Philadelphia Eagles: Josh McCown

Nick FolesDrew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesNick Foles will enter the 2014 season as the Philadelphia Eagles' starting quarterback.
PHILADELPHIA -- Let's move to the offensive side of the ball this week in our position-by-position look at the state of the Eagles.

Since it's Presidents Day, let's look at the leader of the offense, the quarterback. This should be the easiest position on the team to assess, but in classic Eagles fashion, things are not as clear as they might seem.

Here's a mental exercise worth trying: Imagine the Eagles traded up in the 2012 draft and took Nick Foles with, say, the 12th pick in the first round. In this version of events, Andy Reid spent the summer of '12 talking about his plan to start Michael Vick early and ease Foles into the job -- just as he did with Donovan McNabb back in 1999.

When Chip Kelly took over, his approach would reflect Foles' status as a recent first-round pick. He might have the same competition between Vick and Foles that he had last summer, but Foles would have the edge in anything approaching a tie. Vick clearly had the edge in real life (and he played superbly in the preseason to claim the job).

Now put Foles' 2013 performance into the context of this alternate reality. The 27 touchdowns and two interceptions. The 8-2 record as a starter. The NFL-best passer rating. Offensive MVP of the Pro Bowl.

All that from a heralded first-round quarterback? Folks would be rushing to anoint Foles the starter for life instead of debating whether Kelly deep down wants a different style of quarterback to run his offense. When general manager Howie Roseman left open the possibility, however slight, of taking a quarterback in the first round of this year's draft, you would have checked him for a fever.

Imagine that kind of talk in Seattle, Indianapolis and Carolina, where young franchise quarterbacks are in place.

In Foles, the Eagles have their starter for 2014. Period. If he continues to perform at his 2013 level, Foles will get the kind of contract that establishes him as the franchise guy. If not, then we'll be talking about the true Kelly-style quarterbacks available in the 2015 draft.

There are legitimate reasons to withhold judgment on Foles. When things were going great, there was an unmistakable sense that he was very lucky as well as very good. When underthrown passes bounce off a defensive back's hands and into DeSean Jackson's for a touchdown -- which happened in Green Bay -- there is more than a little luck involved. On his record-tying seven touchdown passes in Oakland, Foles' receivers were almost comically open thanks to blown coverages and falling defenders.

In his final two games, Foles was frustrated by the defensive strategies deployed in Dallas and against New Orleans. He is going to see variations of those schemes next season until he and Kelly prove they have solved them. And he is going to face some pretty good defenses, Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina among them.

So 2014 will be Foles' acid test. He will be the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback all year, a first for him. As for his backups, that's another area where things get a little murky.

Roseman has said the Eagles would welcome Vick back if the veteran can't find a starting opportunity in free agency. The feeling here, though, is that everyone concerned feels it is best for Vick, and the Eagles, to move on.

Matt Barkley was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft. He played in three games as a rookie. In the first two, he was forced to play because of injuries to the starter and without the benefit of any meaningful practice reps.

So take Barkley's stats with the appropriate grain of salt. He completed 30 of 49 passes (61.2 percent) for 300 yards. Those numbers are actually pretty encouraging. But Barkley threw four interceptions and fumbled away one red zone opportunity. Those plays tend to stick in the memory better than the rest.

Can Barkley be the No. 2 quarterback behind Foles? Absolutely. If he's forced to play? Well, a midround pick from a major Pac-12 program in his second season -- that description would have applied to Foles in 2013 just as it applies to Barkley in 2014. G.J. Kinne, who was on the practice squad, knows the offense, but is not likely to be in the mix. Of course, the media hasn't seen him practice since training camp, so information is limited.

If the Eagles want to bring in a veteran free agent to compete with Barkley for the No. 2 spot, they will have good options: Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Tarvaris Jackson, Josh McCown. Remember, we're talking about a solid veteran who would be competing with Barkley for the backup spot.

The draft should provide more possibilities. Using a first- or second-round pick would change the dynamic too much -- while shorting the many other areas the Eagles need to improve. But another midround pick? Certainly. Training and developing quarterbacks in the Kelly system should be a priority for as long the coach is here.
PHILADELPHIA -- It is all too easy for Eagles fans to be dismissive of the hiring of Jay Gruden as the head coach in Washington.

It’s not like it’s Jon, right?

Doesn’t Dan Snyder always get this wrong?

With Chip Kelly completing his first year on the job, the Eagles still have the shiniest, most progressive program in the NFC East.

But it could be a mistake to take the hiring of Gruden too lightly, even if it means much of Mike Shanahan’s coaching staff remains in place.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Nick WassIs Jay Gruden the coach who will get the most out of Redskins QB Robert Griffin III?
Washington didn’t go for the wow factor the way the Eagles did with Kelly last year. The hiring of Gruden is much more reminiscent of the hirings of Marc Trestman in Chicago, Bruce Arians in Arizona and Mike McCoy in San Diego. Like Gruden, they were all NFL veterans who had been just under the radar for head-coaching opportunities in the past. They were almost too obvious for owners looking to make a splash.

And guess what? They all did just fine.

Arians’ Cardinals went 10-6, same as Kelly’s Eagles. The difference was that Arizona plays in the NFC West with Seattle and San Francisco and missed the playoffs, while that record was good enough to win the NFC East by two games.

McCoy’s Chargers didn’t have as good a regular-season record -- 9-7 in a division with Denver and Kansas City -- but they are still alive. They may have backed into the playoffs, but they won their first-round game.

Trestman’s Bears played for the NFC North title on the final day of the regular season. If Jay Cutler hadn’t gotten hurt -- or if Trestman had stayed with Josh McCown when he was hot -- who knows how Chicago’s season might have been different?

Kelly’s Eagles trounced Trestman’s Bears 54-11 in a crucial game for both teams. Kelly beat Arians head-to-head, as well. Kelly lost to McCoy in their head-to-head meeting.

Point is, there is value in hiring a smart coach with a fresh approach and an outsider’s perspective, as the Eagles did. But long experience in the league and a sound program are not to be discounted, either.

The biggest question is whether Jay Gruden is the right coach to get the absolute best out of quarterback Robert Griffin III. He doesn’t seem like it at first glance. Going after San Francisco’s Greg Roman, who has designed an offense around Colin Kaepernick, might have made more sense from that perspective. But we can’t be sure until we see Gruden’s offense with Griffin running it.

In the division, Tom Coughlin remains the No. 1 coach until someone else wins a Super Bowl. That said, in 2013 the New York Giants looked like a team on the decline.

Kelly jumped ahead of Dallas coach Jason Garrett almost immediately. The Cowboys’ decision to stay the course may help the Eagles as much or more, within the division, as any hire Snyder could have made in Washington.

Gruden doesn’t send shock waves through the NFC East. Hiring him may not be sexy, but recent history shows it could be a solid move.

The Philadelphia Eagles have found themselves in the middle of the NFC North race as much as the NFC East race over the past month. Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears is their third game in a row against an opponent from the North.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles and Bears helped each other out. Chicago defeated the Dallas Cowboys, pushing the Eagles into first place in the East. The Eagles beat the Detroit Lions, opening the door for the Bears in the North.

They won’t be helping each other this week. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss some of the issues facing both teams.

Sheridan: Like the Eagles, the Bears survived this season when a backup quarterback took over and played unexpectedly well. Unlike the Eagles, who stayed with Nick Foles, Chicago went back to Jay Cutler and sent Josh McCown to the sideline. So, Michael, how is that scenario playing out in the locker room, on the field and among the fans?

Wright: The reaction is quite a bit different between the fans and the players, obviously. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s ankle injury on Nov. 10 against Detroit, Bears coach Marc Trestman told the team and the media that Cutler would be the starter again as soon as he was medically cleared to play. The coach never wavered on that declaration, and that was apparent even among the players during McCown’s incredible four-game run. In answering questions about McCown during that stretch, Trestman and the players seemed to temper the compliments regarding the backup, making it a point to state that Cutler was still the starter once he would be able to return to action. So within the locker room, the message was always that Cutler would return, but among the fan base, as McCown flourished, the call to make him the permanent starter grew louder regardless of what Trestman and the players said on the record. Cutler certainly helped himself by bouncing back from a bad start at Cleveland to throw for three touchdowns in a win, but there’s certainly a segment of the Chicago fan base still calling for McCown to be the man under center.

Phil, Chicago’s defense simply can’t stop the run, so LeSean McCoy is poised to have a pretty big game if the Eagles decide to feature him. What was the deal with McCoy running the ball just eight times against the Vikings?

Sheridan: That was one of the head-scratching strategies Chip Kelly deployed Sunday. It was like stepping into a time machine and watching an Andy Reid-coached game. Kelly’s explanation was simple enough: The Vikings were missing four cornerbacks and the Eagles thought they could exploit the inexperienced backups. Then, he said, the Eagles fell behind and had to throw, but McCoy had run for 217 yards the week before, mostly in the second half as the Eagles staged a comeback win. Ultimately, there is no explanation or excuse for eliminating a weapon as dangerous as McCoy from your offense. That’s supposed to be the defense’s job.

The Eagles did a better job against Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in recent weeks than against the Vikings’ deeper, less star-studded receiving corps. How much more dangerous are the Bears now that Alshon Jeffery has emerged alongside Brandon Marshall? Is Jeffery even better at this point?

Wright: In the past, teams focused most of their game plan on shutting down Marshall. That involved double-teams and shading coverage over to his side. Teams are now finding they can’t do that anymore because if you double Marshall, you put Jeffery in one-on-one matchups that he’s going to win the majority of the time. The Bears say teams are now starting to mix it up against those receivers, which makes it important for Cutler to be able to quickly recognize the coverage and distribute the ball accordingly. I wouldn’t say Jeffery is the better receiver overall at this point, but I will say that he tracks the ball in the air better than anybody else on Chicago’s roster, which has allowed him to make some unbelievable grabs in contested situations. I’d say one player to watch is No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett. With all the focus on Marshall and Jeffery, the Bears have made it a point in recent weeks to involve Bennett more in the offense. Remember, Bennett played college football with Cutler at Vanderbilt, so there’s chemistry. Bennett has hauled in a touchdown in each of the past two games.

How will Philadelphia’s secondary look on Sunday? I know the Eagles are banged up, causing something of a musical-chairs effect in the secondary. At this point, do you know which guys the Eagles will have available to face Marshall, Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett?

Sheridan: We don’t know yet, Michael. The larger problem is that, even when everyone is healthy, the Eagles' secondary isn’t equipped to handle a receiving corps as deep and talented as the Bears’ is. The Eagles have the 31st-ranked pass defense for a reason. During their five-game winning streak, they were able to give yards but minimize points allowed by forcing turnovers and playing well in the red zone. That formula fell apart in Minnesota. As for the injuries, the biggest loss would be nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who leads the team in interceptions and is a very good cover guy. It looks like rookie safety Earl Wolff will be back after missing four games with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be after missing that much time. If the Bears go three or four wide, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to match up with all those weapons. Their best hope would be to pressure Cutler, but they have struggled against guys who get the ball out as quickly as he does.

There’s a chance linebacker Lance Briggs returns Sunday night. What impact would that have on Chicago’s defense? Can the Bears clamp down on the Eagles or is this thing destined to be a shootout like their win over Dallas two weeks back?

Wright: I see this one being a shootout. I think Briggs will have an impact on the defense in terms of making sure the calls get in quickly and the defense is lined up correctly. Briggs should also be an upgrade over rookie Khaseem Greene, who has filled in on the weak side over the past seven games. But Briggs has been on the shelf for a month and a half, and there’s no way he’s in football shape yet. So you have to wonder how much he will actually be able to contribute from a physical standpoint. If Briggs plays like the Briggs we all know, then Chicago will have a much better shot at controlling Philadelphia’s rushing attack, but I’m not sure he’ll return as that guy. So let’s count on a shootout. The team with the defense that gets that one or two key stops down the stretch will be the team that comes out on top.

Early in the season, Philadelphia’s frenetic pace seemed to be the next new thing, the revolution. Now that the Eagles have basically an entire season under their belts, how have teams adjusted to their pace on offense? Is it still as big an advantage as it seemed to be early in the season?

Sheridan: It has been an effective tactic at times. The up-tempo approach is one of the reasons Foles replaced Michael Vick as the No. 1 quarterback. Vick is obviously a bigger threat in the read-option, but Foles is more comfortable with the pace Kelly likes. Hard to blame Vick, who had a career’s worth of offensive football to unlearn. But the pace can hurt the Eagles, too. When they have a couple of three-and-outs in a row, as they did against the Vikings, their defense is back on the field way too quickly. And when a team moves the ball as well as the Vikings did, the defense wears down. It was useless by the fourth quarter. The Eagles defense has been on the field for more plays than any team in the NFL. That is partly a side effect of Kelly’s up-tempo offense.

PHILADELPHIA -- Quarterbacks Tony Romo and Nick Foles will have a lot to say about whether Romo's Dallas Cowboys or Foles' Philadelphia Eagles wind up going to the playoffs as NFC East champions.

The two could even face off in a winner-take-all season finale at Dallas on Dec. 29.

Two other quarterbacks, however, could have almost as much impact on the NFC East race: the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers.

The Eagles (6-5) already banked a win at Lambeau Field thanks in large measure to the absence of Rodgers, who broke his collarbone six days earlier during a Monday night game. The Cowboys (5-5) host the Packers on Dec. 15.

The availability and effectiveness of Rodgers, who has thrown on the side without a helmet or pads, will have a huge impact on that game, obviously. The Packers are 0-3 without him, including the game in which Rodgers was injured. They were 5-2 with him.

As for Cutler, he had the hard cast removed on the sprained ankle that has kept him out since Nov. 10. He is listed as week to week and, while Josh McCown has played well in his absence, Cutler is a difference-maker when healthy.

The Cowboys play the Bears at Soldier Field on Dec. 8. The Eagles host Chicago two weeks later. Cutler's status could have a huge impact on both games.

So Cutler and Rodgers could profoundly influence three of the 11 remaining games that will determine the NFC East champion. Here's how the path to Dec. 29 looks (if you want to use ESPN's Playoff Machine to work your own scenarios, it's here):

Sunday: The Eagles, in their bye week, can watch Dallas play the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. That's a tough game for the Cowboys, who are coming off their own bye and, before that, a brutal beating at the hands of the New Orleans Saints.

A win would tie the Giants with the Cowboys at 5-6, so technically New York would also be in the race. We're omitting them for now because the possibility of a team that started 0-6 going to the playoffs is too depressing to consider.

Projection: Eagles 6-5, Cowboys 5-6.

Week 13: The Eagles host the Arizona Cardinals, who could be 7-4 pending the outcome of this weekend's home game against the Indianapolis Colts. With rookie head coach Bruce Arians and veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cards' profile is similar to the one the Eagles encountered against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. The Eagles defense is miles better than it was then and, while this is a tough game to pick, the Eagles are likely to be favored.

By kickoff of that game, the Eagles will know exactly where the Cowboys stand. After the Giants game, Dallas has four days to prepare for a Thanksgiving Day home game against the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys have to be favorites in that one.

Projection: Eagles 7-5, Cowboys 6-6.

Week 14: The Eagles host the Detroit Lions while the Bears play the Cowboys on an afternoon with profound consequences on the NFC East and North. With Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on one side of the ball and Ndamukong Suh on the other, the Lions are probably the toughest of the Eagles' remaining opponents. Put another way, a win here would put the Eagles in a commanding position.

If Cutler is Cutler, the Bears are likely to be favored at home, especially as weather becomes a factor in Chicago.

Projection: Eagles 7-6, Cowboys 6-7.

Week 15: The Eagles travel to the Minnesota Vikings for what should be a comfortable win. Unless Josh Freeman is playing quarterback at an unexpectedly high level by then, the Eagles defense can focus on bottling up Adrian Peterson.

Dallas, meanwhile, hosts the Packers. Here's where Rodgers could really swing the NFC East race. If he plays at his usual level, it's hard to imagine Green Bay losing. If not, the game belongs to the Cowboys.

Projection: Eagles 8-6, Cowboys 7-7.

Week 16: Cutler comes back into the picture here. If he plays against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, it's a very different game than if he doesn't. The guess here is that, with the Bears in playoff contention, he will.

Dallas goes to Washington.

Projection: Eagles 8-7, Cowboys 8-7.

Week 17: Eagles at Cowboys. Factoring in the Cutler and Rodgers variables, either team could be 9-6 or 7-8 just as easily. But what fun would that be? If they're both 8-7, this essentially becomes a playoff game.

Ah, but what if both teams are 7-8? That might be worse for the Eagles, since it would mean they went 1-3 between now and then. That could indicate injuries or instability at quarterback.

If the Eagles are 9-6 and Dallas is 8-7, the Eagles still might have to win the game to take the division. The first tie-breaker is head-to-head competition, so the Cowboys would edge them out if they both finish 9-7 that way. The second tie-breaker is record within the division. The Eagles are 3-2. Dallas is 3-0 with games against all three division opponents on their schedule. Winning any of those three would give the Cowboys the second tie-breaker.

Projection: A big game in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29.

SPONSORED HEADLINES