TAMPA - Seven days earlier, Chip Kelly could not have been more definitive about the identity of his starting quarterback. He had just watched backup Nick Foles come from behind to beat the New York Giants after starter Michael Vick pulled a hamstring, and someone asked if Vick was still the starter if healthy, and Kelly answered clearly and without a chance of being misunderstood: "Yes."
But after another game and another win for Foles, Kelly is suddenly playing for time. Following the Eagles' 31-20 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs yesterday, a game in which Foles threw for three touchdowns and again looked very good, Kelly was asked pretty much the same question, about if it is still Vick's job if he is healthy. This time, the coach's reply was not definitive. It was not one word. Kelly said, "I don't deal in hypotheticals. Let's see where he is."
The hypothetical got an answer in East Rutherford. The hypothetical was swatted aside in Tampa. With that, the door is so wide open for Foles that it has been removed from the hinges. And in what already has been a season of tricky moments for Kelly, from the Riley Cooper controversy on down, the Eagles' head coach is staring at another one as his team prepares to play the Dallas Cowboys. Foles has suddenly made that a certainty.
"We'll evaluate everything," Kelly said. "We'll go back and watch the film, see what he did good, see what he did bad, see where we are, see where Mike is."
The hamstring might make this easy for Kelly; Vick really can't play if he is not 100 percent, or something approximating 100 percent, and it sounds as if he still has some distance to travel there. If he wants, Kelly can probably get away with the same routine - see no evil, hear no evil, answer no hypotheticals - until Vick is healthy again. A side benefit is that he can keep the Cowboys guessing as he awaits more evidence.
The only certainty here is that Foles has forced all of this by playing very well and avoiding the big mistake. Against the Bucs, he threw for 296 yards on 22-for-31 passing, with three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown on a quarterback draw.
Against a very fast, very stingy Tampa Bay defense, Foles dinked and dunked and screened his way through the first half, because that is what the Bucs were giving him. In the second half, he hit on a couple of long touchdown passes that opened things up - a 47-yarder to Cooper in the third quarter and a 36-yard rainbow to DeSean Jackson in the fourth quarter.
Foles has been good. The offense looks good when he runs it. The screen game was back against the Bucs after being missing for weeks. The red zone, a sore spot during Vick's tenure, has been significantly better under Foles. The running game, in Vick's absence, was still productive. Cooper, with this quarterback, was suddenly viable. This is all a matter of record now.
So what will Chip do?
What, if Vick says he is healthy, will Chip do?
The truth is, we all do narratives. It is how we try to make sense of the world. When Vick was brought back this season by Kelly, the narrative assumption was that the coach had seen enough of Foles, having faced him in the Pac-10, and was not impressed enough to think of him as a potential long-term option. Then, when the Eagles drafted Matt Barkley, the same point was hammered home in a different way.
But what if this is not about that narrative? What if there really is no narrative? What if this season is simply about the compiling of evidence - and the Eagles' willingness to go wherever that evidence takes them?
It is just one of the things we don't know about Kelly - and this whole business is an interesting test for a new head coach. There is more at stake here than just an upcoming date with the Cowboys. He has a locker room that will be watching this carefully. It is a locker room that likes and supports Vick. It also is a locker room that likes to win. There is a balance there, and Kelly needs to read it carefully.
If it were me, I'd go back to Vick if he is 100 percent for the Cowboys, or nearly 100 percent. It isn't that you cannot lose your job because of injury because that was never true in the NFL. It is because the coach is a blank slate who is building a reputation here, both around the league and among his players, and you do not want a reputation that suggests you have your finger in the wind, and that you can be completely swayed from your plan at quarterback this quickly.
Again, nobody is blind here. Foles has been very good. And if Vick is not healthy next week and Foles beats the Cowboys and plays well again, the job will be his. There won't be any turning back then. But we are not there yet - if for no other reason than that Kelly cannot afford to be wrong here. If you want people to take you seriously, you only get to make this decision once.
On Twitter: @theidlerich