THIS IS WHERE you want to be, Mark Sanchez said yesterday: Walking up to the line in December, the stadium roaring, the season hanging in the balance.
"You've gotta want the ball, with a few seconds left, on fourth down, trying to make a play," Sanchez said, after the Eagles practiced in swirling wind and snow flurries, in preparation for Sunday night's NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys. "Kids don't talk about, 'Throw me a pitch and [pretend] it's 1-1 in the middle of the second inning.' Nobody says that. Nobody practices that. Everybody says, 'Bottom of the ninth, full count, there's two out, bases loaded,' that kind of thing. That's when you want the ball in your hands. I'm just blessed and excited about getting that opportunity at it. Make a good decision with it, and go play."
Beating the Cowboys and regaining sole possession of first place in the division is the Eagles' clearest path to the playoffs, but this game also might represent Sanchez's last shot at holding onto the starting job, of extending the trial to show he can be the team's QB beyond this season. As Sanchez spoke yesterday, the ghosts of Eagles quarterbacks past and quarterbacks future rattled their chains.
Nick Foles clearly has stepped up his activity, in anticipation of being cleared to practice and play when he gets his next collarbone scan, Monday morning. Foles is 14-4 as a starter since Chip Kelly arrived.
Kelly spent a decent chunk of his final media session yesterday extolling this weekend's presumptive Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota, the Oregon QB Kelly recruited and coached before leaving for the Eagles early last year.
"When he was a freshman, I remarked, 'This kid is going to win the Heisman.' He's a special young man and he's a hell of a football player, and he deserves it," said Kelly, who repeatedly disavowed any credit for Mariota's development. "He's a special player. He's just got a gift for playing football. He's everything you want - he can throw the ball, he can run. He's the most talented kid I coached in college."
Eagles rookie receiver and returner Josh Huff played with Mariota and for Kelly. Asked about that coach-QB relationship yesterday, Huff said: "He knew where Marcus wanted to go [with the ball] and Marcus knew where he wanted to go. They just pretty much fed off each other."
Huff, who said Mariota is his best friend, said there was no question in his mind that Mariota will be "one of the best quarterbacks" in the NFL. Huff said Mariota's quiet, unassuming demeanor does not portend poor leadership skills.
"I've seen the fire he has in him. I've seen the type of leader he can be," Huff said. "The critics are going to say what they want to say, to try to find anything negative about Marcus, but really, when it comes down to it, [there's] not really anything negative about him. He's just an all-around great person."
Right now it seems very unlikely Kelly can get his hands on Mariota, saddled with a first-round pick somewhere in the 20s and other needs to address, but we've barely started the draft process, and many a December "first overall" pick has ended up somewhere down the board come spring. Beyond that, though, you had to wonder, after hearing Kelly rave about Mariota more effusively than he's ever spoken about Foles or Sanchez, how much Kelly covets a true top-shelf QB, and what he might be willing to do in the offseason to get one - Mariota or someone else - should 2014 end in disappointment.
When Foles' broken collarbone Nov. 2 at Houston gave Sanchez the chance to play for the first time since 2012, Sanchez spoke of never wanting to sit down again. Sanchez has done some things well; he moves in the pocket more smoothly than Foles, and his greater experience allows him to assimilate information and run the uptempo offense faster than Foles was running it. But lately it sure has seemed that Kelly is scheming to limit Sanchez's passing exposure. He completed 10 of 20 for just 96 yards against Seattle, missed a few wide-open opportunities, and threw a killer fourth-quarter interception.
Does Sanchez think his chances here are dwindling?
"I have no idea. That's not really where my focus is at," Sanchez said. "I'm just preparing for the game on Sunday night, trying to help the team win."
When the Eagles stormed into Dallas and won, 33-10, on Thanksgiving, they did it with their defense and their running game; LeSean McCoy galloped for 159 yards on 25 carries, and the Birds ran for 256 yards overall. Sanchez threw the ball more than 20 yards downfield twice. His most notable contribution was not turning the ball over, as the signal-caller on the team that leads the NFL in giveaways.
What if the Cowboys throw everything at the run and try to make Sanchez, drafted fifth overall by the Jets in 2009, beat them with his arm? Can he do that?
"I don't know," Kelly said yesterday. "That's why I don't deal with hypotheticals. That's how we play the game out. Will they do that, and will they challenge us from that standpoint? We'll see."
"I think they're definitely going to, all week, emphasize stopping our running game," center Jason Kelce said. "I think they tried to do that the first time, too. But with how much success we had running the ball against them the first time, I would assume they'll have some things dialed up to stop that."
Sooo, then what?
"I think we can throw it very well," Kelce said. "Throughout the season, when teams have tried to take away the run, we've expanded the passing game. That's why guys like [wideout Jeremy] Maclin are having career years. I think we can definitely get to that, if we need to."
But Maclin, with 74 catches for 1,109 yards and 10 TDs, caught 39 of those balls for 632 of those yards and six of those touchdowns in the first seven games, all quarterbacked by Foles. He had a big day in Game 8 (six for 158, two TDs), the afternoon Sanchez came in for Foles and threw 52 yards to Maclin on his first snap, but in the five games since, Maclin has just 29 catches for 319 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The longball has not been a Sanchez staple.
"Obviously, you cater to what your quarterback can do," Maclin said this week. He then added that defenses switched their coverages, after the Eagles ran up big totals early.
"Teams are playing us a little differently. We haven't really had the opportunity to connect downfield," he said.