Sanchez or Foles? It Doesn’t Matter

Nick Foles hasn’t been medically cleared yet, but the Eagles shouldn’t rush him back when that happens. Philadelphia has virtually the same chance of making the playoffs (and winning the Lombardi) with Mark Sanchez under center
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By Keith Goldner

After a brutal loss to the Cowboys last Sunday night, the Eagles are set up to be on the outside looking in come January.

With two games remaining, Philadelphia has just a 35.8% chance of making the playoffs, meaning the Eagles must win out and get some help to extend the season. In fact, there is a 5.2% chance that Philly will finish 11-5 and still miss the playoffs. Had the Eagles won last week, their postseason chances would have been over 95.0%.

Though Nick Foles has been ruled out for this week’s game against Washington—he’s still working his way back from a broken clavicle suffered in Week 9—Chip Kelly hasn’t closed the door on his returning this season. So we crunched the numbers to see which quarterback, Foles or Mark Sanchez, gives the Eagles a better chance of reaching the playoffs and ultimately winning the Super Bowl.

To evaluate these two passers we used our internal metric at, Net Expected Points (NEP).

A quick refresher: NEP compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-2 on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be “expected” to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the “expected” point value of the next play to 4.23 points (still an estimated number). Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP. That’s Net Expected Points.

Since 2000, the average passing NEP for a quarterback with at least 400 passing plays is +42.0. That means a league-average quarterback will add about six touchdowns over expectation to his offense throughout the course of a season. This may be counterintuitive. You might think the average quarterback would add nothing over expectation, but in today’s NFL, passing is a more efficient option to running. Quarterbacks, in turn, tend to make up for poor rushing efficiency.

In 2014, Mark Sanchez has a +25.1 passing NEP total on 239 passing plays, which paces out to exactly +42.0—the league-average total. Nick Foles posted a +15.2 passing NEP on 321 pass plays, pacing out to +18.9 passing NEP.

So, that’s it, right? Sanchez has been better this year, so he’s the better option?

Not quite.

The Sanchize

Despite reaching two AFC Championships in his career, Mark Sanchez has been criticized mercilessly for his below-average play in the NFL. With the Jets, Sanchez averaged -0.10 passing NEP per play, which means he cost the team about one field goal per game with his poor passing performance.

But, that was with a completely different offense; it’s what we call out-of-sample data. Chip Kelly is known for his offensive mindset, which leads many to believe he can truly plug-and-play just about anyone at quarterback.

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Sanchez’ biggest issue this year (and in his career) has been turnovers. He has already thrown nine interceptions and lost two fumbles, whereas Nick Foles has 10 interceptions and three lost fumbles in two more starts. Sanchez owns a dismal -14.3 rushing NEP, but that is primarily due to two huge fumbles in the Green Bay game, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Casey Hayward.

It means that on all plays in which he’s been involved, Sanchez has added approximately +0.04 NEP per play.

Back in the Nick of Time?

Nick Foles posted one of the most efficient seasons in NFL history in 2013, throwing 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions on 346 pass plays. That resulted in +108.7 passing NEP or +0.31 passing NEP per play. Only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning posted better numbers on a per play basis among starting quarterbacks last year. For comparison, only Rodgers sits above that line so far in 2014.

That said, what goes up usually comes down. That production was far from sustainable and Foles crashed back to Earth this year. He was successful on just 42.7% of his passing plays in 2014, compared to Sanchez’ 47.7%.

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Foles, though, has been moderately successful rushing the ball—mostly because teams don’t expect him to take off running. Over his career, Foles adds +0.15 rushing NEP per play, which would mean about four additional points to the Eagles’ offense over the course of the season.

On all plays this season, Foles added approximately +0.05 NEP per play.

The takeaway

Playoff probability with Sanchez: 35.7%

Playoff probability with Foles: 35.9%

Super Bowl Champion probability with Sanchez: 1.2%

Super Bowl Champion probability with Foles: 1.3%

With these numbers so close, will Chip Kelly’s final decision make a huge difference in how the Eagles finish the season? Not really. Sanchez has been the better passer this season, but Foles has shown his potential upside. In fact, the difference in probabilities could be easily attributed to random error in our thousands of season simulations—that’s how close it is. If there’s any concrete takeaway, it’s that the Eagles shouldn’t rush Foles back onto the field if he’s not completely healthy.

The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, and if the Eagles do make the playoffs, they will be an underdog against the top teams in the NFC and the AFC champion. Underdogs need to employ high-risk strategies to increase their odds of winning against better teams.

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Which quarterback is the higher variance? Both are extremely volatile—although Foles has shown much higher upside with his 2013 campaign. This season, Sanchez is responsible for six of the Eagles’ fifteen worst offensive plays—including the two worst—while Foles is responsible for eight of them. Foles owns the rights to six of the Eagles’ best fifteen plays, while Sanchez has been a part of five.

Chip Kelly can’t really go wrong with his final decision—though he may never have the opportunity to make it if the Eagles fail to make the postseason.

Keith Goldner is the chief analyst at Follow him @keithgoldner.

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