Cards-Eagles a referendum on read-option?

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
2:30
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- Bruce Arians' assessment of the read-option raised an interesting point.

"It's a great college offense," Arians said in a conference call with Philadelphia media Wednesday. Arians went on to say that he thinks running the ball often takes too much of a physical toll on quarterbacks at the NFL level.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles, Chip Kelly
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesChip Kelly argues that he doesn't use the read-option as often as people think, but he can count on a handful of rushing yards from Nick Foles.
Considering the Arizona coach has two decades of experience in the NFL and another 16 as a college coach, his point of view has serious credibility.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly has just 10 months of NFL experience. The read-option is a core element of his offensive philosophy. That philosophy, of course, was honed during a career coaching college football. Kelly was hired, at least in part, because of his command of the latest trend -- or fad -- to hit the pro game.

So here's the interesting point: As the backlash gains momentum against the read-option and running quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, Nick Foles' stunning 2013 season might spare Kelly from getting on the wrong side of history.

I'm not looking to get in the middle of a war between adherents of old-school NFL pocket passers and believers in the revolutionary (or even evolutionary) changes brought by Griffin, Kaepernick, Cam Newton and others. That battle -- symbolized by Kaepernick versus Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the Super Bowl last winter -- will ultimately be decided on the field.

Even Kelly, obviously an acolyte of the read-option, acknowledges that he doesn't use it as often as people think. Some of the plays that appear to be read-option based aren't. The quarterback may appear to be making decisions based on the read of a defensive player, but the play actually has a predetermined design with no read or option involved. It's just a fake.

And even Foles, with his obvious limitations as a running threat, is still running read-option plays at times. Kelly has made it clear that he isn't abandoning his principles just because he doesn't have a sprinter at quarterback.

"When Nick takes off, it's not 60 yards, but it's 6," Kelly said. "In critical situations, he can still do that. We're not calling an entirely different package. But I think in everybody, there are subtleties in there that Nick may like this throw better than Mike [Vick] likes that throw. But overall, we're still running four verticals, double-post concepts. We're still running the quick game, still running our schemes."

So there is no mindless doctrine at work here. Kelly and Foles are both believers in the potential of the read-option while embracing the nuance of employing it in the NFL.

But let's just say Michael Vick had stayed healthy a bit longer this season and remained at quarterback. Kelly might have relied on his running ability more, as he did in the Oct. 6 game against the Giants in which Vick was injured. Vick ran the ball seven times for 79 yards in the first half. His rushing yardage basically was the Eagles' offense until he got hurt.

Once Foles took over, the Eagles offense became more diverse and more effective in the red zone. Wide receiver Riley Cooper instantly became a frequent and dangerous target. Kelly's play calling has evolved in order to take advantage of what Foles does best, just as it would have evolved toward what Vick did best.

That doesn't mean just standing statue-still in the pocket either. In his last game, against Washington, Foles was asked to run the ball more often. He did, picking up 48 yards on eight carries before losing a yard on a final kneeldown.

Foles' performance forced Kelly to stick with the second-year quarterback for the rest of this season. A strong finish will make it tough for Kelly to do anything but bring Foles back as his starter in 2014.

If the trend in the NFL favors running quarterbacks and the read-option, Kelly is a coach capable of getting the most out of that. He will have time to acquire and develop a young quarterback to play that style.

But if there really is a backlash and pocket passers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees remain dominant, Kelly will already have one in place. By playing well, Foles might have saved Kelly and the Eagles from going too far in a direction that could turn out to be a dead end.

Phil Sheridan

ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter

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