Feature

Bears QB Competition: The case for Nick Foles to start

Feature

With 4:48 remaining in the fourth quarter, Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles offense trotted onto the Soldier Field grass, taking over possession at their own 40-yard line. Trailing 15-10, Foles stood in the shotgun, staring at the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense, which had forced two turnovers and five punts in the game.

There was little evidence to suggest the Eagles had a realistic chance of winning the game, but then again, there was little evidence to suggest Foles was going to do anything he accomplished in 2017 or 2018.

So Foles did what he does. Strike to Alshon Jeffery for 15 yards. Completion to Dallas Goedert for 10. Short pass to Nelson Agholor for eight. Strike to Zach Ertz for 13.

The NBC broadcast focused in on Matt Nagy, the coach that helped revive Foles’ career, which was once on life support. Nagy was now the head coach of the Chicago Bears and as the clock ticked down to the two-minute warning, he looked like most of the fans in the stands, facing the excruciating reality that Foles was about to put a dagger in the Bears’ special 12-4 season.

Four plays later, the Eagles were at the 2-yard-line, but it was fourth down. The Bears defense needed one stop. Pass rusher Leonard Floyd – with his lanky 6-5 frame and 33-inch arms – put himself in between the quarterback and his intended path to a completion, but Foles – at 6-6, with 34-inch arms – managed to throw sidearm around Floyd, delivering a perfectly accurate pass to receiver Golden Tate at the goal line. Touchdown.

 

Very few NFL quarterbacks would have been able to get that particular throw off simply because they aren’t as big as Foles, but this was just the latest money-making moment for the QB, who was about to cash in with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the 2019 offseason. And for the Bears, it wasn’t even the most painful moment of the evening, as Foles' improbable drive was quickly topped by kicker Cody Parkey’s double-doink that will never be forgotten.

Meanwhile, lost in the drama was the other quarterback -- Mitchell Trubisky. Before Foles’ magical drive, Trubisky uncorked three straight deep passes to take the Bears 81 yards and into the end zone to take the 15-10 lead. And after Foles put the Eagles back ahead, Trubisky threw a perfect pass to Allen Robinson down the right sideline to set up the field goal that Parkey ultimately clanked.

After both quarterbacks struggled in the first half, they both delivered clutch fourth quarters in a playoff game.

And now they’re on the same team. Competing for the Bears’ starting quarterback job.

Unfortunately, the 2019 season was rough for both Trubisky and Foles. The former regressed as Nagy’s offense took a giant step backwards. The latter broke his collarbone just 11 plays into the Jaguars’ season and lost his job to Gardner Minshew.

But the results of 2019 led the Bears to where they are now. With trust in Trubisky waning, why not bring Foles to Chicago to compete? At worst, he would be an expensive insurance policy for a team that hopes to have a defense as good as they had in 2018. In March, Bears general manager Ryan Pace traded a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville as Foles re-worked his contract to reunite with Nagy.

Over the last three weeks, Foles and Trubisky have battled in the most unique quarterback competition the Bears have ever had. And this franchise knows a good quarterback competition. COVID-19 evaporated the on-field offseason program, eliminated preseason games and truncated training camp down to 11 legitimate practices to decide a starter.

Thursday will mark the end of those practices. This weekend, Nagy, his coaching staff and Pace will sit down and decide which quarterback will start the season opener Sept. 13 against the Detroit Lions.

With such a short and limited evaluation, context will be needed to understand the direction the Bears decide to go in. Thus, it’s important to look at the full picture and examine the strengths and weaknesses of both quarterbacks, as well as how they both fit into Nagy’s offense in a crucial 2020 season.

In Part 1 of the “Bears QB competition: The Case to start,” we look at Foles, with Part 2 on Trubisky to follow:

Right scheme, right place

“Fit” is everything in the NFL. That goes for all positions, but especially quarterbacks. Even elite quarterbacks operate in a system that showcases their strengths and minimizes any limitations. This is even more important for non-transcendent quarterbacks – the overwhelming majority that exist in the league.

 

While it’s still unclear whether Trubisky can effectively operate Nagy’s system, we know the system fits Foles. “System quarterback” tends to carry a negative connotation, but in Foles’ case, there’s nothing wrong with accepting that his highest chance at success comes in a West Coast style offense that mixes in plenty of run-pass-options (RPOs) and zone-reads, while spreading out opposing defenses.

These are concepts Foles has been running since he was at the University of Arizona when then-Eagles head coach Andy Reid first noticed him. And it may sound crazy, but one of the biggest reasons why Foles is so good with zone-reads and RPOs is because he has big hands. Seriously.

There are on-going debates about how much hand size correlates with quarterback success, but it doesn’t hurt when it comes to handling the football. In Foles’ case, his hands help him on play-actions, end-arounds and screens, allowing him to ride the ball on the running back just a split second longer with more control before yanking it out and quickly flicking it to a receiver. His large frame also helps hide the football. Deception is extremely important as NFL defenses pick up on every little tell as they read their keys.

“He has tremendous hand quickness, he processes information and processes what he sees at an unbelievable speed,” Bears quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who coached Foles in Philadelphia and Jacksonville, said. “People just equate zone-reads all the time to guys that (run) 4.5 and 4.4 (40-yard dashes) and that's not always the case.”

Zone-reads are effective because it allows offenses to leave one player unblocked. But that player is the quarterback’s responsibility, so the QB must read the defense and process the information quickly. DeFilippo pointed to Foles’ basketball background – he was a star high school basketball player in Austin, Tex. – as a reason why he excels with those decisions.

“When you have those skills that Nick has in terms of hands, processing, seeing the rep, all of those things, it equates to being a good player in the zone-read game,” DeFilippo said.

One of the beauties of Reid’s system – and there’s plenty of it in Nagy’s offense – is that there are man- and zone-beaters within the same play. It’s up to the quarterback to read the defense and know where to go with the football based on the coverage.

One example with Foles can be found on a 3rd-and-1 in the 2018 NFC Championship Game against the Vikings. This is an RPO in which the quarterback is supposed to hand the ball off against zone and throw it against man.

With two linebackers blitzing, Foles knows the Vikings are playing man defense. The route combination to Foles’ right is essentially a legal “pick play,” opening up tight end Zach Ertz for an easy first down completion.

Bears fans often don’t like when Nagy seemingly calls a shotgun pass on 3rd-and-short or 4th-and-short, but often it’s really an RPO that, if read correctly by the quarterback, is a high percentage conversion.

 

Some RPO concepts require multiple defenders to be read. First, a quarterback must read a linebacker or safety to count the defenders in the box. Then, if the read determines a pass, there might be a route combination on the outside that requires the QB to read a defensive back to determine whether to throw a slant to one receiver or a bubble to another.

All of this is done within seconds, which is why the play caller must have trust in the quarterback. That trust is something Foles has earned over the years.

Unmatched stoicism

Few quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have had a career like Foles. Perhaps none have.

Consider this quick snapshot: Foles threw a walk-off touchdown pass as a rookie. He saw his head coach (Reid) get fired. He lost a quarterback competition and then went to the Pro Bowl. He broke his collarbone and was traded for Sam Bradford. He almost quit football. He won a Super Bowl and was the game’s MVP. He went back to his backup role before leading his team to the playoffs again. He broke his collarbone again. He got traded again.

And now here he is, in Chicago.

Through it all, there isn’t a person in the NFL who has a bad thing to say about Foles. He’s one of the most respected players and teammates in the league. That’s why Nagy went out of his way to support Foles in 2016 when the quarterback admittedly lost his love of the game. After a bad year in St. Louis, Foles watched the Rams move to Los Angeles and draft quarterback Jared Goff No. 1 overall. He asked for and was granted his release. That’s when Reid, who drafted Foles in Philadelphia in 2012, came calling. Nagy was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator and when Foles arrived in Kansas City, the coach had him over at his house and lent the quarterback his car during training camp. From there, Foles’ career completely changed.

"That year was one of my favorite years of football because of the people I was blessed to be around, and it had nothing to do with football,” Foles said when he joined the Bears this spring. “The love of football came back because of the people that I was stepping into the huddle with and going to work with every day."

Foles only saw playing time in three games that year, but 2016 set the stage for the improbable Super Bowl run with the Eagles in 2017 that not even Reid or Nagy saw coming. At that point, Foles hadn’t really been tested in a crucial moment with the season on the line and the whole world saw him become more comfortable as the games got bigger.

“His focus was unbelievable. I've never coached a quarterback before that had focus going into that stretch of games that Nick did,” DeFilippo, who was Foles' quarterback coach in 2017, said. “And this is guys that have come into relief, guys that have started seasons for us. I've never seen just that level of focus from an athlete before. I think that allowed him to play at the level he played at. You know, it was unbelievable."

 

Nagy watched that performance with his wife at a bar in Lake Forest shortly after being hired by the Bears. A year later, he witnessed Foles rise to the occasion again – this time in person at Soldier Field, ending the Bears’ Super Bowl dreams.

The word “stoic” frequently is mentioned with Foles because of the way he has handled adversity both on and off the field during his career. That includes a publicized miscarriage in 2019 after Foles’ wife, Tori, battled “an infection of pneumonia in the blood.” But in June of this year, shortly after the trade to Chicago, the Foles family welcomed their second child, Duke, to the world.

The callouses have helped Foles rebound from bad plays and bad years, like 2019. The Bears are confident he can handle whatever is thrown his way this year, including possibly losing a quarterback competition or starting playoff games later in the season. Those are all experiences Foles has been through before.

“I’ve had two different types of relationships with him, one as a rookie in Philadelphia with me as a quality control coach and another as a quarterback coach when he was coming in as a backup quarterback (in Kansas City),” Nagy said. “There’s a lot of unique different roles and relationships there, but in the end, it’s about who Nick is as a player, obviously what he’s been as a person, and just competition. We really hope it’s a win-win for the Chicago Bears.”

The case against Foles

Foles entered three of his previous eight NFL seasons as the unquestioned starter – and all three of those seasons went poorly, leading to him playing in a different city the following year. Going off the résumé, Foles has not had success as a clear-cut starter, but he might be the greatest backup quarterback in NFL history.

Still, there’s more to the story when considering the tough seasons of 2014, 2015 and 2019 – including two broken collarbones and playing for Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, whose teams certainly didn’t match the scheme fit previously discussed.

But while Foles knows Nagy’s offensive system, it’s still different from what Reid ran in Kansas City, Pederson ran in Philadelphia and DeFilippo ran in Jacksonville -- especially with terminology. That’s where the lack of a true offseason plays into the equation. Not only does Trubisky have built-up equity with teammates, but he’s already comfortable with the terminology.

There’s also the issue of physical ability. Foles has enough, but he’s not as mobile or as athletic as Trubisky. Foles could still be the more effective “point guard” of Nagy’s offense, but if the competition is close, it would not be surprising to see the Bears take one more crack at trying to match Trubisky’s physical ability with adequate execution.

 

That’s why Foles might remain the underdog as the Bears make their decision this weekend. And if that’s the case, just know Nagy won’t be afraid to turn to his veteran quarterback at any given moment – especially a big moment.

Note: "Bears QB competition: The case for Mitchell Trubisky to start Week 1" will be published Thursday.

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