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Eagle Eye: Biggest surprises of the season
Six other quarterbacks were drafted before the Eagles used their third-round pick on Nick Foles in the 2012 NFL draft. (AP)
Before his most recent head coach decided that he’d rather have someone with more mobility and athleticism lead the offense, Nick Foles had already endured the same slight from his previous head coach.
In 2008, Foles transferred from Michigan State to Arizona for a variety of reasons: His maternal and paternal grandmothers had died, his throwing shoulder still hadn’t fully recovered from labrum surgery, and East Lansing, Mich., might as well have been Germany compared to his native Austin, Texas.
After a redshirt season that allowed his shoulder to fully heal, Foles spent the next spring competing for the starting job against freshman Matt Scott, a hot-shot California prospect who was rated as one of the country’s top dual-threat quarterbacks.
Scott could run like the wind and came with the DNA craved by modern coaches in this era of spread offenses with zone-read and pistol schemes. His ability to make dynamic running plays blended perfectly with coordinator Sonny Dykes’ wide-open attack.
Foles had great size (6-foot-6), a strong arm and two legs that churned like an old Dutch windmill.
The choice, at the time, seemed obvious for Dykes and head coach Mike Stoops.
“People are a little more enamored in a way that those guys can extend plays and make some plays with their feet when they aren’t there,” Stoops recalled. “I think we all like that attribute of a mobile quarterback.”
Stoops eventually discovered what Chip Kelly recently stumbled upon, that the conventional route isn’t always the right one. In Arizona’s third game that season, Stoops yanked a struggling Scott and replaced him with Foles.
Scott had started 4 of 14 for 50 yards with an interception against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City before Foles entered in the fourth quarter and led a 65-yard touchdown drive that ended with his 10-yard TD pass to Juron Criner.
Foles started the next week and never relinquished the job. He started two seasons and left as the school’s all-time leader in touchdowns and passing yards.
“Matt was a little more dynamic, very similar to Michael [Vick], and his ability to make some ‘wow’ plays,” Stoops recalled. “That’s what you get with those very mobile quarterbacks. They can do some things, but the guys like Nick, they beat you in other ways that you really don’t notice it until it’s over.”
Stoops, now the defensive coordinator for the University of Oklahoma, couldn’t help but see the symmetry playing out in South Philadelphia, where Foles has supplanted an injured Vick as the starter and brought stability to an inconsistent offense. Foles is 4-1 as a starter, has the Eagles (6-5) atop the NFC East and recently became the NFL's highest-rated passer (128.0). His 104.3 passer rating in Sunday's 26-14 win over the Redskins was just his second one under 133.3 in those five starts.
“I think he knew he would get his opportunity,” Stoops said. “There’s a lot of parallels to what’s happening there in Philadelphia. If the opportunity presents itself, I think he’s very opportunistic and confident in his ability. That’s one of his great characteristics.”
Foles has 16 touchdown passes and still hasn't thrown an interception in 162 attempts. Kelly recently remarked that wins and limited turnovers are the top traits he seeks in his long-term quarterback, but there’s a widespread sense that Foles won't fit the coach's long-term vision unless he's superhuman for the rest of the season. There is also the prevailing belief that Kelly will eventually find another fleet-footed quarterback to lead his read-option offense regardless of how many touchdowns Foles tosses.
Foles isn’t blind to the similarity between the time he was bypassed for Scott and Kelly’s decision to open the season with Vick, but he believes the door is open for him to keeping thriving in Kelly's offense. Whatever happens in the long run, that's out of his control.
“I believe I can play for this team and play at a high level and be successful,” Foles said. “I feel very confident here in this situation because of the people that are in this building. The long-term stuff, I don’t worry about that, because if I worry about that stuff I’m going to forget about doing something today.
“I know if I take care of today and do the best thing I can today and excel and make my teammates better and go out there on the practice field and execute the plays as fast and as hard as I can, I’m going to put us in a great position to win on Sunday.”
Stoops seemed to think Foles can turn Kelly into a believer much in the same way that he was convinced by Foles a few years ago, when Foles took the reigns of Arizona's offense and then left as the school's all-time leader in passing yards (10,011), touchdowns (67) and completions (933) in not even three full seasons. When Foles went to the Eagles in the third round of last year’s draft, the seventh quarterback taken in a deep QB class, Stoops couldn’t believe six others were already off the board.
If the 2012 class were redrafted today, what are the odds that Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler would be picked ahead of Foles?
“I questioned everybody,” Stoops said. “I couldn’t understand why they rated all these other guys higher than him. I didn’t understand it. But I don’t study every individual like they do. I just knew what I had in Nick and what he presented.
"He got knocked around and never didn’t stand in there and deliver the football while he was getting hit. You know how hard that is to do? That’s one of the hardest things, and he did that time and time again. To give his team a chance to win and know he was going to get hit, but he stood in there and threw the football where it needed to go. That’s very, very difficult to find.”
Now that Kelly has uncovered the same results, the question is whether he's content. Can he be happy with a franchise signal caller who's more like a Cadillac than a Ferrari?
“There’s not enough of those guys that can play at an elite level like he can," Stoops said. "I think he has enough there now, he’s starting to build a resume that he could do a lot of different [things]. You give him protection, he’ll slice you up.”