The secret of the magic of Big Game Nick is ... there is no magic.
Nick Foles has told you this over and over. So have his teammates.
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Foles lacks the tools God gave Carson Wentz. Still, with average athleticism and a decent right arm, he took two very good Eagles teams farther than anyone believed he could: to the NFC divisional playoff round Sunday in New Orleans, and all the way to the Super Bowl LII title a year ago. He walked away as the game’s MVP and introduced his daughter, Lily, to the world.
How’d he do it? He let the team win. Both last season and this, you heard again and again that Foles' greatest asset lay in his unflappable nature; in his willingness to simply let the scheme work. He never forced it.
Foles is Everyman.
Wentz wants to be Superman.
Wentz wants to make plays. Foles lets plays make themselves.
Foles will assuredly leave the team this offseason. However, if he has taught Wentz the value of his selfless outlook, then he will have left the Eagles with the best parting gift possible. Well, other than that Lombardi Trophy.
Their styles are dramatically different, but completely explicable. Foles is a point guard, as coach Doug Pederson often says. Foles plays like Steve Nash — a maestro who uses what he’s got.
For now, Wentz plays like Stephon Marbury — a massive talent who sometimes tries to do too much.
Ignoring primary reads. Ignoring check-downs. Opting to try a higher-return pass instead of a low-return run.
This is neither unexpected nor unforgivable. Wentz has played just 40 NFL games. These are growing pains, and they are real, but they will pass, as long as his coaches understand what he is.
This season, Pederson realized he was asking too much of both Wentz and an offensive roster continually destabilized both by players returning from injury, such as Wentz and Alshon Jeffery, and by players lost to injury, such as Jay Ajayi, Mike Wallace, Darren Sproles, and Corey Clement.
So, after the Birds lost by 41 in New Orleans in Game 10 with Wentz at quarterback, Pederson — who had the added challenge of incorporating trade-deadline receiver Golden Tate into the lineup — simplified the Eagles' scheme. He simplified it further after a Game 13 loss at Dallas. That was the last game Wentz played before the team diagnosed his aching back as a fractured vertebra and sidelined him for the season. Foles took over the following week, but Pederson swore he had planned to simplify the offense before Wentz’s diagnosis.
Why? Because Wentz and the rest of the offense couldn’t handle the full menu. Wentz has a brilliant football mind; he craves every motion and shift, every permutation of pattern, preferably read while the play is run. But that involves a lot of moving parts, which creates a lot of chances for mistakes. They all made a lot of mistakes.
Foles is no dummy, and he’s smart enough to know he doesn’t need the full menu. In fact, as Pederson repeatedly has said, Foles has favorite recipes — but that doesn’t mean the dish will taste the same each time.
“You can stay consistent with what you think your core plays are offensively,” Pederson said before the playoffs started. “If you can repeat them, you repeat them, and it allows the quarterback to process all of that information. And Nick can do that and maybe go somewhere else with the ball on the same play.”
Foles also showed a greater willingness to hand the ball off on run-pass-option plays. And, perhaps most tellingly, Foles trusts his receivers more than Wentz does — especially Alshon Jeffery.
In the six games before Wentz was sidelined, Jeffery averaged four catches and 31 yards per game and 9.83 yards per reception. In the five games Foles started, Jeffery averaged 6.75 catches and and 89.2 yards per game and 16.5 yards per catch. Most remarkably, perhaps, Jeffery averaged 12.7 yards per target with Foles, nearly twice the average per target in Wentz’s final six games.
It should be noted that Wentz had the back issue during that six-game period. On the other hand, Foles and Jeffery accrued their superior numbers against four playoff teams. And four of Foles' five games were on the road.
Pederson prays Wentz was paying attention; " ... observing and being able to process all that information, and what he can take out of watching Nick these last two seasons, especially in some of these big games."
The message: Keep it simple. Take what’s given.
Pederson paid attention.
"For a guy like Nick to come in and play as well as he has and as well as he did, you can’t help but take away things that I could use and that Carson could use moving forward."
... things that I could use ...
Hear that? Doug Pederson, Super Bowl-winning coach, admitted that he will learn from the approach of Nick Foles, backup quarterback. Humility is Pederson’s greatest virtue.
What about Wentz?
And, for Wentz, where from here? Upward, if he learns.
Wentz was a revelation in 2017, when he was healthy and dangerous, but he too often relied on his arm strength and his athleticism to make plays. In 2018, when his mobility decreased — first because of the aftermath of his knee injury, then because of his eroding back — he found himself less dynamically effective.
Physically, he became, to a degree, Nick Foles. His best path forward is to become, mentally, more like Nick Foles.
Wentz needs time.
Foles, who will turn 30 on Sunday, has played four more seasons than Wentz, 26. Foles has started just 10 more games, but six of those were playoff games, which Wentz has never played. Foles has played for Pederson, Chip Kelly, Jeff Fisher, and twice for Andy Reid. Wentz knows only Uncle Doug. Foles has almost retired. Foles has a child.
“I learned a lot,” Wentz said of watching Foles. “You definitely learn from a different perspective.”
It’s only four years, but it’s a lifetime of experience.
“I think moving forward, Carson’s still a young quarterback. He’s still learning this game, and learning the position,” Pederson said. “So it’s valuable experience, obviously, being able to watch guys like Nick play.”