THE EAGLES have a lot of difficult decisions to make this offseason, not the least of which is what to do about the quarterback position.
Regardless of what happens Saturday or next week against the Giants, regardless of whether the Eagles make the playoffs, Mark Sanchez almost certainly won't be back.
He'll be an unrestricted free agent in March. He hasn't played horribly, but he hasn't played consistently well either. I'd be shocked if the Eagles tried to re-sign him.
Nick Foles still has another year left on his contract and still has his 2013 tape (27 TDs, two interceptions, league-best 119.2 passer rating), which is a lot better than his pre-fractured collarbone 2014 tape (13 TDs, 10 interceptions, 81.4 rating).
You're probably not going to be excited to hear this, but right here, right now, Foles is the front-runner to be the season-opening starter next September. That doesn't mean Chip Kelly wants Foles to be his quarterback for the next 10 years. It means there might not be any better alternatives out there.
Robert Griffin III isn't coming here. Neither is Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. Dan Snyder is dumb, but he's not dumb enough to trade RG3 to another NFC East team. If anybody's going to be leaving the Redskins after the season, it will be the head coach, not the quarterback.
A Kelly-Mariota reunion isn't in the cards. Mariota is going to be the first player taken in the draft next spring, and the Eagles don't have enough ammo to move up that high. And stop it with this nonsense about packaging LeSean McCoy and Fletcher Cox and three first-round picks.
Winston is considered an equal talent to Mariota. His off-the-field issues might cause him to slip a little. But if you think shoplifting crabs and standing on the table in the student union and shouting profanities is going to cause him to drop into the Eagles' Draft Day neighborhood, you're kidding yourself.
Which brings us to the real problem: According to the scouts I talked to, Mariota and Winston are the only first-round-worthy quarterbacks in the draft. That doesn't mean they'll be the only ones taken in the first round. It means they're the only ones who deserve to be taken in the first round.
"It's not a very good group," an AFC personnel executive said. "After the first two, you're throwing darts.
"Even Mariota and Winston, neither of those guys is [Andrew] Luck. Mariota is closer to Luck than Winston as far as being pro-ready. They're both better than [Blake] Bortles, who was the first quarterback taken last year. They're both better than [Ryan] Tannehill when he came out. But neither of them is a slam dunk."
The executive said Michigan State's Connor Cook also would likely have been a first-rounder, maybe even a top-10 pick, if he had come out. But he announced earlier this week that he is returning to East Lansing for his final season.
So, after Mariota and Winston, you've got Oregon State's Sean Mannion and Baylor's Bryce Petty and UCLA's Brett Hundley. But Mannion is Foles 2.0, a slow-footed pocket passer with a good arm who isn't going to be running many zone reads. Is that what Kelly really wants?
Petty and Hundley both are mobile quarterbacks. But Petty played better last year than he did this year, and Hundley is a talented but raw one-read-then-tuck-it-and-run guy. They are second-round talents.
"Petty is a tale of 2 years," the personnel exec said. "He was very accurate last year, but he's not so accurate this year. His fundamentals have come unraveled. His lower-body position [is out of whack]. Late in the year, he started to look a little better. But there's a lot of work to do there.
"Hundley, he would fit Kelly's system. But he's so raw at reading defenses. He's a one-look guy and then he's pulling it and running."
To blitz or not to blitz
In their 33-10 Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys, the Eagles didn't blitz much, sending five or more rushers after Tony Romo on just eight of 33 pass plays (24.2 percent). It was the Eagles' fourth-lowest blitz rate of the season to that point.
Despite the lopsided win, defensive coordinator Bill Davis felt he was going to have to blitz Romo a little more in last Sunday's rematch. For one thing, Romo had 10 days to rest his ailing back and figured to be considerably more mobile and agile than in the short-week Thanksgiving game.
For another, despite his physical problems that day, Romo had done a pretty good job of carving up the Eagles when they used a four-man rush. While he was sacked three times by a four-man rush, he also completed 14 of 21 passes for 144 yards.
But it became evident to Davis fairly early in the game last week that blitzing Romo wasn't going to work. On a third-and-5 on the Cowboys' second possession, he sent five rushers after Romo: defensive linemen Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox, outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin, and inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks lined up in front of tight end Jason Witten, but blitzed. He was easily picked up by Cowboys right tackle Doug Free. Safety Malcolm Jenkins had man coverage on Witten, but the tight end ran an in-route in front of him and caught a 17-yard strike from Romo for an easy first down.
Later in that drive, on a second-and-goal at the 4, Davis sent seven rushers after Romo, including safety Nate Allen, who came unblocked off the edge. But Romo delivered a high fade to wide receiver Dez Bryant over Bradley Fletcher for a TD. The ball was out of his hand long before Allen got anywhere close to him.
"Pressure was part of the plan going in, but Tony did a nice job of getting the ball out and hurting our pressures," Davis said earlier this week.
"The blitzes kept going out to Dez and turning into touchdowns. So I backed off the blitz a little bit and went to the four-man rush to put the extra coverage out there as we went on."
As everyone knows, Bryant caught three touchdown passes, all against Fletcher. Two of the three came on blitzes - that first one and the last one, a 25-yarder early in the fourth quarter against a five-man rush.
The Eagles ended up blitzing on just seven of 34 pass plays (20.6 percent) against the Cowboys, which was their second lowest blitz rate of the season (20.4 vs. Tennessee). Romo was 5-for-6 for 60 yards and two touchdowns against the blitz. Just one of the Eagles' three sacks came on a blitz.
The Eagles have blitzed on 32.9 percent of their opponents' pass plays this season (185 of 562), which is the 12th-highest rate in the league. They've been pretty good with it: an 89.0 opponent passer rating; a .526 completion perentage; 16 of their 47 sacks; five of their 10 interceptions. They've also given up 13 of their 29 touchdown passes when they've blitzed.
"It's like anything else," Davis said. "There are weeks you're really happy with the pressure package, and there are weeks you're happy with the four-man rush and you don't need the pressure package. The other night, we didn't get the blitz home enough. But to [Romo's] credit, he got the ball out before we got there."
With the exception of Romo, the Eagles have blitzed the most this season against the best quarterbacks: 50 percent against the Colts' Andrew Luck, 46.1 percent against the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and 46.1 percent against the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.
They weren't very successful. The three combined for a 110.3 passer rating against the Eagles' blitz, including five TD passes, with no interceptions and no sacks.
In their eight games before to the loss to Dallas, the Eagles had been very effective with a four-man rush, holding opponents to a 56.3 percent completion rate, 7.1 yards per attempt, six touchdown passes, three interceptions and 19 sacks (83.6 passer rating).
But Romo completed 16 of 23 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown when the Eagles rushed four Sunday.
Davis said he'd probably like his overall blitz rate to be a little higher than 32.9 percent. But if he's getting sufficient pressure with a four-man rush and can keep more people back in coverage, he'll do it.
"The other night, the blitzes were turning into touchdowns," he said. "You have to watch and say, 'What is their protection going on right now? How many are they keeping in, how many are they getting out, what is the quarterback's comfort level right now and how well is he playing?'
"I move in and out of how many times we're going to pressure. I don't go into it with [the mindset that] I'm going to pressure 45 or 50 percent. It's a little bit more about the feel. What's the score? Are they run pressures? Are they pass pressures?"
Below is a team-by-team breakdown of blitz rates. The sack totals and passer ratings include all plays, not just blitzes:
Pct. Sks. Rating
1. Rams. . . 47.5 36 88.5
2. Colts. . . 43.1 36 85.5
3. Cardinals. . . 41.7 33 82.6
4. Steelers. . . 39.7 24 100.5
5. Texans. . . 39.5 31 85.0
6. Packers. . . 39.4 32 83.2
7. Titans. . . 39.1 34 92.5
8. Redskins. . . 38.5 33 106.9
9. Saints. . . 35.3 31 92.9
10. Dolphins. . . 34.2 34 84.2
11. Giants. . . 33.3 41 87.4
12. Eagles. . . 32.9 47 93.4
13. Bears. . . 32.3 32 106.1
14. Chargers. . . 32.1 20 92.4
15. Jets. . . 31.8 34 104.6
16. Raiders. . . 31.6 19 98.2
17. Vikings. . . 29.2 38 91.5
18. Ravens. . . 28.4 45 95.1
19. Chiefs. . . 28.2 38 86.7
20. Falcons. . . 28.1 16 90.0
21. Browns. . . 27.5 29 71.7
22. Panthers. . . 27.0 31 93.2
23. Bucs. . . 26.9 33 99.1
24. Seahawks. . . 26.0 29 85.3
25. Lions. . . 25.6 39 81.1
26. Cowboys. . . 24.5 23 91.0
27. Bengals. . . 23.0 18 76.4
28. Broncos. . . 21.0 38 83.4
29. 49ers. . . 19.9 32 80.1
30. Patriots. . . 19.4 36 83.0
31. Bills. . . 18.9 49 73.9
32. Jaguars. . . 16.2 38 98.8
Figuring the Eagles *
Chip Kelly and his coaching staff might not have found a way to reduce the Eagles' turnover generosity, but the league's statisticians have. They ruled earlier this week that the screwup/miscommunication/brain cramp by Josh Huff and Brad Smith on the opening kickoff against the Cowboys was not a fumble, since the Eagles never actually had possession of the football. That reduced the team's giveaway total from 34 to 33, which still is the most in the league. The Eagles also are last in the league in percent of total points allowed off giveaways: 29.4 (102 of 347). The only thing that has prevented it from being a complete disaster is that they have been productive scoring points off takeaways. They are fourth in the league in points off takeaways (99 on 25 takeaways). A look at the Eagles' points off turnovers over the last 6 years:
/Pts. /Pts. Diff. Record
2014. . . 25-99 33-102 -3 9-5
2013. . . 31-97 19-52 +42 10-6
2012. . . 13-40 37-140 -100 4-12
2011. . . 24-100 38-86 +14 8-8
2010. . . 34-79 25-93 -14 10-6
2009. . . 38-117 23-74 +43 11-5
* Through 14 games, the Eagles have given up 54 catches to tight ends for 721 yards and one touchdown. Last year, they gave up 80 catches for 1,020 yards and three TDs to tight ends.
* In 88 possessions with Mark Sanchez at quarterback, the Eagles have scored 185 offensive points. That's 2.10 points per possession. In 92 possessions with Nick Foles at quarterback, they scored 161 points, or 1.75 points per possession. Last year, the Eagles averaged 2.34 points per possession with Foles at quarterback and 1.93 with Michael Vick behind center.
* This season clearly hasn't turned out the way Zach Ertz had hoped it would. The second-year tight end's playing time has yo-yoed. He played 64.5 percent of the offensive snaps in the first four games, then just 38.1 percent in the next eight, and then 50 percent in the last two. He had 21 receptions for first downs and 14 third-down catches in the Eagles' first seven games. In the last seven: just nine and six.
* The Eagles are 13th overall in third-down defense, but 26th on third-and-7 or longer. The six teams behind them - Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Washington and the Jets - are a combined 24-59-1.
FROM THE LIP
-- "I haven't been here for a decade. I'm just trying to win the next game. I don't try to put a label on each win." — Bills coach Doug Marrone, on fans calling his team's win over the Packers the Bills' biggest victory in a decade.
-- "I get it that people are going to have their opinions and are going to say what they say. But a lot more of that happens when you've lost three in a row. I didn't hear a lot of that when we had just gotten our seventh win." — Browns coach Mike
Pettine, after former QB Bernie Kosar criticized the team for having a culture that he called a "complete recipe for disaster."
-- "If I say he's doing great, it's going to be, ah, I'm too easy on him. If I say he needs to work harder, it means I said he's lazy. If I said he needs to work on his fundamentals, it means I don't like him." — Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who said people twist everything he says about Robert Griffin III.
-- "It shouldn't have been said. But I think everybody kind of knew what I was doing. They were a better team than us that day. That's all I was trying to say. It wasn't the best choice of words, I must admit. But I'm only human, right?" — Rams tight end Jared Cook, who said his team was outplayed and outcoached in a 12-6 loss to the Cardinals.
BY THE NUMBERS
-- Eagles kicker Cody Parkey, who is second in the league in scoring with 134 points, needs just 11 more points in the final two games to pass former Bear Kevin Butler for the most points in a season by a rookie kicker in NFL history.
-- Ravens QB Joe Flacco has a 102.1 third-down passer rating. That's the highest of his career. His previous best third-down rating was 87.0 in 2012.
-- The Packers and Ravens each have just three giveaways in their last five games, which is the fewest in the league. The Eagles have 12.
-- Four quarterbacks already have thrown 30 or more touchdown passes, and five more have at least 27 with two games to go. The record for most quarterbacks with at least 30 TD passes in a season is five, which has happened in each of the last 4 years.
-- Fourteen games into the season, the Chiefs still don't have a touchdown catch by a wide receiver.
-- The Giants have not allowed an offensive touchdown in the second half of their last two games.
-- With their win over the Dolphins last week, the Patriots have 17 straight home wins against AFC East opponents. If they beat the Bills at home in Week 17, they will tie the Packers for the record for most consecutive home wins against division opponents.
THIS AND THAT
-- Eagles kicker Cody Parker thinks the short opening kickoff by Dan Bailey last week that the Cowboys recovered on the Philadelphia 18-yard line was accidental. "It's tough to tell," he said. "But watching his film, he doesn't do anything different" on that kickoff than on any of his other ones. "It looked like maybe he just got under the ball and then it hits an apex of wind. Because the wind was kind of funky over there, and he was kicking into it. I think it was just a combination of a mis-hit ball and the wind. I don't think that was their plan."
-- It's nice that the Eagles have found a short-yardage/goal-line role for Chris Polk. But it should not be interpreted to mean LeSean McCoy hasn't been an effective short-yardage runner. He has converted 19 of 23 situations of 2 yards or less this season. Over the last 2 years, he is 53-for-68 with 2 yards or less to go. In 2011, when he had a league-high 17 rushing touchdowns, nine of those 17 scores came on runs of 2 yards or less.
-- The fact that the Eagles spent a week preparing for Russell Wilson and the zone read just 2 weeks ago figures to be a help to them when they face Robert Griffin III. "We've played a lot of guys this year who move around like him," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "You always have to stay in front of him. You have to be very disciplined in the zone read. They're going to run the bootlegs. They're going to run the stretch. He's not going to be in a dropback mode very often."
-- Parkey doesn't have a lot of experience kicking in cold weather. He grew up in Jupiter, Fla., and played his college ball at Auburn. He converted 47- and 43-yard field goals against the Cowboys last week with the temperature 41 degrees at kickoff. And he made a pair of 33-yarders against the Packers on a 28-degree day in Green Bay last month. Just three of his 11 kickoffs in those two games resulted in touchbacks. But most kickers' touchback percentages drop when the weather gets cooler. Parkey also has been battling a groin issue. "I hit the ball the same way," the rookie said. "The only thing I'm finding is the ball doesn't go quite as far in cold weather. It's a combination of the cold ball, winds and just everything. But you don't kick it any different. You just go out and do the same thing."