PHILADELPHIA – There are plenty of reasons the Eagles went 7-1 after reaching the halfway point of the season with a 3-5 record. None of those reasons is anywhere near as significant as Nick Foles’ assumption of the starting quarterback position.
It would be oversimplifying things to blame Michael Vick for the team’s 1-3 start. Vick played quite well in several of the Eagles’ early losses. But Foles is 8-2 as a starter and has posted the NFL’s best passer rating because of his mastery of coach Chip Kelly’s offense.
Considering it is their first season together, the Kelly/Foles combination is a reason for great optimism for the Eagles for seasons to come. The duo has a chance to be as effective a team as the one the Eagles will face Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs.
Sean Payton and Drew Brees are perhaps the NFL’s most seamless blend of coach and quarterback. Peyton Manning moved on from Tom Moore, the offensive coordinator he mind-melded with in Indianapolis. Tom Brady has worked with a number of offensive coaches. Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy have an excellent partnership in Green Bay.
But Payton and Brees?
“I think they’re really one and the same person,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “Their understanding together – no matter what’s in Sean’s head, Drew can execute. That’s the key to great offensive football, when the quarterback has the same understanding as the coordinator or the head coach, in this case.”
Payton’s first NFL job was as quarterbacks coach with the Eagles in 1997 and 1998. He worked with Rodney Peete, Bobby Hoying and Ty Detmer here. With the New York Giants, Payton worked with Kerry Collins. In Dallas, he coached Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe.
When the Saints hired Payton as a head coach in 2006, he needed a quarterback. Brees was a free agent coming off a shoulder injury. Philip Rivers had replaced him in San Diego. The Miami Dolphins wanted him.
But Payton drove him around New Orleans and spent hours in the film room talking about the offense they would build together. From the start, it was a collaboration between the coach and the quarterback.
The situation in Philadelphia is very different. Kelly is the offensive innovator brought in from the college game. Foles was here when Kelly was hired, seemingly a poor fit for the zone-read principles Kelly planned to run. The mobile Vick won the starting job in training camp.
But Foles got a chance when Vick pulled his hamstring in early October, and he made it impossible for Kelly to go back to the veteran. The Kelly/Foles partnership produced the second-half run that landed the Eagles in the postseason. But it is more mentor/protégé than the peer-to-peer relationship Payton developed with Brees.
“The one thing with Nick is that he's a very quick study,” Kelly said. “I think one of the ways that all of us are a quick study is we need to make mistakes, but you have to be able to learn from your mistakes, and I think that's one thing that Nick does a really, really good job of -- he's very analytical of himself. He's very critical of himself in a really constructive way. I think that shows up in terms of the little teeny details that I think separate being good and going to great. He's willing to work at that, and that's something that as a coach you really love, having a guy that can take that in a constructive manner.”