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Nick Foles Is Not Carson Wentz. And The Eagles Adjusted Accordingly.

Around Thanksgiving, the idea that the Philadelphia Eagles would make it all the way to Super Bowl LII wouldn’t have surprised many people. Philadelphia started the season 10-1, and quarterback Carson Wentz emerged as the front-runner for league MVP honors. But after Wentz was lost to injury in Week 14, the Eagles’ title chances seemingly disappeared, too. Backups — like Philly’s stopgap, Nick Foles — seldom carry a team to Super Bowl glory.



Foles did little to suggest otherwise in four mostly lackluster appearances to close the regular season. But he spent the month of January proving himself up to the challenge. With 352 yards (on 26-for-33 passing) and three touchdowns versus Minnesota, he produced one of the greatest QB performances in conference championship history. The game brought back memories of Foles’s 2013 season in Philadelphia, when he posted the third-best single-season passer rating in NFL history. But it was also a testament to the adjustments that Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson made to accommodate the different strengths of Wentz and Foles.

Under both Wentz in the regular season and Foles during the playoffs, the Eagles’ offense averaged over 390 yards per game. But those yards were accumulated in different ways. Before Wentz’s injury, Philly was a balanced team whose aerial attack primarily relied on the power of its quarterback’s arm — often assisted by Wentz’s magician-like ability to improvise and buy time in the pocket. One thing it didn’t do, however, was ask receivers to do lots of work after hauling in the football. Through Week 14, Wentz led the league in touchdown passes per attempt and ranked third in air yards per attempt, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, but his targets were only 22nd in yards after the catch per reception.

Foles connected on three 40-yard passes against the Vikings. But those have been big exceptions to the Eagles’ general approach with Foles at the helm, which has been to throw much shorter. In the playoffs, Foles’s average pass has traveled 7.1 yards through the air. Compare that with Wentz’s average of 9.8 air yards per attempt during the regular season, and you can begin to see how Pederson has shifted his offense’s focus. Forty percent of Wentz’s passes went 10 or more yards downfield, compared with 25 percent for Foles in the playoffs. And Foles has actually thrown a larger share of his passes to players at or behind the line of scrimmage (29 percent) than 10 yards past it.

Philly’s passing offense changed in the playoffs

Distance traveled through the air — and after the catch — for passes by Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks, 2017 season

Yards/Completion … % of Passes by Air distance
Quarterback Through Air After Catch Total <=0 Yds 1-10 Yds 10+ Yds
Carson Wentz 7.7 4.8 12.4 15.5% 44.3% 40.2%
Nick Foles* 5.5 6.7 12.2 28.6 46.0 25.4

*Playoff games only

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

In today’s NFL, throwing shorter passes isn’t always correlated with better outcomes. But Foles is succeeding in large part because his receivers are taking those short passes and running for big gains after the catch. With Wentz under center, the Eagles’ pass-catchers produced only 98.6 yards after the catch per game (eighth-fewest in football); with Foles in the playoffs, they’ve nearly doubled that output (164.5 YAC/game). In particular, they’re doing a ton of damage on screen passes, which Pederson seldom utilized with Wentz. Running back Jay Ajayi, for instance, went from gaining just 7.4 yards after catch per game with Wentz during the regular season1 to 51.0 yards per game in the postseason, including nearly 30 receiving yards per game on screens alone.

Foles is also making smart reads and getting the ball out very quickly. In the playoffs, he’s averaging 2.39 seconds before each pass, a mark that would have been fourth-fastest in the NFL during the regular season. (Wentz, for comparison, was 17th-fastest, at 2.54 seconds.) Foles has used that quick release to lethal effect when conducting the run-pass option — which is more than just a ubiquitous piece of announcer-speak during Eagles broadcasts. The RPO helps freeze defenses with the added threat of handing off to a dangerous runner like Ajayi, and it lends itself to the types of quick passes that Foles has excelled at this postseason. Philly ran plenty of RPOs even before Foles took over, but that section of the playbook has been crucial to Pederson’s resurrection of the Chip Kelly-era version of Foles.

Now, it remains to be seen which version will show up for the Super Bowl this Sunday. The conditions have been right for Foles to succeed in the playoffs thus far — Philadelphia hasn’t had to play from behind much and has enjoyed one of the league’s most drastic home-field advantages. But there’s no telling what will happen if things go off script. That’s why the Eagles need to stay out of third-and-long, where the drop-off from Wentz to Foles is really glaring. (On third down with 8 or more yards to go, Wentz was the NFL’s top passer this season according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating; only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers was even remotely close.) They need to keep feeding the ball to Ajayi, who’s averaging roughly the same number of yards from scrimmage in these playoffs (98.5 per game) as he did during his All-Pro season with Miami in 2016. And perhaps most importantly, Foles needs to keep playing mistake-free football: Only 8.2 percent of his passes have been off-target this postseason — a rate that would easily have ranked No. 1 in the league during the regular season.

He could do all of that, of course, and still fall short: Tom Brady could always reach into his bag of comeback tricks, and there’s also the small detail of Brady and Bill Belichick’s 15-0 record in the playoffs against teams that they’re facing for the first time in a season. But putting those metaphysical factors aside, the Patriots have their own vulnerabilities. They aren’t exactly a defensive powerhouse, having ranked ninth-worst in the NFL in expected points added during the regular season. And although that number improved as the year went on, they still allowed the league’s fourth-highest QBR on passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards through the air — the kinds of throws they’re likely to see a ton of from Foles and company. If the Eagles can execute their newfound offense and resist Brady’s supercharged comeback powers, there are plenty of reasons to think Foles (of all people) will be the one to deliver Philadelphia its long-awaited Super Bowl parade down Broad Street.

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Footnotes

  1. In the five games immediately after Ajayi was acquired from the Miami Dolphins in late October.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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