In the spring of 2012, Doug Pederson was on the road scouting draft prospects when he received a call from then-coach Andy Reid. Pederson was scheduled to visit Brock Osweiler in Arizona, but Reid wanted his quarterbacks coach to change his plans and work out another nearby quarterback.
When Nick Foles showed up at the agreed-upon field, Pederson was already there, sitting in his rental car, looking at his iPad.
“I knocked on the window,” Foles recalled in 2013. “I said, ‘Are you Coach Pederson?’”
Their working relationship has been off and on over the last five years, but Pederson and Foles now face the greatest challenge of their careers, and they’ll face it together. Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury has propelled Foles into the starting spot of a playoff-bound team with greater aspirations.
But he won’t go it alone. Pederson is not only Foles’ head coach, he’s also his play-caller, and he believes their familiarity will be an advantage as they execute the Eagles offense.
“I really think it’s huge kind of knowing how he ticks, how he thinks,” Pederson said Monday. “Same way, kind of knowing that he’s seen me now call these games this year.”
After Foles was drafted by the Eagles, Pederson spent only one season with him in Philadelphia. But it was a pivotal year in the rookie’s development, and in his knowledge of the West Coast offense. Foles got to learn and speak the terminology. He got to understand the concepts. And he got to play – seven games in all.
Pederson followed Reid to the Chiefs, where they rebuilt a scheme that was still based on the West Coast but that incorporated ideas from the college game to suit quarterback Alex Smith’s athleticism.
Foles would have his own experiences with a college-based system during two seasons with Chip Kelly. And after a forgettable year with the Rams, he was reunited with Reid in Kansas City. Pederson was back in Philly by then, but when it came time to find a backup this offseason, he beat the drum for Foles.
“I was here when we drafted him, and we drafted him for a reason,” Pederson said. “Then we went out and got him again this offseason for a reason. You never want it to be under these circumstances, but at the same time, my confidence is extremely high in Nick.
“You saw what he did in that game last night. The big third-and-8 to Nelson [Agholor]. These are things, people ask me, ‘Why did you throw the ball?’ Because I’ve got confidence in Nick.”
Pederson said his offense will remain relatively as it was for Wentz. That may have been more of a philosophical statement than a practical one. Pederson knows as well as any coach that you must cater your schemes to your players. And Foles and Wentz have vital differences.
One of Pederson’s strengths is that he is open to player input. He has taken plays from Wentz’s North Dakota days and added them to his vast playbook. And he has increasingly included Wentz’s preferences as he and offensive coordinator Frank Reich formulate the game plan.
“Nick’s … smart to the point of he and I are going to continue to dialogue like Carson and I did during the week,” Pederson said. “I want to make sure there are plays in his plan that he’s comfortable with.”
The most significant difference between Foles and Wentz is their athleticism. Foles isn’t necessarily a statue, but he can’t move or evade defenders like Wentz. He also doesn’t have Wentz’s ability to sense pressure or to keep his eyes downfield amid that pressure.
Few do. But it may limit the Eagles’ vertical game. Wentz has the second-highest average length of completed passes in the NFL (7.77 yards) in part because he’s fearless in the pocket and because he can extend plays outside.
Foles’ best season in that category – a 7.42 average — came in his halcyon season of 2013. But his percentage dropped significantly over the next seasons (6.49 in 2014 and 4.38 in 2015). His one season in St. Louis could come with a Jeff Fisher asterisk. The Rams’ Jared Goff has shown the turnaround a young quarterback can have when no longer encumbered by Fisher.
But Foles’ three-season regression wasn’t just about numbers. The film supported the notion that he was no longer a starting-caliber quarterback. He can win a few games in a substitute role, as he did in two games last season. But three games and then the playoffs? He did have the Eagles in the lead late in their first-round loss to the Saints in 2013. But that year has proven to be an anomaly.
Foles should fare better with the short passing game. Pederson was fixated on his run-pass option plays and whether Foles’ immobility would limit their effectiveness. But he has been executing those post-snap reads since Kelly. Still, even if Wentz didn’t run often, he posed a threat.
The up-tempo portion of the offense shouldn’t be much of a problem, as well. Again, Foles had plenty of practice with Kelly, although he should have the option to check to other plays.
A quarterback’s best friend, of course, is a strong running game, and the Eagles have been effective on the ground this season. A narrative holds that Pederson has neglected the run, but aside from maybe the Chiefs game, there is little evidence.
Wentz was on pace to throw 60 fewer passes than he did last season, in part because of Pederson’s balanced play-calling.
On a late third-and-8, Pederson had Foles drop to throw. It’s doubtful that he flashed back to their initial workout, but on that then-windy day, Pederson had Foles through deep passes into 40 m.p.h. gusts to test his arm strength.
“We threw straight into the wind all day,” Foles said in 2013, “and he was having me throw these crazy routes.”
On Sunday, he zipped a 9-yard pass to Agholor that essentially sealed the victory.
“Coach Pederson showed a lot of confidence in me,” Foles said after the game. “I have a long history with him and he knows I can go out there and play.”
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