Foles makes strong case for starting role

Eagles QB Nick Foles threw for a career-high three touchdowns and ran for a fourth against the Bucs. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

TAMPA, Fla. -- Something changed in a week. Either the same question mysteriously became hypothetical or Chip Kelly is seriously considering making Nick Foles his starting quarterback.

He should.

Last Sunday: Asked if Michael Vick would start the next game if healthy, Kelly said “Yes.”

This Sunday: Asked if Vick would start next week if healthy, Kelly said, “I don’t answer hypotheticals.”

He also said he’ll evaluate everything, including Foles’ performance and Vick’s health, before deciding who starts against the Dallas Cowboys.

It is not a simple decision, to be sure. Vick was playing well before his hamstring betrayed him last week against the New York Giants. Vick had cut way down on turnovers, was operating a radically different offense from the one he ran under Andy Reid, and was a constant threat as a runner.

When Vick won the starting job in competition with Foles, Kelly said it was for the entire season. Vick would not be looking over his shoulder, Kelly said. That declaration puts the first-year coach in a difficult spot if he makes the change to Foles permanent.

There’s also a risk in demoting a proud veteran like Vick. It won’t be easy to go back to him if Foles should struggle or get injured. Vick is smart enough to understand that a quarterback change now would signal the end of his Eagles tenure after the season.

And there is the locker room to consider. Many of Vick’s teammates idolized him when they were younger. They believe in him still.

“Mike is the starter,” running back LeSean McCoy said. “Coach Kelly made that clear, but if he needs Nick to step in and make some plays, then he’ll do that. Mike’s the guy we go with, he’s the starting quarterback, no matter what the town says or what the outsiders want. It’s Coach Kelly’s call and that’s the call he’s made.”

McCoy was not aware of Kelly’s change in tone when he commented. Kelly has said many times that there is constant competition at every position. The best 11 players will be on the field. So that reduces this whole issue to one question:

Who is the better quarterback for this team right now? Vick or Foles?

It’s close, but you can make an awfully strong case for Foles. And if it’s close, or if Foles has the edge, it just doesn’t make sense for Kelly to start a 33-year-old in the final year of his contract over a 24-year-old.

The Eagles were 1-3 in the games Vick started and finished. He was excellent in the opener at Washington and in a 33-30 loss to San Diego. But the offense sputtered against Kansas City and Denver, amassing plenty of yardage but not scoring enough points to have a chance in either game.

In just over six quarters since Vick went down, Foles has completed 38 of 56 passes for 493 yards and five touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception and he has taken just two sacks.

The common wisdom is that Vick’s mobility makes him a better fit for Kelly’s offense, and that may be true. But there was Foles, running a quarterback draw for a 4-yard touchdown on the Eagles’ first possession Sunday.

But there was much more than that. With Foles at quarterback, DeSean Jackson is suddenly an effective weapon in the red zone. He caught a 5-yard touchdown pass last week against the Giants, and Foles found him in the end zone for a 12-yard score Sunday after Jackson slipped by Darrelle Revis.

“Second week in a row I’ve had a red zone touchdown,” Jackson said. “I always felt like I can be a threat regardless of where the ball is on the field.”

“It’s tremendously important to be sharp in the red zone,” Foles said. “I think the big thing is preparation. You see what they’re going to do and you really have to take advantage of it. You’ve got to be on time, you’ve got to be precise with your throws.”

With Foles at quarterback, Riley Cooper suddenly found ways to get open. Foles found Cooper four times for 120 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. Foles also threw a 36-yarder to Jackson for a score, debunking the idea that he doesn’t have the arm strength for the deep ball.

Foles targeted nine different receivers, completing passes to eight of them.

“He did a really good job,” Kelly said. “He ran our offense. He did a really good job of spreading the ball around to different receivers.”

Finally, there turned out to be little substance to the theory that Vick’s ability to take off was integral to the success of the Eagles’ running game. Defenses may not have to account for Foles, but that didn’t prevent McCoy from gaining 116 yards on 25 carries, a 4.6-yard average.

Kelly’s first season might have been all about rebuilding and developing for the future. When the Eagles were 1-3, that seemed likely.

But the NFC East is the worst division in the NFL this year. The Eagles’ modest two-game winning streak, both against winless teams, put them in first place in the division pending the outcome of the Dallas-Washington game Sunday night.

With a win over the Cowboys next week, the Eagles can take the early lead in the division race.

That changes things. It’s not that Kelly is under more pressure to produce a playoff team in his first season. It’s just that he has been presented with an opportunity, so why waste a prime-of-their-career season for Jackson, McCoy and linemen like Jason Peters and Evan Mathis?

That means playing the quarterback who gives the team the best chance to win now. Is that really Vick, who is 12-16 as a starter in the past three seasons? Or is it Foles? It’s time for the common wisdom, and the Eagles’ No. 1 quarterback, to change.