By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)To the casual NFL fan who looked at the box score Monday night, Nick Foles’ performance in his team’s 34-17 win against Jacksonville Sunday might have appeared fairly standard: 27-45 for 322 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 2 lost fumbles. Sure, he turned the ball over a bit, but those are about the numbers you’d expect for the quarterback of a Chip Kelly offense in a game his team was a double-digit favorite. However, as anyone who watched the game can attest, Foles’ afternoon was anything but your standard outing, as the 2013 Pro Bowler went Jekyll and Hyde and nearly gave the city of Philadelphia collective heart failure over the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s contest.
During the first half against Jacksonville, Foles looked like he was playing the part of the opposition in a Disney sports film or Friday Night Lights where the protagonist was making some sort of improbable comeback. Seemingly every drive ended in some sort of disaster as Foles went into the locker room going 12-24 for 139 yards, 1 interception, 2 lost fumbles, and 5 sacks. Those numbers were ‘good’ for a QB rating of 50.5, and with the Eagles down 17-0, the knee-jerk reaction sports community was calling Foles a fluke and appealing for the team to turn to Mark Sanchez at the helm. That’s right, Foles was so bad that this was the guy fans thought would be the savior.
During halftime though, Chip must have given the troops the old ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose’, because the team, and Foles in particular, looked entirely different in the second half. Following the break, the Eagles QB went 15-21 for 183 yards, 2 touchdowns, zero turnovers, and zero sacks, racking up an impressive 129.7 QB rating. The Birds ran off 34 unanswered points on Jacksonville, turning what was nearly a disastrous loss into the ho-hum victory everyone anticipated heading into the season.
So what was the difference for Foles in the two halves, what made him look like 2013 Eli to start the game and 2013 Peyton to end it? It was the same age-old problem for Foles: an inability to get rid of the ball fast enough. Being slow to get rid of the ball has been a weakness for Foles as far back as his combine report. Even during his successful 2013 campaign, he held the ball the second longest of all NFL starters last season before getting rid of it, at average of 3.11 seconds per dropback. Now, according to Pro Football Focus, Foles led the league in QB rating in situations where he held the ball longer than 2.6 seconds, which was obviously why he was still able to have success last season. But it was still acknowledged both by Foles himself, the organization, and the general media as an area Foles needed to work on: ‘Foles working on reducing sacks, unloading the ball’; ‘Foles Must Learn to Get Rid of the Ball Quicker’.
On Sunday, that weakness was the main thing holding Foles back in the first half. Time and again, he held the ball way too long in the pocket, even as receivers were getting open (and receivers will get open in Chip Kelly’s offense). In the video here of the second strip-sack fumble, you can see Foles holding the ball for a good 5 seconds before the rush hits him. You can’t see it from this angle, but he has Maclin open down the sideline. Regardless, you can’t expect your offensive line to hold the pocket for that long; a quarterback has to get rid of the ball sooner.
After halftime, Foles appeared to correct this issue, and the results on the field spoke for themselves. On his touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, the ball is out of his hands in just two seconds, even with the tight end getting 20 yards downfield. Sure, sometimes a quarterback has to hold on the ball a bit longer to let bigger play develop, but these are types of quick-hitting decisions Foles needs to make, and wasn’t doing so in the first half.
When you boil everything down, those couple extra seconds may not seem like much, but in the (ESPN analyst voice) National Football League, they can mean the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying. For the Eagles’ sake, they better hope the first 30 minutes Sunday were a wake-up call for their starting quarterback going forward.