero ball, and doesn’t like to take the easy dump-off stuff unless he’s pressured; he’d rather hold onto the ball and let the play develop. That second play? He’d want the corner route.
The arm strength matter is of great importance when it comes to their respective play against man coverage. Carson excels against man coverage because of his elite blend of ball placement and velocity. He has the ability to “throw players open,” as we often describe those quarterbacks who love to challenge tight man coverage.
Foles does not enjoy the same velocity, pinpoint placement, or chutzpah that Wentz does against man coverage — but he is more than capable of making “faith throws,” as ex-QB coach John DeFilippo coined them.
Faith throws again take much of the matter out of the quarterback’s hands. On a faith throw, the quarterback puts the ball in a catchable location and lets the receiver do the rest of the work, beating the cover man through some blend of size, speed, leaping ability, and strength. Faith throws are predicated on expecting and anticipating space, whether off the pre-snap or post-snap look. As we’re noticing the case is with Foles, his pre-snap work is what makes him a winner here.
Against man coverage, Foles again masterfully takes what the defense affords him. Wherever his most advantageous match-up is pre-snap, that’s where he’s slinging the pill.
Take this play: super simple idea. With an unbalanced look (4 skill position players to one side of the field) Nick Foles is essentially assured one-on-one coverage for Alshon Jeffery to the backside. It’s 3rd and medium, and the Rams seem to be bringing heat. Foles gives Alshon a pre-snap glance, and right off the snap, he sets and throws. Alshon is responsible for getting upfield leverage, finding the throw, tracking it, and maintaining leverage to haul it in.
Even on a deep ball, Foles’ time to throw is minimal, and he doesn’t do any processing post-snap. This is a point-and-shoot throw, that negates the onset of pressure and does not require tremendous arm strength or placement.
Now, we step into the exact same formation, and see the shaded safety over Alshon Jeffery’s side: the Texans saw the film from the Rams game, and they do not want to leave Alshon to eat one-on-one. So Foles audibles the call to get a double post look downfield — again, excelling pre-snap. This deep shot to Nelson Agholor isn’t great — the throw should be less downfield and more inside — but Agholor has the flexibility and explosiveness to get there. Six!
Besides confirming the cone bracket over Alshon Jeffery, Foles again does minimal work post-snap. He hitches into the deep throw to generate the needed strength to reach downfield and hangs it out there for Agholor to go get.
What does it all mean?
For the purposes of the playoff push, teams facing the Nick Foles offense in Philadelphia must:
- Run trap coverages and fire zone blitzes to make underneath zones less predictable
- Win in man coverage on the backside (good luck: Alshon Jeffery is playing great football)
For the purposes of the 2019 QB free agent market, Nick Foles is
- A quarterback you can win with, not because of
- Dependent on a quick passing-game system
- Only as good as the YAC weapons available to him
Nick Foles isn’t going to elevate the players around him much in his on-field play, but they will rally around him — at least, they do in Philadelphia. In many ways, despite being sub-30 and with only 44 starts (3.5 seasons) to his name, Nick Foles is as veteran a quarterback as they come: predictable, effective, and limited. The magic he has about his off-field demeanor, clutch performance, and playoff success rivals that of Ryan Fitzpatrick, the only quarterback who can match Foles in his enigmatic play.
The mystery of Nick Foles will always remain: his astronomical third-down success; his exasperating modesty in light of his transcendent play; and his Super Bowl run, still unbelievable despite the year it has had to set in. If football is good because football is chaos, then Nick Foles is the very best the sport will offer for the second year running. A gangling third-round pick who can’t hold on to a starting job and can’t stop playing himself into one; a family man who lost his faith in uncertainty and found it in an unheralded homecoming; the player who reminds us again and again how it feels, to be foolish and full of wonder.