Philadelphia Eagles fans have been in better moods than they are this week.
Carson Wentz’s season and MVP campaign came to a sudden halt just as he did when he dove for the end zone against the Los Angeles Rams, tearing his ACL and throwing a wrench into the Eagles’ Super Bowl aspirations, just after he stood on that blown up knee and threw one last touchdown before leaving the team to backup Nick Foles.
Foles has certainly had success in Philadelphia, albeit four years ago with a roster that has turned over considerably since. His 27-2 touchdown-interception ratio was the second-best in NFL history, and he led the Eagles to the NFC East title. It’s relevant to point out that he started that season as a backup to Michael Vick, as well. Since then, Foles has made stops in St. Louis and Kansas City, and was unspectacular in both places.
Foles won’t match Wentz’s production this season, and no one expects him to do that. Wentz leads the league in touchdown passes and has an almost unmatched ability to escape pressure. Philadelphia is still built to win, however. The defense is ranked fourth in yards in the NFL through Week 14, is first in the league in total defensive pressures, and it ranks fourth in STATS X-Info’s successful plays allowed. Successful plays allowed is defined as anytime the offense gains 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down on first down, 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down on second down, or gains a first down on third or fourth down.
And there are still plenty of playmakers on the offensive side, too.
The question to ask with the Eagles now is not whether Foles can be Wentz-like the rest of the season; rather, it’s whether he can become a quarterback that he himself is particularly familiar with – Case Keenum.
Keenum was a backup to start the season in Minnesota, but people around the league have long since stopped bringing that up when talking about the Vikings’ Super Bowl chances. That is because Mike Zimmer and the rest of the Vikings coaching staff have laid out a blueprint of success for Keenum that Doug Pederson and the Eagles should try to emulate for Foles.
It was only two years ago in St. Louis that the Rams coaching staff deemed Foles better than Keenum, starting the former over the latter for the first 13 weeks of the 2015 season. So it isn’t far-fetched to think Foles can give the Eagles similar production to what Keenum has given the Vikings.
What the Vikings have done well this season is allow Keenum to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly and let them do the damage. Sixty-nine percent of Keenum’s throws have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 90 percent of his throws have come within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.
For comparison’s sake, Foles threw 73 percent of his passes in 2015 within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 88 percent of his throws were 20 yards or less.
Those numbers are very similar to Keenum’s. Where the similarities end and swing to Keenum’s advantage is when you look at the receivers targeted on those passes. Adam Thielen has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2017, and if Keenum gets a big contract after this season, Thielen better get a thank you card. Consider how far above average Thielen has been in both the short (0-10 yards) and intermediate (11-20 yards) passing game:
Short: 40 catches for 377 yards (league average: 23.6 catches for 210.7 yards).
Intermediate: 29 catches for 584 yards (league average: 10.8 catches for 193.2 yards).
On top of that, Thielen has been good at making guys miss, with 395 of his 1,161 yards coming after the catch. He is the main reason Keenum has been well above average in completion percentage on both short (71 percent) and intermediate (61 percent) passes.
Foles didn’t have anybody like Thielen in St. Louis. He did in 2013 with Philadelphia when he was throwing the ball to LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (Foles completed 64 percent of his passes that year), and he will again now with Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz. Compare Ertz’s work in the short passing game and Jeffery’s in the intermediate to Thielen:
Ertz in short passing game: 43 catches for 364 yards.
Jeffery in the intermediate passing game: 25 catches for 421 yards.
Those numbers are pretty similar. And when you add in the rushing attack from both teams (Philadelphia is second in the NFL in rushing, Minnesota is eighth) and defenses (Philadelphia is fifth in scoring defense, Minnesota is third), both Foles and Keenum have a very similar – very strong –supporting cast surrounding them.
What Keenum does a lot better than Foles is make plays outside of the passing game. He has picked up 11 first downs with his feet, and has eluded pressure to the tune of only 15 sacks this season. Foles only ran for four first downs in 2015, though when he was forced to use his legs more in 2013 in Chip Kelly’s offense, he ran for 15 first downs.
Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach that season just happened to be Doug Pederson, so the Eagles head coach had a front row seat to Foles’ historic 2013 season. Will Foles be able to repeat that? Probably not. Those numbers are pretty steep: 119.2 QB rating, 9.1 yards per attempt, and that 27-2 TD-INT ratio.
But if he can get the ball out of his hands quickly to let Ertz, Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and the stable of running backs continue making plays, he can put up numbers similar to Keenum’s: 96.2 rating, 7.4 yards/attempt, 2.6 TD-INT ratio. If Foles does that, we could still see an Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game.