A confident Nick Foles would throw down the field | Jeff McLane
Nick Foles says he's confident, but hasn't looked it. He's been skittish and reluctant to throw downfield. But Foles will likely need to take his deep shots in Saturday's playoff game against the Falcons. Can he?
The quarterback doth assert too much, methinks.
Nick Foles is, if anything, sincere. He will generalize, evade, or demur, but he will be, ostensibly, truthful.
But he tends to overly project earnestness in a way that could indicate doubt in his sincerity. After a dismal quarter of play in the Eagles' season finale, Foles used confident or some other form of the word 11 times.
Perhaps it's Shakespearean or cynical to assume the opposite, and no one wants a quarterback who publicly displays doubts, but Foles' performance in his final two games, and in other instances, has suggested otherwise.
"Honestly, I feel great. I feel really, really good. Confident," Foles said Tuesday as the Eagles prepared for their playoff game Saturday against the Falcons. "So far, it's been a great week of work. I can just say I feel good. I don't want to expand anymore. I feel really good. I felt great at practice. … Just staying in the moment. Staying in the moment is the biggest thing."
Few, if any, others are without doubt. Foles has been thrust into a role that 32 NFL teams, including the Eagles, decided he was no longer capable of fulfilling. He was thrown into a circumstance not of his doing, and now he is expected to be either the best version of himself or what he is incapable of being.
It's not entirely fair.
But Foles, on average, is better than the quarterback who showed up against the Raiders and the Cowboys. And in terms of his downfield throwing, the biggest indicator of his declining self-esteem, he's more willing and accurate than the Check-Down Charlie who replaced injured Carson Wentz in the fourth quarter of the Rams game.
Which raises questions: Was Foles coached into taking fewer shots beyond 20 yards? Has the elbow injury that sidelined him through almost all of the summer never gone away? Or has the moment overwhelmed the 28-year old?
Asked Tuesday if he had been advised to play conservatively, Foles denied the premise and instead looked inward.
"You realize, 'Hey, just go out there and play,' " he said. "And maybe I wasn't doing that as much those games. It's as simple as that. Sometimes, the hardest things are just the simple things. Basically, get out of your own head and just go play the game you know how to play."
In his four games since taking over, Foles has averaged a paltry 4.96 yards per pass attempt. In all his prior throws dating to his rookie season in 2012, he averaged 7.19 yards. The playoffs are a different animal – and for the record, Foles averaged 5.91 yards in his lone postseason appearance, against the Saints in 2013 – but shouldn't he be more like the quarterback over 1,386 passes than the one over 97?
"Nick has proven that over the length and entirety of his career. He not only can get the ball downfield — he can do so very well," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "He wants to throw the ball downfield. He's aggressive in his mind-set, as aggressive a guy as I've been around."
But that hasn't been the case over the last month. And more than anything, he hasn't been accurate when throwing downfield. Foles has hit on only 1 of 10 passes that have traveled more than 20 yards through the air: a 17-yard completion to Zach Ertz against the New York Giants.
His one "deep" throw against Dallas was intercepted. It was a paradigm of an unsure quarterback. Foles dropped. He went through his progressions. He saw wide receiver Alshon Jeffery streaking down the sideline beyond the cornerback and before the safety – in one of the holes a Cover 2 zone typically yields. There was no immediate pressure, but Foles got happy feet and escaped.
Why? Did his line of vision drop? Did he not trust his arm strength to make that throw? Foles doesn't have a gun for an arm, but he has had enough over his career to fire that 30-yard throw. In two games for the Chiefs last season, he completed 5 of 10 passes of more than 20 yards for 152 yards and two touchdowns. One of his TD passes – a 34-yard strike – came on a similar route against a similar coverage and from the pocket.
"Throughout my career, I've always loved hitting deep shots over the top," Foles said. "A lot of times, those plays just come to you. You don't want to force it."
But Foles cut the field in half when he rolled right and toward Jeffery, and the Cowboys corner broke back and made the interception – easily, because the pass was also underthrown.
The Falcons have watched the film. They will likely stack the box with an additional defender, clog the middle against Ertz, and force Foles to throw downfield and outside the numbers. Atlanta might play a little more single-high safety with man-to-man coverage underneath, but the Cover 3 is the team's base coverage.
"When you play three deep," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, "that's a chance for teams, a lot of times, where they'll try to take some shots down the field on some singled-up coverages."
Jeffery might not get a lot of separation, but he can win contested balls, and Foles will have to trust his receiver. Slot receiver Nelson Agholor, who has the best skill set in terms of creating open space, could also benefit from lining up outside on occasion.
But the Eagles, like the Falcons, won't stray too far from what got them here.
"X percent of what you're going to do each week in your game plan is based on who we are, our DNA," Reich said. "This is what we do no matter who we play because we're good at it, and our players are better than your players, and so we're going to do what we do. And then there's X percentage that is, OK, what's unique about the scheme that we're playing?"
The scheme was implemented by Pete Carroll in Seattle, and his former defensive coordinators Gus Bradley and Quinn took it to Jacksonville and Atlanta. Foles has fared well against the scheme, helping the Eagles beat the Jaguars in 2014, the Rams topple the Seahawks in 2015, and the Chiefs best the Jaguars in 2016. His rating in those three games: 94.4.
It's a small sample size, but so, too, are Foles' last four games. He could play to either extreme Saturday, but the law of averages suggests he'll land somewhere in the middle. Unless the elbow problem never went away.
Over the last month, Foles was asked two separate times whether his elbow was still bothering him, and each time he said it was not. If he has received treatment, he would be on the injury report, although there's plenty of gray area in that regard.
Appraising injuries can be as nebulous as quantifying confidence.
"I've seen the best quarterbacks in the world have a bad game or two in a row. I mean, the best," Reich said. "It happens. So all the reason to have confidence."
Easier said than done.