Some of you reading this may not know that I grew up a die-hard Eagles fan.
I was born in 1986, so I wasn't really aware of the misery that surrounded me when Bryce Paup ended Randall Cunningham's season in 1991. I was, however, at peak fandom on November 17, 2002 when Arizona safety Adrian Wilson broke Donovan McNabb's ankle.
McNabb stayed in the game that day and he went on to throw four touchdown passes in an Eagles victory, a big win to keep them in the thick of the division hunt. On any other occasion, I would've been elated. But I remember the feeling I had sitting on my couch, in my pristine white No. 5 jersey, with a giant pit in my stomach. I couldn't eat dinner. I didn't want to go to sleep. I didn't even change the channel. I just sat there and half-listened to the postgame analysis and the announcement that McNabb's regular season was likely over. We would only see him again IF the team made the playoffs. A six-to-eight week injury with six weeks left!? How could this happen!?
I remember the feeling of helplessness. That 2002 team had such promise and so much talent. This was supposed to be the year! Now, we may not even make the playoffs! Koy Detmer is going to take us there? How? In what world is that going to happen? It was a long wait to get the answer to my question because the Eagles traveled west to Candlestick Park to take on the San Francisco 49ers the following week on Monday Night Football. Boy, was I wrong. Detmer played spirited football, the team rallied around him, and he was leading them to victory. Then, the unthinkable, Detmer gets hurt! He dislocated his elbow, and now ... A.J. Feeley (WHO!?) is going to lead us to the playoffs? We were surely done for. Kiss that playoff berth goodbye. I was already thinking about next year ... and I'd be wrong again. As you likely know, the Eagles rode Feeley to the playoffs, weathering the storm without McNabb and getting to the point where he was ready to return. The backups did their job and put the team in position to win.
I thought about that on my drive into work on Monday morning. This Eagles team is in a far better place than that one. That team was still fighting for a playoff berth (they went on to win five straight and beat the Redskins to clinch the division this week 15 years ago) and had to rely on a backup who saw very little action. This team has clinched the division title and is in the driver's seat for home-field advantage. That team had two players who were relative unknowns handling the quarterback spot after the injury. This team is bringing a veteran who has spent years in this system, has won 20 games as a starter, and happens to be the last quarterback to lead this team to a playoff appearance. He's won big games on the road, in the division, and while facing adversity. Is Nick Foles as good as Carson Wentz? I'm not going to sit here and say yes. We know that he's not, but this season is far from over.
When I look back on that day in 2002, I wish my future self could shake some sense into that depressed 16-year-old. That's why I have no choice but to buy into this group now. With one more win in the next three games, the Eagles secure a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Win two of the next three, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through Philadelphia. They've got three games to get accustomed to calling plays with Nick Foles under center, three games to get him into a rhythm with the plethora of receivers at his disposal, three games to get him in-tune with the most explosive run game in football (leading the league with 17 runs of 20-plus yards), and three games to get used to an offensive line (and vice versa) that has had some moving parts due to injury over the last few weeks.
There's no question that this team is not the best it can be without Wentz in the lineup, but all of their goals are still there for them to take. There's no better place to start than with a fourth quarter that saw the Eagles go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league and come away victorious.
Before I analyze Foles, here's how the Eagles started the game, and some of the biggest plays from Wentz. Here are all four of his touchdowns, with audio commentary included.
Shot 1 - Wentz's first TD came on a 'Spacing' concept. 12 personnel. Switch release from the TEs creates some confusion in man coverage for the Rams. Wentz sees Celek break to flat for TD to tie game at 7 #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/Fddi4Fh9F5 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 11, 2017
Shot 2 - Wentz's 2nd TD again comes in the red zone on 3rd-and-long. Sees the safety leave the MOF and hits Burton for a score, beating what amounts to double coverage down the seam #Eagles pic.twitter.com/0rwcToL8Pp — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 11, 2017
Shot 3 - Wentz's third TD comes against zone coverage, again on third-and-long in the red zone to Burton. High-low read of Mark Barron underneath, great throw and great catch for six points to tie the #Eagles season mark for TD passes pic.twitter.com/i3PtCvRxt8 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 11, 2017
Shot 4 - Not much more I can say about this play w/ Carson's heart, determination and toughness to be able to finish this drive 4 plays after tearing his ACL and putting the #Eagles ahead on 4th-and-goal in a 4-point game. Great job by Alshon and the OL picking it up for #11 pic.twitter.com/Ifcfwr1W5u — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 11, 2017
Without Zach Ertz (concussion) in the lineup, Wentz and the Eagles netted three touchdowns to the tight end position to start the game. All three scores came in the red zone, an area of the field where this team has been able to out-scheme and out-execute opponents all season long. They should continue to out-scheme teams as Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, John DeFilippo, and the rest of the Eagles' coaches will still put together weekly game plans to put them in position to win. It will be up to Foles and the rest of the offense to follow through.
The fourth touchdown, on fourth down to Alshon Jeffery, was just remarkable when you consider everything. It's fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. It's a four-point game. The team is down, and its playoff hopes are on the line. Wentz knows something is wrong with his knee. There's no question in my mind that he does at this point. He hurt it three plays earlier. He drops back. The offensive line completely stonewalls the Los Angeles front, giving Wentz more than four seconds to survey the field, work to the back side of the play, and make a throw for a touchdown to give the Eagles the lead. Not only that, but Wentz also broke Sonny Jurgensen's team record for touchdown passes in a single season. Wentz broke it on his final throw of the year in just 13 games. To see him gut it out after the injury and come away from that drive with points is just so symbolic of the type of player and person who Wentz is. I'll truly miss watching him every Sunday for this team.
We all know the physical talent Wentz has, and we know what he means to this team off the field as its leader. The aspect of the game that I think the offense will miss most is Wentz's ability to extend plays. We've seen the second-year quarterback make plays "outside of structure," where the play as it's designed breaks down and he's forced to create something on his own every week. Whether he does it with his arm, with his legs (or both), or with his mind, Wentz's ability to keep plays alive and move the football late in the down is up there as one of the best in the league. It would be tough for anyone to match that.
Shot 5 - The area where the #Eagles offense will need to fill the void is when the play breaks down. The first one is an example of that. The second play is one we've seen Nick Foles make before here in Philly, stepping up against edge pressure and delivering downfield. pic.twitter.com/uj0EZD6iv2 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 11, 2017
Here's an example of Wentz's "wow" plays. The first play, the throw to Jeffery on third-and-1, is one not many passers in the league can make. The second play, on the deep ball to Torrey Smith, is the type of play Foles is capable of making. He may not make that exact throw, but Foles is the type of quarterback who can face pressure off the edge, step up in the pocket, and deliver a football under duress. The yardage that Wentz racked up on these "out of structure" plays will need to be recouped somewhere, and some of those yards will have to come from Foles in these kinds of situations (though obviously, we can't expect it to be the level of Wentz).
Foles, unlike Wentz, is a player who thrives inside of structure. He's a natural thrower of the football when he gets into a rhythm who can drop back and hit a moving target on the run at every level of the field. An example of that would be the key third-down conversion he helped pick up late in the game to seal the victory. Before that play, however, here are a couple of plays that preceded it from Carson Wentz.
Shot 6 - How did Nick Foles find Nelson Agholor late in the 4th quarter to seal the game? It's a sequence that started back on the opening drive against the #Rams version of Cover 2 & Cover 2 Trap. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/U7d8DQsufJ — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 12, 2017
Cover 2, like any zone coverage, has holes. If you expect that it's coming, you can attack those holes in the passing game. The Eagles threw a pick against Cover 2 Trap on the opening drive. Following that play, the offense seemed to have a good feel for when to expect that type of coverage. The throw to Torrey Smith in the aforementioned Turkey Hole on the second snap is exactly that. Wentz knew he was getting some form of Cover 2, and he fires this ball before his target even clears the cornerback underneath. On that fourth-quarter throw, Foles put the ball on the money, exactly where it needed to be, on the same exact play design against the same coverage that resulted in an interception to start the game.
So what will Nick Foles need from his teammates moving forward? Well, more of what they've already been doing for sure. This run game has to continue being one of the best in the NFL. Getting chunks of yardage will be paramount. If the Eagles can keep defenses honest with the run game then I think Foles can be a weapon in the play-action pass game (in similar ways that Jared Goff is). On the outside, I think the receivers are going to have to find ways to continue beating man coverage.
Shot 7 - Great route here for a first down by Torrey Smith. Attacks the technique of the DB, stepping on his toes as he gets into his blindspot to create separation at the top of the route for a 15yd gain. #Eagles WRs will need to consistently beat man coverage moving forward pic.twitter.com/18vKn3vpux — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 12, 2017
Jeffery isn't one of those receivers who will win with quickness and technique at the top of a route, but you know he can separate at the catch point thanks to his ball skills and his body type. Agholor can absolutely win with quickness, suddenness, and technique. Smith can win with speed. Mack Hollins has shown flashes of being able to do all of the above. This group has to continue finding ways to beat man coverage because something tells me that defenses will be trying to send pressure at Foles moving forward.
If that's the case, the quarterback will need his receivers to win, and he'll need them to win early in the down to make themselves available to beat the blitz. Schematically, man-beating route concepts (like rub routes and mesh concepts) are ways to accomplish the same thing off the whiteboard.
Shot 8 - #Eagles use of play-action and misdirection will continue with Nick Foles under center. Both were a big part of this week's game plan against LA. pic.twitter.com/9s2OcWLkR8 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 12, 2017
The Eagles have been an effective play-action team this year. I've always felt that Foles excelled off play-action. This offense has done a lot in terms of misdirection to try and generate defensive "flow" to one side of the field, only to hit them with a big play going the other way. I expect that to continue with Foles at the helm.
Shot 9 - Lot of questions about #Eagles ability to run RPO concepts with Nick Foles...of course they're going to be able to run them. Here are a few examples of RPO/quick play-action passes. Goal of the QB is to always make the defender wrong! #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/pq51wvBfNv — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 12, 2017
The use of RPOs (Run Pass Options) in the Eagles' offense was addressed during Pederson's press conference on Monday. Will the Eagles be able to use them even though Foles is not a threat to run the ball? The answer is a definitive yes.
Remember, the "Run" in RPO is not necessarily a quarterback run (though that's certainly on the table, it's not a necessity). The quarterback reads the defender (which changes from play to play) and decides whether to hand off, take off, or pull the trigger on a throw. There are numerous combinations, and the Eagles run them all. You may see an Outside Zone with a Double Slant pass concept. You may see a 'Power' run play with Slant/Flat on the outside. You'll see runs paired with rub concepts, fade routes, and screens.
Most importantly, don't forget that Foles not only has executed these types of plays for Chip Kelly when he was the coach here, but he did it in Kansas City last year as a two-game starter. Foles is perfectly capable of running these types of plays.
So if you have that same helpless feeling that the 16-year-old version of me had back in 2002, I only have one shred of advice (and I wish someone had given it to me 15 years ago). Shake it off and enjoy the ride. This team has a lot of great football left, and I'm really excited to watch the game plans the coaching staff puts together to close out the year to prepare for a playoff run.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.