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No Nick Foles? No problem. The Eagles shouldn't miss a beat with Mark Sanchez—yes, Mark Sanchez—running the offense. It's an injury to a defensive star that should have them worried

By Greg A. Bedard
November 03, 2014

The Eagles lost quarterback Nick Foles and linebacker DeMeco Ryans to long-term injuries on Sunday. Ordinarily, it’s the loss of a passer that is the deeper, and sometimes fatal, wound. 

But Philadelphia, thanks to Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme, is no ordinary team. Given the way his tenure ended with the Jets, it may be shocking to read this: The Eagles are in good hands with Mark Sanchez. But make no mistake, the loss of Ryans is big; his absence will be felt more than Foles’.

Foles, according to various reports, suffered a broken collarbone in the Eagles’ 31-21 victory in Houston. An MRI will determine the extent of the injury; he could need season-ending surgery. Ryans reportedly tore his right Achilles’ tendon and will miss the rest of the season.

Ryans has been the glue that held the Eagles’ defense together ever since he was acquired from Houston before the 2012 season. (Four years ago Ryans ruptured his left Achilles tendon on nearly the same spot on the same field while playing for the Texans, the team that drafted him in 2006.) He may not have been the biggest (6-1, 247 pounds) or fastest middle linebacker, but he is extremely smart and tough.

“He’s the true leader,” Kelly said after the game. “We talk about it all the time. He’s Mufasa, you know, he’s our guy.”

The Eagles are expected to go with Casey Matthews, a 2011 fourth-round pick, in place of Ryans. That’s a steep drop off. Matthews was anointed the starter his rookie season and that lasted two games before he was shifted to the outside, and he’s been in a reserve role ever since. The good news is Matthews has much better players in front of him on the defensive line this time around. But he is still a limited athlete (4.78 second in the 40-yard dash at the combine) who has trouble making an impact in the running game.

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At quarterback, Foles had trouble (as anyone would) living up to his performance during the 2013 season, when he threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions (the best TD/INT ratio in league history) over 10 starts and helped the Eagles to a division title. His 119.0 passer rating was third-best all time.

This season, Foles saw his completion percentage fall from 64.0 percent to 59.9, and he threw 10 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He had to play behind an injury-ravaged offensive line and gutted through a shoulder injury, but Foles’ mechanics had become wildly inconsistent. He often threw stepping away from his target and fading away from the line of scrimmage. While he was under pressure on the play, Foles threw an ill-advised pass that Texans corner A.J. Bouye intercepted and returned for a touchdown. If Foles’ erratic play continued, one had to wonder if Kelly would have contemplated a change even without the injury.

Sanchez entered the game and promptly threw a 52-yard pass to Jeremy Maclin, and capped the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews on third-and-goal. Sanchez later added an 8-yard TD to Maclin on a tight-window throw to put the game away with 3:50 left. Sanchez finished 15 of 22 for 202 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. One INT wasn’t Sanchez’s fault (it bounced off Josh Huff’s hands). The other was a mix up with Riley Cooper, and Sanchez had another pass bounce off a defender’s chest when Sanchez and Matthews weren’t on the same page.

Considering the circumstances, it was a great performance by Sanchez and a continuation of the type of play he exhibited in the preseason and practice. I saw it firsthand at an Eagles training camp practice this summer, leading me to call Sanchez, “one of the best emergency fantasy quarterbacks this season.” The Sanchez I saw in July was much different than the guy who became a punch line at the end of his Jets tenure.

Not only is Sanchez surrounded by much better talent now, but Kelly’s scheme appears to give him a much-needed boost of confidence after the Jets years drained it out of him. What’s great about Kelly’s system for a quarterback is that it gives you answers. The pre-snap reads are simple and straightforward, and the options off those reads narrow down the options for a quarterback after the snap. With the Jets, one of the weakest parts of Sanchez’s game was his inability to read defenses before the snap. The best quarterbacks have the answers, or at least a fairly good idea of what they’re going to see, before the ball is snapped. Sanchez was never comfortable with that and, as a result, he often took on a deer-in-headlights look after the snap.

Kelly’s system is math and simple indicators. If the defense has so many guys in coverage on one side of the field, that will lead Sanchez to narrow his options to one side of the field or another. If a defensive player is aligned in a certain spot, that can be an indicator to Sanchez as well. During the telecast, FOX analyst Daryl Johnston talked about whether or not Kelly could use the entire playbook with Sanchez. There isn’t much to the Eagles’ playbook because there aren’t that many different plays. Kelly just dresses them up with different formations and personnel. As soon as a quarterback understands the indictors he’s looking for, it’s fairly simple. It doesn’t take that long. Sanchez should already be close to fully integrated.

The injury to Ryans will likely prove more costly than the one to Foles. (Tony Gutierrez/AP) The injury to Ryans will likely prove more costly than the one to Foles. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The other factor that could benefit the Eagles going forward is that Sanchez is a much better athlete and a faster runner than Foles. I always thought Philadelphia was held back because Foles isn’t really a threat to run on the read-option, but a quarterback’s decision-making in the passing game trumps all. Kelly’s scheme runs optimally with a true dual threat at quarterback. By having the threat of a running quarterback, the defense has to worry about one more gap that they wouldn’t have to mind with Foles under center. That allows them to crash against the run. While Sanchez isn’t exactly Marcus Mariota, his presence will create a little more space in the run game. That might have been a small factor in Philadelphia rushing for 190 yards in Houston, their second-highest total of the season.

Sanchez is still going to have his bouts of inconsistency (Kelly is not a miracle worker), but the Eagles shouldn’t lose much offensively with Foles on the sidelines. It’s a different story on the defensive side, where they’re going to need to find a way to stop the run without Ryans. Philadelphia faces some excellent running backs down the stretch in Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams, Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy, Dallas’s DeMarco Murray (twice), Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Washington’s Alfred Morris and the Giants’ Rashad Jennings. Those two matchups with Dallas will likely decide the NFC East. If, come January, the Eagles are watching the playoffs from home, it will likely be because they couldn’t overcome the loss of a linebacker, not their quarterback.

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