Kelly likes what's between Foles' ears

Posted: November 13, 2013

THERE'S A STORY Sean McDonnell, the head coach at the University of New Hampshire, loves to tell about the time Chip Kelly called a timeout to stop himself. It's a story I've told here before, about how the offense was moving so briskly down the field that it was changing Kelly's play selection quickly, so quickly that as the Wildcats hurried to the line to run another play, their offensive coordinator signaled a timeout - much to the amazement of his head coach.

"I needed to slow myself down," Kelly told O'Donnell, or so the story goes.

I bring this up again because of something Kelly said about Nick Foles yesterday, when it was mentioned that Foles seems to have a "knack" for getting key yardage with his feet when needed.

"He may not be fleet of foot," the Eagles coach said. "But he's fleet of mind."

A lot has been written, and even more spoken, about Chip Kelly since his hiring last January, about what he wants to do and whom he wants to do it with, and how he wants to change professional football as we know it in the process. A lot has been written, and even more spoken, about Foles since he replaced Michael Vick as the Eagles starting quarterback last year, about what he is, what he isn't, and what he might become.

None of these preferences, proclamations or prognostications has been made by coach or player, but rather by those trying to figure whether each is a long-term revelation or a passing fad. Only 3 weeks ago, Kelly was again being described as a one-trick pony, based on the success of his offense at the college level. Only 3 weeks ago, after a nightmarish outing against Dallas, Foles seemed to have confirmed his destiny as a career backup.

Now both are being praised as men with bright futures in this professional game. Why? Not because Foles is any faster or stronger, and not because Kelly reinvented football . . . again.

No, this is all about their brains.

Over his years as a coordinator and then coach, Kelly has recruited and operated with fleet-footed quarterbacks. But not always. At UNH, an anchor-legged quarterback named Ricky Santos emerged from deep in the depth chart and became a Walter Payton award winner. Jeremiah Masoli set an Oregon record by rushing for 714 yards in 2008. Three seasons later, Darron Thomas gained 206 yards over 13 games played as the Ducks QB, averaging a little more than four runs a game.

"I look for a quarterback who can run and not a running back who can throw," Kelly told a coaching clinic in 2011. "I want a quarterback who can beat you with his arm."

But to beat you with his arm, a quarterback must find the open guy and be fairly accurate. Foles himself has said he needs more work on the latter, but 1,256 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes with no interceptions, and a 2-week passer rating of 155.3 indicates the kind of progress first-year coaches can only dream of.

"Nick's just really, really smart with the football," Kelly said. "Very rarely do you see Nick throw a ball where all of a sudden it's tipped, you know, when it's almost intercepted. I think going the other way, our defense, there's a couple times we probably should have made some more plays defensively on the ball and didn't. But you don't see that out of Nick. I think he has a really good understanding of what we're doing. He doesn't really ever put the ball in harm's way."

OK, so there's a little hyperbole mixed into the coach's comments for good measure. As good as Foles has been, he couldn't have anticipated two Green Bay defenders banging into each other and popping the ball into DeSean Jackson's hands Sunday. And Foles did fumble the ball deep in his own territory late in the game, which at the time certainly felt like a momentum changer.

But mostly he was just plain smart. He even ran the ball eight times for 38 yards, including that 16-yard third-down scamper late in the third quarter that allowed for his third touchdown pass two plays later.

"Sometimes the right thing to do is just kind of pull it down and let's get the next snap off," Kelly said, sounding more and more like an NFL coach each day. "I think that's what he's done. He's a real good decision maker. Again, I've said it since Day 1: He is a better athlete than people think. He picked up a couple critical first downs for us again in that football game because he can make good decisions."

Which begs the obvious question. After the bye week, will Chip stick with Nick or go back to Vick? The coach did his usual dance around that question yesterday, but he made one thing perfectly clear.

He's not the leg man some thought he was.

Turns out, he loves them for their brains.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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