Brain works: The secret to Foles' success

Nick Foles , with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, has tested highly for mastering complex systems.    RON CORTES / Staff
Nick Foles , with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, has tested highly for mastering complex systems.    RON CORTES / Staff
Posted: January 04, 2014

Even after Nick Foles threw 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions this season, even after he compiled the highest passer rating in the NFL, even after he led the Eagles to their first division title in three years to set up Saturday's wild-card matchup against the New Orleans Saints, there remains an air of mystery about him.

This is understandable. It's not often that a quarterback selected in the third round of the NFL draft, as Foles was by the Eagles in 2012, flourishes as he has. It's even rarer that a quarterback with so humble a pedigree (by the standards of most elite NFL quarterbacks) would replace his team's starter in the middle of the season and emerge as an MVP candidate. But Foles has pulled that off, too, stepping in after Michael Vick injured his hamstring and never releasing his grip on the job.

So how was Foles, who had started six games under Andy Reid last season, able to grasp the nuances of Chip Kelly's offense so quickly this season? That is the mystery, and the answer may lie in the way Foles' mind works.

A former NFL player personnel director said in a phone interview this week that he has reviewed a psychological profile that Foles completed before the 2012 NFL draft. According to this person, Foles' "quickness of learning was at the top of the scale." That is, the profile suggested that Foles has a natural gift for understanding and mastering unfamiliar and/or complex concepts and systems.

"Let's say you and I had the same Wonderlic score," the former executive said, referring to the famous cognitive-abilities test that NFL teams use to size up college players. "Then we go into separate rooms and put the same math problem up. You get the problem solved in 38 seconds, and it takes me a minute and 25 seconds. That doesn't mean you're smarter than I am, but you've got the ability to process things faster."

NFL teams keep such tests confidential, and Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, through a team spokesman, declined to comment on the organization's predraft research and on whether the Eagles' player personnel and scouting staffs had administered such an evaluation. Foles said Thursday he took so many personality and cognitive tests and answered so many questions before the draft that, more than a year-and-a-half later, no single evaluation or inquiry stands out all that much in his memory.

"Anything possible to be examined about us was examined during that process," he said. "But I think I know which one you're talking about."

As the former NFL executive described it, the test that Foles took sounded similar to one prepared for NFL teams by Human Resource Tactics (HRT), a North Carolina-based scouting service. According to a July 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal, the HRT questionnaire measures such factors as "Focus," "Self-Efficacy," "Receptivity to Coaching," and "Mental Quickness." An e-mail to HRT requesting comment Thursday went unreturned.

Foles' performance this season has validated the accuracy of that profile.

"Next to Chip, I think Nick would know the most about the offense," center Jason Kelce said.

His greatest strengths have been his decision-making, his vision of the field, his anticipation of who will be open and where. That Foles threw just two interceptions in 317 regular-season passes and still led the NFL in yards-per-attempt (9.1) speaks both to his care with the football and his confidence that he will complete a pass once he makes up his mind which receiver he ought to target.

"It's more like a puzzle to me," said Foles, who earned honorable-mention Pac-12 all-academic honors twice during his college career at Arizona. "When a play's called, I put the puzzle pieces together of everything that's in the play call. So it might be a formation. It might be a shift. It might be motion for protection, or a concept. Whatever it is, I plug it in, and it's almost like to where the play comes to form in my head - to [a point] where Coach can say a play we've never run before, and based on our performance and concepts and everything, I'll be able to make that play in my head.

"It's just how I learn. I couldn't tell you how I do it."

This much is certain: If Foles keeps playing as he has and the Eagles keep winning, no one around here will care how he does it. Philadelphia hasn't celebrated an NFL championship in 53 years. They could stand a little magic around here, even if it's nothing more than Nick Foles' being himself.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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