Bill Lazor was a record-setting quarterback himself, at Cornell University in the early 1990s. (AP)
From the outside, it looks like Nick Foles is absolutely at the top of his game.
It’s impossible to imagine him playing any better. Heck, it's hard to imagine anybody playing any better.
He’s only the third quarterback in NFL history to throw 16 touchdowns in a season before his first interception. His 128.0 passer rating is the highest ever by a quarterback 11 games into a season. Despite starting only five games, he’s second in the NFL with 12 completions of 40 yards or more.
How can he possibly be more productive? How can he possibly improve?
That’s Bill Lazor’s job.
Making sure one of the hottest quarterbacks in NFL history continues to get better.
“As a coach, you’ve got to set a standard, and as he approaches it, you move it up,” Lazor said. “Just like you do with your kids. When he approaches it, you move it up. Just keep raising the standard.”
While the rest of us marvel at what Foles is accomplishing, Lazor -- in his first year as Eagles quarterbacks coach -- is responsible for focusing on what he’s doing wrong, what he needs to work on, what he needs to improve.
We can all say it’s hard to imagine Foles playing at a much higher level. But that’s all Lazor thinks about.
“We really don’t focus on the stats. Ever,” said Lazor, a record-setting all-Ivy League quarterback at Cornell in the early 1990s.
“We just focus on, ‘How did you play?’ We grade on accuracy, not on if it was a completion but if it was in exactly in the right spot. And when the guys in the room are doing it with you and they buy into it – ‘Yeah coach, I should do better than that’ -- you have a chance to keep getting better.
“A lot of the things that people would use as examples of why he’s so great are not even talked about. We focus on: ‘Was the ball one foot in front of the numbers on a crossing route so we can catch it on the move? On a screen pass, was it right on the running back’s front shoulder pad, so he can catch it and turn it right up?’
“That’s what we grade. So from the outside, it’s easy to say, ‘What can he do better?’ From the inside, we’ve got a lot of work to do. That’s how we approach it.”
Lazor is around Foles every day, and nobody knows him better. His strengths and weaknesses, his skills and limitations.
Lazor said the thing that’s impressed him the most has been Foles' ability to take a play within a game and learn from it almost instantaneously.
“Some quarterbacks can come to the sideline and can’t tell you exactly what happened out there,” he said. “Some guys can come and can tell you exactly where the defense was, how they turned their hips, who jumped their route – those are the things that you don’t know until you go through it.
“I just think Nicks’s done a great job of communicating on game day and seeing what the defense is doing, and a guy who can perceive what’s happening on game day can learn as the game goes on as opposed to a guy who really can’t see it until he watches the video. Nick’s done a really good job with that.”
So while fans, media and even teammates speculate about Foles and his future – can he keep this up? Can he be the Eagles’ quarterback long-term? – Lazor focuses only on this week, this practice, this rep.
“I never tried to put a ceiling on what he can be,” Lazor said. “Don’t try to be a fortune teller. When you’re the position coach, you’re just trying to deal with: How can I get him better? If you focus on that, you’re serving him and serving the head coach the best you possibly can.
“Focus on getting him better and discipline yourself and don’t daydream about what he can be. Really. That’s the truth. I think if you keep that mindset as a position coach, you’re serving the best you can serve. …
“You have the ultimate standard and you keep reminding them that we’re so far away from it.”
The Eagles are in the playoff mix for the first time since 2010. They opened 2011 with a 4-8 record before winning their last four games, and they lost 11 of their last 12 last year.
Michael Vick went 8-2 in his first 10 starts with the Eagles but is 12-19 since, including his 2-4 record this year.
Foles is 4-1 this year, with three straight wins. He’s had a passer rating of at least 100 in five of six games, and only Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson -- with six each -- have reached triple-digits more this year. And all have started twice as many games as Foles.
He’s thrown 199 consecutive passes without an interception and has just two interceptions in his last 349 passes going back to last year.
If Foles just plays consistent, productive, relatively mistake-free football these last five weeks, it’s going to be impossible for the Eagles' organization to move on with anybody else at quarterback.
Listen to Lazor:
“We have to remember -- it’s easy sometimes to forget -- that Nick is still very early in his NFL playing career, and when you see the greatest ones … at his position talk about how much they enjoy continuing to learn and finding new things, then a guy who’s 10 or 11 or 12 games into his starting career, he should feel like every day is something new.
“And as a coach, you’re just trying to find a way to make it fresh. You might have a whole pile of things you might want to advance to and you just keep clicking them off one at a time.
“Being in the bye week, we went back to some of our most basic plays that we know are going to be called over and over and just studied them on video and went all the way back to preseason games watching those same plays.
“And sometimes the video came on and guys watched themselves in a preseason game and I could feel them kind of cringing -- ‘Gosh, I can’t believe I looked like that doing it at the time. My footwork is so much better now, I’m so much quicker to get from my first read to my second read to my third, but against the Jets, gosh, I looked awful doing it, I would never look like that now.'
“It was a good time to take a step back and get a good perspeective of how far we’ve come. And then we went on the practice field and we worked on some of those just basic plays, just went through the progression of hitting them. They’d just seen them on video, so it was like, ‘OK, I own this play. If 1’s covered and 2’s covered, I can get all the way to 3 or the back.’
“If you’re going to play at this level for a long time and be good, you’ve got to take enjoyment out of that work because you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, this is how it’s going to happen on game day. This isn’t just drudgery.’
“You can’t let things seem mundane to you. [You have to think], ‘This is what’s going to get me a completion on Dec. 29. I may not get this play again until Dec. 29, but when it comes up and they play that coverage, I’m going to know what to do.'
“And if guys really enjoy that aspect of the game, just being a student of the game, taking owenership, taking it to the next level, mentally and putting it together with great fundamentals, then to me those are the guys that are fun to coach, because those little details, they kind of eat it up and try to work on it on the field.
“Next thing you know, you’re walking off the field to go to lunch and you look out and they’re staying out there working on those little things themselves and you feel like, ‘Yeah, we made a little impact today.’”