Kelly's real quest: Find next year's QB

Posted: October 16, 2013

It's hardly news that the NFC East is the weakest division in the NFL this season, and less news that, despite this, some team will still win its championship by default and get a ticket to the lottery of the postseason.

Over the last two weeks, the division has sorted itself out further and is divided between the have-nots of the Giants and Redskins and the have-somes of the Eagles and Cowboys. New York and Washington have reached the middle of October with a combined 1-10 record and will not be able to rise from that ditch, so the division title is, amazingly enough, left for only the Eagles and Cowboys to decide.

This wasn't supposed to happen this season, of course. It was going to take Chip Kelly a while to implement all his changes and rebuild from the 4-12 ashes of 2012, and a while before the Eagles were ready to compete for anything.

That's actually still true, because the Eagles are only a competitive team in the shallow end of the pool where NFC East teams splash about. The defense is still pretty awful, although consecutive games against the Giants and Bucs have masked that somewhat. And while the Eagles' 3-3 record looks respectable enough at this stage of the season, the three wins came against teams that are now a combined 1-15.

Nevertheless, the Eagles do have an even record and they also have a schedule that could allow them to still have one when the regular season ends. It doesn't have to work that way, but their games against Oakland, Arizona, and Minnesota; and rematches against the Giants and Redskins could all end with wins, and no one would be surprised. If they could split with the Cowboys or pull off a rogue upset of Green Bay, Detroit, or Chicago, the record could even be above .500.

Well, what would any of that mean if the Eagles made the playoffs only to be dismissed quickly by a team that didn't come in through the side door?

It would mean, at least in a limited sample, that Kelly's particular vision of the no-huddle offense can pile up yards and succeed, almost regardless of the identity of the quarterback. These first few weeks of the season have seen the offense do well with Michael Vick and - in the second half against the Giants and on Sunday against the Bucs - with Nick Foles.

The focus is a nearsighted one at the moment, fixed on which quarterback Kelly will settle upon as his starter for the rest of the regular season. The more interesting question is whether it is possible for either of them to win the job for next season and perhaps seasons beyond. If the offense continues to produce, it grows increasingly likely the answer to that question will be "yes." But which quarterback?

The Eagles have serious rebuilding to do, and the vast majority of it on the defensive side of the ball. As they look ahead to the offseason, holding a middling pick in a quarterback-rich draft, their bargaining power would be heightened if they weren't one of the teams desperate to land one of those quarterbacks.

So that is the real story line for the rest of this season. Finding this year's quarterback means essentially nothing, but discovering if next year's quarterback is already on the roster could mean everything.

Kelly has to finesse this, because in Vick he is dealing with a veteran who is popular and supported in the locker room. The truth, however, is that Kelly already knows what he thinks about Vick, whatever that might be. He is still finding out about Foles, whose performance against the Bucs was eye-opening.

If this season is all about evaluation and putting in place the groundwork for a future season in which the Eagles can compete in a good division and beyond, then seeing more of Foles is necessary sooner or later. Here's a heavy bet on it being sooner, as in Sunday against Dallas, and not just because, as observed before, he earned the right to stay in there after the Tampa Bay game.

Starters shouldn't lose their jobs to one hamstring strain and Kelly, as a first-year coach, will respect that when Vick is fully healthy again. For the sake of evaluating Foles, however, the coach runs the risk that when Vick returns to the lineup, he will stay there. (A pretty slight risk, considering the last five seasons.)

This week, Kelly won't commit to either guy for as long as possible, just as he didn't leading up to the Tampa Bay game. But common sense says Vick sits again and Foles gets the opportunity to show his last start wasn't a fluke against a winless team. Common sense also says that neither a gimpy veteran nor an immobile younger quarterback is what Kelly really seeks for the future.

We'll see about that one. The future is still being written and both Vick and Foles apparently have time to make a few meaningful edits.


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