Why The Foles-Vick QB Controversy Doesn't Matter

As many of you may remember, or at least can determine by the site headline above, this blog was founded on a quarterback controversy. Not to be hipster about it, but that one, between Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, mattered a lot more. It was about the future of a franchise, turning over the reins to a player who had been groomed for success and jettisoning the veteran who led the team for a decade.

This one between Michael Vick and Nick Foles pales by comparison -- largely because I don't think the outcome matters much.

Let's look first at the performance this season. Who gives the Eagles the best chance to win against the Cowboys on Sunday (assuming Vick is back to 100% health)? Again, in broad strokes I'm not sure it matters. Chip Kelly has shown a remarkable ability to adapt his offense to fit the strengths of his quarterback.

With Vick starting through the first five weeks, Kelly called a heavy does of read-option. I've never seen a running game perform as well as the Vick-LeSean McCoy combo. They helped the Eagles to a dominant #1 rank in rushing DVOA. Vick has also been solid through the air. He's only completing 54% of his passes, but his interception rate so far is a career low (1.5%) and his yards per attempt a career high (9.0).

With Foles at the helm on Sunday, Kelly pared down the option plays in favor of straight power runs. McCoy finished with 116 yards on 25 carries, down from his rushing average in the previous games. Less explosive but still effective, those runs set up short passes that catered to Foles' accuracy. The second-year QB ended up with the best DYAR performance this week. As Football Outsiders acknowledged, that came with a lot of help from his teammates converting dump offs into long gains -- and Foles completed a much higher percentage of long balls than he did last year. Still, a great performance.

My gut reaction, based on the caveats above, is that Vick is still the better option to win right now. But the difference may be marginal. The offense ranked 5th in overall DVOA through the first five games. Then with a different QB, it put up 31 points against the 3rd-best DVOA defense. Regardless of who starts under center (or in shotgun), poor performance on defense and special teams remain the limiting factors for this team in 2013.

As for 2014 and beyond, neither Vick nor Foles is the answer. Vick is 33, constantly banged up, and has no more improvement left in him. Foles is young but limited. Not only is he largely immobile (QB draw aside), but his passing skills rely on the low upside combination of poise and short passes. His arm is weak and interception rate last year was bouyed by drops. Long term, that's not a combination worth investing in.

What the Eagles need will likely come in the 2014 draft: a high-upside passer and runner who can orchestrate the entirety of Kelly's offense for years to come. Whether that's a Marcus Mariota, Tajh Boyd, or even Johnny Manziel, the next generation Chip QB hasn't arrived yet. Arguing about who should start on this year's transitional squad is a waste of energy.

Chip Kelly Is Already Two Steps Ahead Of NFL Defenses

In his Sunday training camp rundown, Sheil Kapadia mentioned one play the Eagles ran that caught my eye:

The Eagles run what initially seems like a read-option play, but instead of taking off, Vick unleashes a pass to McCoy, who is out wide.

It's just one small play in a whole day of practice, but the implications are much greater—it shows that Chip Kelly is a couple steps ahead of the NFL defenses he's facing. Opposing coaches have been studying up on the zone read, trying to get a handle on stopping it before it expands even more widely this season. Last week, Chris Brown wrote a fantastic piece on that quest, as did Greg Bedard—who had Stanford's Derek Mason take him through the learning process NFL coordinators are facing.

If you read those articles, you'll understand the difficulty inherent in facing an offense capable of running the read option. You'll also see suggestions that NFL defenses can catch up if they adopt the "scrape-exchange" and other policies that expert college teams have worked on. But while coaches are trying to teach their defenders how to fight back, Kelly is bringing in a host of new ideas from the college level, most notably turning the "regular" zone read we've already seen from Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick into a triple option attack.

Brown wrote about these variations back in 2009. He described how the triple option off the zone read is easy to do with a third runner in the backfield, but also how bubble screens and other pass options can be even more deadly and unpredictable way to keep the defense honest. Here's Fishduck on Kelly's use of the bubble screen: 

Most of what Fishduck talks about in the related article is using the bubble screen as a constraint play to keep the defense honest. Many times, the read is taking place before the snap, and the zone read is little more than a play-action pass. But other times, as in 1:40 in the video, the quarterback is reading two defenders. After pulling the ball based on the defensive end crashing down, he sees the outside linebacker coming at him too. Instead of taking a loss, the quarterback has a third option to throw a quick bubble pass.

Kelly actually talks about that exact play in this video (at 2:15) with Urban Meyer:

The key, as you learn from Fishduck above, is that a third pass option added to the zone read makes it that much harder to defend. The defense can't load defenders into the box without the quarterback making an easy switch to the outside pass (without even needing to audible). Moreover, even if they execute the scrape-exchange properly and get a defender on the quarterback keeper, he still has an option to throw. 

Nothing about this is fool-proof, and a sound defense can slow down the triple option threat (or keep it to dink-and-dunk down the field). But NFL teams still trying to catch up to last year's version of the zone read are going to be falling down if they don't adjust to what Kelly is adding on to it.

Also: Buy the Eagles Almanac 2013 if you haven't already!