- Phil Sheridan, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- In Chip Kelly and Nick Foles, the Philadelphia Eagles have a coach/quarterback duo in the enviable position of having some success to build on. With that success, though, comes the sometimes crushing pressure to take the team farther than it has gone since 1960.
The last coach/QB duo to try that here came achingly close but ultimately fell short. From the start, Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb were a joint entry. Reid was hired in January 1999, and he took McNabb with the second overall pick in that year's draft. That pair got to five NFC title games and one Super Bowl together but never quite reached the top of the mountain.
Reid tried to move on from McNabb, signing Michael Vick after he got out of prison, in hopes of finishing the task of winning a Super Bowl. The whole enterprise failed, and the Eagles never so much as won a playoff game during Reid's final four seasons with the Eagles.
That long, slow slide into misery led to the hiring of Kelly. The new coach gave Vick every chance for a late-career rebirth, but injuries forced Kelly to go with Foles. That led to an arranged marriage between the coach and his quarterback. Foles will never be the anointed savior of the franchise -- he was a third-round pick under a different head coach -- but that doesn't mean he can't deliver where previous Eagles quarterbacks have failed.
In some ways, the situation most resembles 1998, when Bobby Hoying was entering the season as the No. 1 quarterback. Hoying had some things in common with Foles. He was a third-round draft pick. He got a midseason opportunity to start during the 1997 season and showed some promise. Hoying went 2-3-1 in those final six games, including a showy 44-42 victory over Cincinnati.
There were some major differences between Hoying then and Foles now. Offensive coordinator Jon Gruden left after 1997 to become the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Ray Rhodes, a defensive coach by trade, hired Dana Bible and then undermined the new coordinator by claiming, even to players, that the hire was forced on Rhodes. Foles got in on the ground floor of what Kelly is building in Philadelphia.
It was fascinating when this year's draft rolled around. Johnny Manziel was still on the board when the Eagles' 22nd overall pick came up. Kelly could have claimed his franchise savior right there. Instead, the Eagles traded the pick to Cleveland, who snapped up the Texas A&M quarterback. The Eagles took Marcus Smith, an outside linebacker from Louisville with about 0.3 percent of Manziel's star power.
At that moment, Kelly and Foles became a new joint entry in Eagles history. Their fates are now intertwined, coach and quarterback.
Foles did more than Hoying to earn his opportunity. His numbers -- a league-high 119.2 passer rating, 27 touchdowns, just two interceptions, 8-2 record in 10 starts -- was much more impressive than Hoying's back in 1997. And he has benefits that Hoying did not, No. 1 among them an offensive innovator as a head coach. Kelly saw enough to believe in Foles, but also enough to believe Foles can be even better.
"I'm not being sarcastic," Kelly said, "but I think he can improve on everything, and I think he'll be the first to tell you that, too. But I think all the great ones feel the same way, that there's every aspect of their game that they can constantly improve, and I think that's what makes Nick really special -- that he's never really content with where he is."
Kelly said he has seen that same trait in Foles during the spring.
"I just go to work every day and just try to get a little bit better, and I try to push myself as hard as I can," Foles said. "Even on days I don't feel the best, when I'm worn out, I just try to push as hard as I can and really focus in. Because I know my teammates are looking at me.
"And I think the thing that I will always work on is attention to detail in the drills. 'OK, we're not just doing this drill to go through the motions.' Why are we doing it? I need to do this to the best of my ability because when the game time comes, I can just do it naturally."
Foles completely bought into Kelly's approach from the very beginning. He wasn't able to translate that onto the field fast enough to beat out the mobile Vick in one training camp, but Foles was able to run Kelly's offense efficiently after Vick pulled a hamstring in Week 5 against the Giants.
Foles made his mark with his seven-touchdown performance in Oakland a few weeks later. He had played poorly before being concussed against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 20. After missing a game, Foles went to Oakland and played a nearly perfect game.
"Going into that game," Foles said, "it was just one of those weeks where you're coming off the concussion, you're just really paying attention to every single detail, you're trying to really focus in even more, because you remember your last play was a concussion. 'All right, can I still do this? Can I still react like I need to?' You really don't know until the game starts. But after the first drive of the Oakland game, I knew that my reactions and everything were there."
Foles' equipment from that day was sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It was the first in a series of unusual moments that marked Foles' breakout season. The last was being named MVP of the Pro Bowl.
"I know I say it over and over again, but all those throws that happened last year, the TDs, whatever, it does absolutely nothing," Foles said. "It probably hurts me more now than it did last year because I did it, so now you've got to do it even better. In my mind, I want to do even better.
"But I know in reality, some things can happen. There could be a game where I throw two INTs. I threw two INTs all last season and it's like, 'Oh gosh.' But that happens. I've thrown multiple interceptions in a game in college, but then the next week, I came out and threw four touchdowns. It's that short memory and just really having amnesia and forgetting stuff."
Taking that next step -- toward consistent excellence -- isn't easy. It is what Foles as a quarterback and Kelly as a coach are attempting to do together.
"I think he's a lot more comfortable in what we're doing offensively, just because it is Year 2," Kelly said. "So you just see the little things, whether it's the footwork or the proper technique or looking off a guy -- he knows he's throwing to No. 1 [in his progression], but can he keep the free safety in the middle of the field a little bit longer so that the run after the catch is a little bit better?"
That synchronicity between Foles and his coaches is the main reason Foles is in better position than Hoying was in 1998. It is a very good reason to believe Kelly and Foles have a chance, at least, to be the kind of coach/QB combination that excels in the NFL.
"Our team isn't measured by my 27 [touchdowns] and two [interceptions] or whatever," Foles said. "If we win and I throw 25 touchdowns and 20 interceptions -- well, hopefully I don't do that. I don't want to do that. ... I might not ever reach those statistics again. ... If we don't reach it again, I hope that we're winning more games. Because that's the big thing."