Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tiering Nick Foles

With the bigger & smaller hero
Something striking in the Eagles' win at Dallas: Nick Foles didn't play out of his mind. He turned it over once on a sack-strip, didn't make the handful of surprise plays with his legs that have become a recurring trick during the Eagles' second-half of the season run, and the offense only scored 24 points despite leading in the turnover margin. He looked tentative at times, and that contributed to the five Dallas sacks. He also took a grounding call that hurt, and might have gotten more of those.

Oh, and he won a road de facto playoff game, with a QB rating in three digits, which completed a year in which he had one of the four best QB ratings ever.

Which just gets me back to one central question... how did this guy clearly lose a pre-season open QB competition to Mike Vick again?

I have, of course, theories.

The first and simplest is that Foles is still just 24 years old, and playing the hardest position to learn in American professional sports, for a coach that he's only really worked with for six months. There's every real chance that he just needed more time to learn.

The second is that, well, it's the system more than the driver, and that if he were to get hurt (please don't get hurt, please don't get hurt, please don't get hurt), Vick would be able to take the reins and get most of this production from his own damned self, too. Which none of us really want to test, but hey, it's a possibility. (Note that no one is saying this of Matt Barkley.)

The third is that it's the talent more than the system, since the offensive line has stayed healthy and gets more acclimated with each passing week. (Well, OK, maybe not in the Dallas game. But that was probably more on the WRs not getting open, somehow. Honestly, the Dallas defense that faced the Eagles twice didn't seem to show up in any of their other games.) So Foles is playing well, but no better than his teammates.

But what this really comes down to is that ineffable degree of confidence that people have, or do not have, in the trigger man. In the Green Bay - Chicago game that was the NFC North play-in game, the Packers and QB Aaron Rodgers looked shaky as hell for much of the game. Rodgers wasn't moving with his usual aplomb in the pocket, had a couple of picks, missed guys he doesn't usually miss, and had to get bailout plays from his WRs to convert multiple fourth and the season plays. If the name on the back of his jersey wasn't Rodgers, it wouldn't have seemed in any way inevitable, and if the name on the back was Flynn or Tolzien, it would have been a miracle for the ages, regardless of how bad the Bear defense has been at times this year. Rodgers shook off a lot of rust, and benefited from some terrible coverage decisions late (Randall Cobb's game winner wasn't the first guy in that drive running free to the end zone).

But that's not the point. The point is that Aaron Rodgers is a name brand, as it were, a top 5 at worst QB with a track record of eviscerating the Bears, and Packer Fan had to have faith that he would get it done yet again in that game. It would have been as big of a story if he had failed.

Foles, of course, does not operate under that level of scrutiny, despite the fact that he's going to get more MVP votes than Rodgers this year. But in time, he will. There are only 12 NFL QBs still in the hunt for a Super Bowl, and Foles is the only guy in that list with a real question mark as to where he fits in. (Here, I'll take at a stab at it now.)

Top Tier -- Have Won A Super Bowl, Will Probably Go To Canton

1) Peyton Manning
2) Tom Brady
3) Aaron Rodgers
4) Drew Brees

Second Tier - Young and on the rise, but will need help to win

5) Russell Wilson
6) Nick Foles
7) Cam Newton

8) Andrew Luck
9) Colin Kaepernick

Third Tier - Good enough to get to the playoffs, but will try to do too much once there

10) Philip Rivers
11) Andy Dalton
12) Alex Smith

Vick, by the way, would clearly be in the third tier.

If anyone in Tier 1 wins, it's another ring for the legacy and no real surprise, other than they got hot at the right time. If we have a Tier 2 guy break through, it will be pitched as more of a team effort, and on some level, somewhat demeaned as a one-year wonder, the way that last year's SB didn't  exactly turn Joe Flacco and Kaepernick into pitchmen for anything beyond not so mighty wings. And if a tier three guy gets it done, it's one more note to the idea that what you really need, even more than a QB, is a QB Whisperer that can get him to overachieve.

I could, of course, be over-rating Foles. He might be Tier 3 or worse in a couple of years, when the TD/INT ratio gets back to something more like what the rest of humanity has achieved, or teams have learned to take advantage of his trouble with pressure.

But by the numbers, he might just be Tier 1. And if he is, that covers up a lot of other sins with your football team.

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