Every quarterback can point to a bad game at some point in his career, but Nick Foles struggled to think of one that could compare to his Oct. 20 outing against the Dallas Cowboys. The only one Foles could identify was the 2009 Holiday Bowl, when he completed only 6 of 20 passes for 28 yards and an interception.
Foles had a full offseason to recover from that performance. He has had two weeks to rebound from the Cowboys game, when 18 of Foles' 29 pass attempts landed incomplete. He threw for just 80 yards before leaving with a concussion after the third quarter.
"I think you just try to learn from the previous game and see what you could have done differently," Foles said this past week. "A lot of times, it's something you already know, like an 'aha!' moment, where it's like: 'That's all I have to do.'"
Both Foles and coach Chip Kelly face a similar test on Sunday, when the Eagles visit the Oakland Raiders. Foles is starting after the concussion sidelined him for one game, during which Michael Vick reinjured his hamstring and again opened up a spot for Foles.
The Eagles' offense was on a near-record-setting pace for the first six weeks of the season before sputtering the last two weeks -- Kelly's offense has not reached the end zone in consecutive games. Quarterback instability, as Kelly labels it, is part of the problem. But he's the one calling plays. And for coach and quarterback, Sunday is a chance for redemption.
"It's not all on the quarterback," Kelly said."We have to do a better job as a total group. I have confidence in the group. It was the same group for six games that we were on track to set records. It's not like we're going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start over again and say we're going to do something new here."
When Foles reviewed his performance against the Cowboys, he said that what stood out was his inaccuracy. When he finally studied the film in depth on Monday, he saw that he misfired on passes that he typically throws without issue.
But those "aha!" moments for Foles are not as easy to fix.
"You just can't say, 'Aha!, his step was nine inches and it should have been three inches, and we correct that step, we're good,' " Kelly said."One play is different from the next play, and I think overall the scope of things, he can do a better job in his setup and getting his feet set a little better, and he can do a better job in terms of his shoulder plane and how he's delivering the football."
After the refinements, Kelly just wants Foles to play without overthinking. He compared football to golf. Kelly said that if you stand over a golf ball and think "about nine million things before you hit it," it would be a bad shot. This applies to quarterbacking. If Foles' mind is cluttered with his struggles, it could paralyze progress.
Kelly's advice to Foles was simple: "Grip it and rip it."
"Just sling it," Foles said. "Obviously you want to have sound fundamentals that keep you more consistent. But just rip it. What that means is, don't hold anything back, follow through. I know how to throw a football. Sometimes I try to aim it. I know I'm accurate. I need to let my throwing motion take control."
In the seven months Kelly and Foles have worked together, Kelly has been struck by Foles' resiliency. It explains why Kelly is not publicly voicing concern about his backup quarterback. Kelly identified specific throws that Foles has made this season. He pointed out that Foles led the Eagles to a come-from-behind win against the Giants and had a strong outing in Tampa Bay. He's thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions.
"He did not play well in the Dallas Cowboys game, but Nick wasn't the only guy that didn't play well in the Dallas Cowboys game," Kelly said. "But I've got a ton of confidence in Nick."
Kelly, however, also said confidence in practice is different from confidence in games. He used another golf analogy to illustrate this point, alluding to a golfer who leads a tournament one week and doesn't make the cut the next week. What Kelly needs from Foles is consistency.
Foles is tough on himself and often puts the brunt of a loss on his shoulders. When the Eagles struggled to win with Foles at quarterback last season, he took much of the responsibility despite a depleted roster. And when he watched film of the Cowboys game, he saw a player who was overthinking -- trying too hard to make a big play and instead accumulating too many wasted ones.
"As a quarterback, you have the ball in your hands, you try to be a hero instead of going through your reads, staying in your rhythm," Foles said.
Foles took a moment in the locker room on Thursday to consider all the games in his career. He said it's probably a good thing he could not think of many that rivaled the Cowboys outing. But there are always games that bother him, and the test remains what comes next.
"It's happened every year I played sports," Foles said. "Every year there's adversity. Every sport I've ever played. And I've played good games since then. You refocus, you stay humble, you work hard, and you play with confidence."
Fixing the offense
The quarterback instability is the first issue that must be fixed, but even a better performance from Foles will not alleviate all the problems. Kelly insisted this past week that opposing defenses have not figured out the Eagles offense. He also said that opposing teams aren't surprised eight games into the season, and it's about how well the Eagles can execute the offense.
When Kelly was asked if he has shown the entire breadth of the playbook, he said there is some of it that hasn't been revealed. This is common for most teams, and Kelly may call more creative plays when he has the right personnel.
It depends on the opposing defense. There are plays Kelly prefers featuring against a 3-4 defense, and some that work better against a one-gap 4-3 scheme or a traditional 4-3 scheme.
"There are some things that we haven't done that we touch base on in preseason camp that may come up in this game and may come up two games down the road," Kelly said. "But every week, no matter what you do, you have a scope of offense that's in ... and that's kind of how we pare it down."
Although Kelly continues to insist the offense is the same regardless of the quarterback, the zone-running plays have been ineffective with Foles and Matt Barkley in the game because the opposing defenses do not worry about their mobility. The Eagles take pride in their offensive line, and LeSean McCoy is one of the NFL's elite running backs, but the way they have rushed the ball the last two games (3.1 yards per carry) is alarming.
With Vick out of the lineup, opposing defenses are not worried about the quarterback's keeping the ball. That does not mean the Eagles cannot have a strong running game. It just means they need to have a different running game.
"The main focus when you try to stop this team ... is you want to stop the run," McCoy said. "They kind of look at the passing game as secondary. As you see, a lot of times (the Eagles are) against a lot of man (coverage) and daring us to beat them (with) the pass."
Defenses load the box against the Eagles because the receivers are not enough of a threat. McCoy acknowledged an improved passing game would help, but he said the Eagles must find a way to adjust even with eight defenders in the box.
The onus is on Kelly to figure out how to move the ball and score. The praise for the high-powered offense from September has turned into criticism for the late-October problems. A new month must yield new results, and the culture Kelly creates in Philadelphia must include a dangerous offense regardless of the quarterback or the circumstance.
"Bad habits are like a bed; they're easy to get into and hard to get out of," Kelly said. "You've got to continually, every single day, set your mind-set that this is what we're going to do."
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