5 statistics that should (but won’t) end Eagles quarterback debate

5 statistics that should (but won’t) end Eagles quarterback debate
October 14, 2013, 3:02 pm
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The trendy stat of the day for Michael Vick supporters, Nick Foles detractors, and fence-sitters everywhere: opponents’ record. The opponents in games Vick has started and “finished” (technically he was pulled from the Denver game, but the result was not in question) are 15-7. The record of the two teams Foles has beaten is 0-11.

To which I beg, “STOP!!!” Please, stop it. Never mind the Tampa Bay Bucs had a top 10 defense entering Week 6. That’s not really the point, is it?

I doubt anybody believes these two wins suddenly anoint Nick Foles a franchise quarterback, that they serve as any indication he’ll lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl someday. On the contrary, it doesn’t prove anything about his future at all. We’re talking about right now, who looks like the best quarterback on the roster?

The answer is less about Foles than it is about Vick. Doesn’t the offense just run more smoothly without Vick in the game? Not literally running the football obviously—Vick has 307 yards on the ground himself after all—but are they not more efficient overall? Because the numbers indicate that is indeed the case.

One person in the media explained to me that Vick adds another dimension to the offense, and I actually agree—if that dimension is negative plays and missed opportunities. There’s fewer of each when Foles is under center.

I’m quite certain that wasn’t what that person meant. Regardless, it’s the truth. For just about any measure of efficiency we have, Foles is going to chart as far superior, or at least close. And as a reminder, we’re talking about a second-year pro with seven career starts versus an 11-year veteran with 107 starts. One of these two players actually has a chance to improve.

Basic measures of passer efficiency

These numbers came up yesterday, so I won’t spend too much time harping on them, but they bear repeating.

Foles is completing 67.2 percent of his passes this season, Vick 53.8. To put that in simple terms everybody can quantify, if both quarterbacks drop back 30 times, Vick is completing 16 to Foles’ 20. That’s not an insignificant number. Those four incomplete passes might be the difference between keeping four separate drives alive.

This is not something that has ever or will ever be Vick’s strong suit. The four-time Pro Bowler has completed 59.4 percent since coming to Philly. Earlier this season, he admitted he would like to be at 60. As it stands now, Vick is ranked 32nd out of 35 quarterbacks in completion percentage, but even at 60.0 he would only be 18th. That’s not ideal.

Rounding out the efficiency side of things is passer rating, which is the formula that measures the efficiency of passes attempted taking into account completions, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. Vick is 13th with a 90.6—not bad by any means—but Foles’ 127.9 would rank second behind only Peyton Manning if he had the snaps to qualify.

Scoring/red zone efficiency

We all understand there are ways to massage statistics to build a case for one player over another. Completion percentage and passer rating admittedly don’t take into account Vick’s production as a ball carrier.

Fine, but what could be purer than the number of points an offense puts on the scoreboard under a particular signal-caller?

With three touchdown passes and one on the ground, Foles’ four touchdowns against Tampa Bay were more than the Eagles posted over the previous three games combined under Vick. (If the argument here is quality of opponents, I guess the implication is Vick is not expected to lead scoring drives against good teams?) If you look at the bodies of work over the entire 2013 season, Philadelphia reached the end zone 11 times in roughly 17 quarters with Vick under center compared to seven times in seven quarters with Foles.

Where the difference becomes even more readily apparent though is inside the red zone. CSN’s Reuben Frank wrote an excellent piece on this very subject last week that detailed how Foles has been more productive once the field shrinks—albeit in a limited sample size.

Over the past two years, Vick is 26 for 65 in the red zone for 195 yards with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 74.7 passer rating.

Foles during the same span is 15 for 36 for 91 yards with six TDs, no interceptions and an 88.9 passer rating.

If I may update Roob’s findings, Foles is now 18 for 40 117 yards with eight TDs, no interceptions and a 91.7 passer rating. In 2013, the Eagles are 5 for 14 (35.7%) in the red zone under Vick, 4 for 7 (57.1%) under Foles.

And much like Vick’s low completion percentage, there is history here. In his 28 starts going back to 2011, Vick has committed 12 turnovers in the red zone. How many games does that figure alone cost the Eagles? In what world is that ever acceptable?

Sack %

People typically mean two things when they say Vick adds another dimension. The first one obviously is the threat of No. 7 running with the football.

Well just as completion percentage and passer rating don’t measure rushing yards, neither one measures sacks either, an area where Vick has routinely ranked among the league leaders. The 11-year veteran’s career sack percentage—8.65 percent of all dropbacks—leads all current NFL starters, and only David Carr’s for the Giants is worse among active players.

And if you think all sacks are entirely the fault of the offensive line, consider Vick is the league leader at time holding the ball in the pocket—3.4 seconds on average—according to the metrics site Pro Football Focus. Still, don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Football Outsiders Almanac writes in its introductory chapter every year.

As for pass protection, some quarterbacks have better instincts for the rush than others, and are thus better at getting out of trouble by moving around in the pocket or throwing the ball away. Others will hesitate, hold onto the ball too long, and lose yardage over and over.

Note that “moving around in the pocket” does not necessarily mean “scrambling.” In fact, a scrambling quarterback will often take more sacks than a pocket quarterback, because while he’s running around trying to make something happen, a defensive lineman will catch up with him.

So this season, take Vick’s 87 yards lost on 14 sacks, and subtract those from his rushing yards, because chances are he was at least partially at fault. That leaves him with 220 yards on the ground, which is very good, but then you must also consider how many drives those 14 sacks killed because it set the offense back into an unmanageable down and distance.

Foles has been sacked just twice so far this season. He’s getting the ball out of his hand nearly a full second faster (2.63 s). The lack of negative plays from the quarterback is a big reason why a higher percentage of possessions have resulted in touchdowns under Foles than Vick, because they don’t wind up having to convert as many impossible third downs.

Yards Per Play

The other dimension Vick adds that Foles allegedly doesn’t is big plays down the field. There’s no denying Vick has an incredible arm, and Foles’ deep ball has not exactly impressed. There is more than one way to pick up huge chunks of yards though.

In fact, there isn’t really any truth to the idea the aerial attack has been more explosive under Vick. The incumbent is averaging 9.0 yards per pass attempt this season, Foles 8.9. In 2012, Vick’s averaged 6.7 to Foles’ 6.4.

Foles may not be able to throw a ball 70 yards like Vick, but there is no evidence the offense is hampered in any way by that. Look at what happened when he made a simple, accurate, well-timed throw to Riley Cooper five yards away from the line of scrimmage in Tampa Bay—Cooper spun away from the defensive back and raced for 40-plus yards. There's something to be said for that.

Maybe over time this number would favor Vick as Foles builds more of a portfolio, but for right now there really isn’t a significant difference here.

Age, Contract

Okay, age and contract aren’t necessarily statistics in the conventional sense, but they’re certainly relevant to this discussion. Vick is 33-years-old and playing on a one-year contract. Foles is 24 and has two years remaining. Which player has a better chance of contributing in Philadelphia next season? Two years from now? Five years from now?

What this debate ultimately boils down to is there is a young quarterback on the roster playing well and improving seemingly every week versus a flawed 11-year veteran whose ceiling is known. If Vick had clearly outplayed Foles either this year or last or even this summer during training camp and preseason, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion, but Foles has been step-for-step with Vick at every turn.

Why not give the kid a chance and find out what they’ve got?

It doesn’t matter if Foles fails, because if history is any indication, Vick will too. Vick almost certainly is not the franchise’s quarterback of the future, let alone next year, but with Foles there is a chance they have something more. We just don’t know.

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