The last time someone other than Carson Wentz started at quarterback for the Eagles, the game — like this Sunday’s — was at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands against the New York Giants.
Sam Bradford was the starter on Jan 3, 2016 as the Eagles finished off a dreary 7-9 season in the first game after the end of the coaching tenure of Chip Kelly.
For his part, Bradford looked secure in his position. He had just turned 28, his surgically repaired knee was holding up, and he had set team records for completions and completion percentage.
Security and quarterbacking in the NFL don’t go together, though. One torn ACL, to Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater, sent Bradford out of town and cleared the way for Wentz to start as a rookie. Another one, suffered in the L.A. Coliseum last Sunday, has made Nick Foles the first-string quarterback once again.
It has been 53 games since Foles started a game for the Eagles. That is a blink of the eye in terms of franchise history. But so much has happened since that it’s as if Foles stepped out of a dusty record book, snapped his chinstrap in place, and picked right up where he left off before aptly-named linebacker Whitney Mercilus left him with a broken collarbone on the floor of Houston’s NRG Stadium.
Foles takes over a team that is already a division champion, and is looking to earn the right to play only home games during the conference postseason. The 11-2 Eagles can get a first-round bye with a win Sunday, and can lock up that home-field advantage with one more win or a loss by the Vikings.
The question asked by some as the team prepared for the Giants was whether Foles could be Carson Wentz for this team: a strong-armed passer, sure, but also a quarterback who can beat you with his legs. The obvious answer is that Foles won’t be asked to do that. And for reference, coach Doug Pederson made it clear that even Wentz wasn’t being asked to be Carson Wentz.
The Eagles were so concerned about the possibility of Wentz injuring himself with his head-first style and reckless enthusiasm that they did what they could to pad the corners of the offense for him. They also promoted third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Nov. 1 to keep another team from poaching him.
With Wentz’s style of play, and the way the season was developing into one of real opportunity, the organization felt it had to study all angles of the what-if game.
Nothing the coaches did prevented what happened against the Rams, when Wentz scrambled near the goal line because his receivers were covered and launched himself into two Los Angeles defenders. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying by Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
“When was the last time we did an RPO (run-pass option) where Carson ran the football? When is the last time that, outside of a scramble, that we designed a run for Carson Wentz?” Pederson said on Monday, when asked about the transition to the less-mobile Foles. “We haven’t done that many times at all. … It usually comes on a scramble. Our RPO game is much different than it was in the beginning of the season.”
The plays that put an option in Wentz’s hands were mostly running plays for the backs that he could change to passing plays after seeing the defensive alignment.
“I don’t think we ever really wanted Carson to do a lot of running,” center Jason Kelce said. “It’s just not a good idea to have your quarterback run the ball that often. He still ends up running quite a bit because he’s a mobile quarterback, but there are certainly not a lot of designed runs for him.”
Nevertheless, Wentz, who ran 46 times in 16 games last season, was making his 64th rushing attempt this year when he tore his left ACL. Some of those were sneaks or slides, which are lower-risk attempts, but not enough, obviously.
It’s a little ironic that Foles returns to the lineup for a team that is actually safer for him than the one he left. Kelly’s read-option and zone-read offense required the quarterback to make himself a threat to run.
Foles, who is 6-foot-6 and a bit ungainly, ran the ball 73 times in the 19 games he played significant minutes under Kelly. He won’t be asked to do that again.
“We’re a little more traditional in the things that we do,” Pederson said. “I think it fits his style a little bit better now than trying to get him to do all those different moving parts with reads and the run-pass stuff he was doing back then.”
We will see just how traditional the playbook is on Sunday, as the Eagles switch to a quarterback who operates best within a five-yard radius of the line of scrimmage. The other guy, well, he was good all over the field — even if he wasn’t asked to be, and even if the concerted effort to keep him from harm’s way ultimately failed.
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