Crucial season ahead for Foles

Posted: May 31, 2014

The music still blares, the players still double-time from field to field between drills, and there are still four quarterbacks picking out four different targets on the same snap. Year 2 of Chip Kelly looks just as hectic, just as frantic as the previous one, except to those who have seen it before.

"Last year, the coaches were trying to figure us out, and we were trying to figure them out," Nick Foles said Thursday, after the Eagles ended their first set of spring organized team activities. "Last year at this time, we were trying to learn the offense. . . . Guys are now comfortable with what we have."

The biggest difference from last year, however, might be that Chip Kelly appears comfortable with what he has at quarterback. A year ago, there was an open competition between Foles and Michael Vick, and Vick won the battle. He lost the war, however, to both injury and to Foles' remarkable play after becoming the starter.

This time around, there is no real competition. Second-year backup Matt Barkley and free-agent signee Mark Sanchez have about the same chance as camp quarterback G.J. Kinne of unseating Foles. When a quarterback - even one who appears unsuited in some ways for the pace and demands of a Kelly offense - leads the NFL in quarterback rating and sets a record for touchdown-to-interception ratio, he gets a lot of latitude and the starting job.

Kelly would never come out and say that, but it is true. He would also never say that this third season of Foles' NFL career, his first as the unquestioned starter, is the one that will determine his future with the team.

That's true, too, though.

Under the provisions of the new collective bargaining agreement, an NFL team really has to decide whether to pay a quarterback or let him walk after his third season. The rookie contracts can't be renegotiated until then, and, unless a new deal is reached, the players become free agents after their fourth seasons.

Teams have to be very careful about committing the cap space it requires to lock up a player considered to be a franchise quarterback.

The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl, but then they had to trim the roster after rewarding Joe Flacco with a six-year, $120 million contract. The Atlanta Falcons were on the rise before securing Matt Ryan with a five-year, $103 million contract and stumbling last season.

Conversely, the San Francisco 49ers, followed by the Seattle Seahawks, went to the last two Super Bowls with quarterbacks whose rookie contracts - Colin Kaepernick for San Francisco and Russell Wilson for Seattle - allowed their teams to spread around their salary-cap space to develop deep, balanced rosters. Kaepernick, who becomes a free agent after this season, and the 49ers are struggling to reach a new deal.

It seems wildly counterintuitive for a league in which the veteran quarterback is king. But some organization, at some point, is going to embrace the philosophy of building solely for that depth and balance, and if it takes employing a series of young, disposable quarterbacks to do that within the confines of a hard salary cap, so be it.

Of course, it would also take a radical, outside-the-box coach to think that way; a coach confident that he can mold any reasonably competent quarterback and build an explosive offense. Where would anyone find a coach like that in the NFL?

If Foles is concerned about the relative importance of his third NFL season, he hides it beneath a thick blanket of gee-whiz. He believes in the process, and he believes in Kelly, and, so far, it's hard to blame him.

"If you try to think about all that, it's hard to play," Foles said. "My goal is to get a little bit better every day and help the team get a little bit better every day. All that other stuff . . . if I focus on today and getting better today, it will all take care of itself."

Chances are Foles won't be able to duplicate his 2013 season, although through no fault of his own. Twenty-seven touchdowns and two interceptions isn't going to happen every year. A league-leading 9.1 yards per reception isn't going to happen every year. It will be more difficult without DeSean Jackson, no matter what anyone says, and more difficult now that opposing defenses have a better read on what to expect.

"If I don't play well, it's the NFL. You'll be gone. It's a team sport, but the quarterback has to be sharp and execute," Foles said. "That's why last year's stats don't mean anything.

"There's a lot of guys who have a good year, and then it's tough the next year. I know that. For this team to be successful, I have to do well, and I have to help my teammates around me get better."

It's a big year for him, the biggest yet, but Foles keeps the focus small. There are a lot of todays to deal with before he lets himself worry about tomorrow. This time, though, even among the busy backfield of quarterbacks taking the snap and delivering the ball at the same time, he stands alone.

Nick Foles earned that right - and now he has to earn it all over again.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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