This story appears in the Jan. 29–Feb. 5, 2018 double issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
On third-and-10, with just over a minute remaining in the first half of the NFC championship game in Philadelphia on Sunday, the Eagles’ quarterback dropped back from shotgun and surveyed his three receivers to the left. The Vikings, in their familiar Cover 2, blanketed those routes, so he looked right, hoping to hit wideout Alshon Jeffery on a backside dig. Veteran corner Terence Newman, playing in a matchup zone, had that covered. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s top pass rusher, Everson Griffen, harassed the QB from behind as D-end Danielle Hunter bull-rushed center Jason Kelce right into his lap.
The quarterback should have gone down—but then he wriggled away, slid two steps to the left, kept his eyes downfield and saw Jeffery converting his dig into a Go. (“Alshon kind of freelanced when he saw pressure coming,” tight end Zach Ertz explained afterward.) The 39-year-old Newman was left in Jeffery’s dust and the passer, while still moving left, launched a deep ball that hit the receiver in stride. Touchdown. Eagles 21, Vikings 7.
If you could travel back in time and tell Philly fans in November that this play would help propel their team to a 38–7 win over the NFL’s top defense, earning a trip to Super Bowl LII, you’d get a knowing nod. That sounds about right. But that was before Carson Wentz suffered a left-ACL injury and an abandon-hope narrative threatened to take hold. That Nick Foles would be delivering a perfect ball in this scenario? Nawww ...
On paper, Foles is the epitome of inconsistency. After replacing Wentz in Week 14 he threw for 237 yards and four touchdowns in his first full outing, a 34–29 win over the Giants. He then completed just half his passes for a pedestrian 163 yards in a 19–10 defeat of the hapless Raiders and had a hideous first half (before being rested) in a 6–0 loss to the Cowboys: 4 of 11 passing, 39 yards, one interception. Which, of course, he turned around in a 15–10 divisional-round win over the Falcons, completing 23 of 30 throws for 246 yards.
It has been that way throughout his career. As a second-year pro with Philly in 2013, he had an otherworldly 119.2 passer rating and went 8–2 as a starter. While the Eagles began the next year 6–2, Foles’s rating fell to 81.4 before a broken collarbone landed him on IR. In ’15, Philly traded him to the Rams and he went 4–7, with a 69.0 rating. That’s when teams decided he was a backup.
Good week or bad, though, the scouting report on Foles has been straightforward and consistent—until Sunday, that is. The key points:
• He has the arm strength to deliver with velocity at the intermediate levels if—and this is a significant if—he’s throwing from a clean pocket. Keep him from stepping into throws and his velocity plummets.
• He’s mobile enough to occasionally escape trouble but not nimble enough to feature on bootlegs and rollouts.
• His deep ball often loses energy toward the end of its journey. Any downfield shot he takes must be wide-open.
• He’s risk-averse. He can anticipate open receivers, but he won’t target tight windows.
• He’s methodical both physically (long windup, slow release) and, sometimes, mentally (if uncomfortable, he’ll stay on bad reads).
With this sort of quarterback an offensive architect must create clearly defined reads that are quickly apparent early in the down; they must be presented to the QB. A defensive designer, meanwhile, wants to force a passer of Foles’s ilk to find reads. The longer Foles holds the ball, the more his limitations come into play.
In the divisional round, Eagles coach Doug Pederson stumbled upon the perfect recipe for Foles: run-pass options (or RPOs). The QB took a shotgun snap and either handed off or threw quickly inside, depending on the positioning of Atlanta’s linebackers. He read and reacted to just one snippet of the defense. Pederson also involved running back Jay Ajayi in the passing game (three catches, 44 yards) and stayed committed to a diverse ground attack. Foles was rendered a facilitator, not unlike the scheme in which he thrived under Chip Kelly in that prolific 2013 campaign.
But then Sunday happened, which will complicate Bill Belichick’s preparations for Super Bowl LII. And that 53-yard TD to Jeffery was not Foles’s only out-of-character big play. Notably, there was an early 11-yard completion to Ertz on third-and-10 where the QB quickly climbed a crumbling pocket against a zone blitz. Foles did the same on a third-and-eight in the second quarter, finding Ertz for 15 yards against a man-free blitz, and in the third quarter he hit wideout Nelson Agholor for 42 yards on a third-and-five. (Agholor, like Jeffery, had time to improvise a Go route after tight coverage stopped his initial route.)
Confidence seemingly buoyed by this display, Pederson even started calling plays where Foles threw later in the down by design. Ertz’s 36-yard out-and-up to beat All-Pro strong safety Harrison Smith was one example; another was a flea-flicker—football’s slowest-developing play—that resulted in a gorgeous 41-yard TD to Torrey Smith. “That’s the best Nick has played all season,” says Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo (whose name now sits atop next year’s coaching-search lists). “His feel and movement in the pocket, that’s something we worked on a lot. That’s one area where he knew he needed to improve.”
For one crucial game, at least, he did. Foles was a dominant, almost antithetical version of himself on Sunday, like a sloth outracing a chimp up a tree. Which means Belichick must now decide: How much does he game-plan for the Foles he’s seen most often, and how much for the Foles he’s seen most recently?
The Eagles can get by with either version. Pederson’s offensive system, in fact, is built for the controlled, ball-out-quickly Foles. It was only because of Wentz’s unique talents—his athleticism and big arm—that general manager Howie Roseman signed the 6' 3", 218-pound Jeffery, one of the league’s best downfield contested-catch artists, and Smith, a field-stretcher supreme. Making plays late in the down is “something we practice,” says Smith. “We know we have to stay alert and never give up; you have to continue to play. That was a key with Carson. Now Nick is able to extend the time in the pocket and make some plays.”
Contrary to popular belief, making throws under pressure isn’t just a matter of toughness. “When you’re inside the pocket,” explains DeFilippo, “the steering wheel of your body is your front shoulder. So if you’re a righthanded QB, the steering wheel is your left shoulder—that allows you to remain a passer. If you have to escape the pocket and throw off-balance, keep your front shoulder ready, and you’ll allow yourself to still be a passer.”
Since the start of 2016, the only flaw in the Belichick’s defense has been its mediocre pass rush; success has come as a (mostly) bend-but-don’t-break unit. Even with a master technician like defensive end Trey Flowers, there will be stretches in which New England applies no pressure. Still, the Pats sacked the Titans’ Marcus Mariota eight times in the divisional round and the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles three times on Sunday. Before that, they averaged four sacks an outing over the last six weeks of the regular season. Thus, like Foles, inconsistent.
Will Foles’s pocket mentality change, built on his championship game success? Kelce, the fulcrum of Philly’s fantastic front five, seems to think so. “Nick has great confidence in the O-line,” he says, “and we have been building confidence with Nick. I’m sure he’s becoming more comfortable with everything.” After Kelce & Co. contained Minnesota’s explosive D-line, Foles has reason to believe they will handle New England’s too.
So does Belichick. And so it’s worth noting: A key change in the second half of the Patriots’ comeback win over the Jaguars on Sunday was their uncharacteristic flood of blitzes against Bortles, who was having perhaps the best game of his four-year career. (The Vikings surely wish they’d blitzed more, but it’s easy to see why they didn’t. The Foles that they’d seen on film needed his reads defined early so he could get the ball out quickly, and blitzing can play right into that, in that it reduces the bodies in coverage, clarifying a QB’s reads.)
Which brings us back to Belichick’s conundrum: How much does he game-plan for the Foles he’s seen over the years, and how much does he game-plan for the one he saw against Minnesota? Nick Foles historically, or Nick Foles of Sunday night?
A clue might be found in the Patriots’ offensive play-calling on their last drive against the Jags. Facing third-and-nine from their own 44, with 1:38 left in regulation, New England lined up in an obvious running formation and handed off to Dion Lewis. It was a play called not to move the chains and clinch victory but rather to make Jacksonville use its last timeout before the ball was punted back to Bortles. Belichick, up 24--20, was comfortable giving possession to the Jaguars with 90 seconds and, most likely, 80 or 90 yards to go. It was a tacit declaration that the old coach didn’t think Bortles, even on his best day, could beat New England’s defense in trying conditions. Belichick played to the Bortles he’d seen on film, not the one he’d seen most recently. (The gambit wound up being rendered moot; Lewis rushed for 18 yards on that play, icing the game.)
If Belichick approaches Foles similarly—based on career tape—he’ll try to force the quarterback to make plays late in the down. Relatively speaking, of course; no defense would welcome a QB throwing five or six seconds after the snap. But the Patriots will take measures to prevent Foles from throwing in under three seconds. That means: scant blitzing, with linebackers and box safeties crowding the underneath passing lanes. It also means cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler getting physical with Jeffery and Smith, and savvy, aggressive safety Patrick Chung putting his hands on Ertz. In other words, compromise Foles’s timing by compromising the timing of his receivers.
In response, don’t be surprised if Pederson has Foles throw on first down early in the game. The hope: The Pats’ linebackers will back off in run defense and cede easy completions against predictable looks. Foles is most comfortable throwing slants here, and those familiar RPOs fit naturally.
In this Super Bowl, Belichick’s mission, as usual, is to rattle the opposing quarterback; Pederson’s, naturally, is to give his own signal-caller structure and comfort. What makes this matchup especially interesting is that neither coach can be sure which Nick Foles he’s dealing with.
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