At quarterback, stability is the best ability

Posted: November 13, 2013

Twenty teams in the NFL have been fortunate enough to get this far into the season with just one quarterback taking all or very nearly all of its offensive snaps. That number could dip soon as other teams face the possibility of losing a quarterback to injury. We are also reaching the point of the schedule - looking at you, Pittsburgh - when an organization might feel it is the right moment to look beyond an aging veteran.

Stability at the quarterback position is no guarantee of success, but it helps. Entering Monday night's game, only six of the teams whose starting quarterback has retained hold of the ball all season had losing records. The opposite is almost always true, however. A lack of QB stability is either a sign that changes were made because of failure or out of necessity because of injury. Either way, it's not usually good for the overall success of the team.

Of all the teams in the league, none have had to spread around their snaps more often than the Eagles this season. When they drifted through the middle of the schedule as first Michael Vick and then Nick Foles were knocked to the sideline by injury, Chip Kelly had no doubt what was wrong with the offense.

"I was concerned all week long," Kelly said after the loss to the Giants on Oct. 27. "When you're not settled at that position in this league, you better have a quarterback. And right now we're unstable at the quarterback spot and we are not playing well at the quarterback spot, and we lost our last two games because of it."

In a passing league, where the ability of the quarterback to deliver the ball is the single greatest individual skill required for winning, there is only one team on which no single quarterback has accounted for at least 50 percent of the pass attempts. And, yes, that would be the Eagles. Vick has attempted 43 percent of the passes, Foles 42 percent and Matt Barkley 15 percent. (Only three other teams have been in such a dire position that a third quarterback has thrown such a significant percentage of passes. The others are Buffalo, Cleveland and Minnesota, not a group any team wishes to emulate.)

That is why it is such an anomaly, and a fortunate one, that the Eagles have been able to get to this point with a .500 record and still have a legitimate chance to finish ahead of Dallas and win the NFC East division.

"The blessed thing about this team is we have two starting quarterbacks, Mike Vick and Nick Foles," running back LeSean McCoy said after Sunday's 27-13 win over Green Bay. "When he came in, we didn't look at Nick as a backup. We looked as him as a starter and he's been playing like that."

The fact, however, is that teams have only one starting quarterback and Kelly has never come out and said that Foles, by dint of his recent play, three very good games in his four starts, has moved ahead of Vick on the virtual depth chart he keeps in his head. There is no reason for him to address it yet, and he won't have to address it until Vick recovers fully from his hamstring injury, if and when that ever occurs.

Kelly came as close as he will to stating the obvious - Foles is the better guy for the Eagles the rest of the season - when he said Monday that he isn't apt to fix things that aren't broken. With 10 touchdown passes in the last two games, and no interceptions against 16 touchdown passes all season, what Foles is doing isn't broken.

That's easy to say this week, because Vick is apparently still going through the rehabilitation process. What Kelly will say next week, when the timetable for Vick's return is more likely to be reached, or if Foles suffers through another stinker like the Dallas game, will tell us a lot about the new coach and how things will be done during his tenure.

Naming Vick the starter at the beginning of the season was an easy choice for a rookie coach. He went with a veteran who was popular in the locker room, and one who went 28 for 38 in the exhibition season and appeared to be fully fit. Foles was nearly as good, but no one could argue with the decision.

Now, the situation is far different if both Vick and Foles are healthy. The opinion of the locker room is no longer a concern. Vick is still popular among his teammates, but there is one thing much more popular: winning.

Foles is winning and the quarterback position is stable. If Vick were to come back, he would be even money to suffer another injury - his last few seasons are clear in that regard - and the instability would return. A backup would have to come into the game and, even if it were Foles, it would be a backup who got limited work with the first team that week.

For Kelly, Foles represents the best shot at continued stability, and therefore the best shot at winning. Maybe it won't work out that way and Foles will play his way out of the job. That's possible, but it is also the only way it will happen.

Until then, healthy or not, Michael Vick is the backup, even if no one says it out loud.



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