Head coach Chip Kelly says the NFL is "personnel driven" and at no position is that more clear than the one that matters most: Quarterback. Kelly deserves a lot of credit for managing what could be a sticky situation here with the Michael Vick/Nick Foles dynamic.
An open competition for the starting job in the spring and summer was awarded to Vick, who then started five games before a hamstring knocked him to the sidelines, clearing the way for Foles to perform virtually flawlessly for six quarters in wins over the Giants and the Bucs.
On Sunday, as we all know, the quarterback picture veered in an entirely different direction. Foles struggled in a 17-3 loss to Dallas, as did the entire offense. A group that had moved the ball at an historic rate through six games was grounded, flattened, and the concussion Foles suffered on the final play of the third quarter gave rookie Matt Barkley his first chance to play in the regular season, with predictable results.
So the Eagles, who feel that they have three more-than-capable quarterbacks on the roster, are down to A) Vick, who has a hamstring injury that is healing, but not yet at 100 percent; B) Foles, who has a concussion and has to go through the NFL's protocol before he is cleared to practice, and C) Barkley, who tossed three interceptions in the fourth quarter in his first live look at the tempo of the NFL's regular season.
There are immediate questions to answer, of course, as the Eagles prepare to play the Giants on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. I admire Kelly so much for his consistency in answering questions about the "future." The man doesn't deal in hypotheticals, no matter the subject. And when he's been asked about the team's "quarterback of the future," over the course of the months in which he's been head coach, Kelly has not strayed from his "no-comment" stance.
The head coach cares only about beating the Giants right now. Understandable. It's the right way to do business. While the fans and the media can talk about the "franchise quarterback" and who might be "the guy" in 2014 and beyond -- more on that later -- Kelly has his blinders on and is focused on the present.
Who is healthy enough to play quarterback in Tuesday's practice, much less Sunday's game against New York? The Eagles aren't going to risk Vick with the concern that his hamstring injury could be tweaked and set him back several more weeks. Foles has to follow the NFL's program before he is cleared. Barkley is the first man up at this moment, but a lot could change between now and when practice begins this week.
How is the best way, in the overall scheme of things, to evaluate the play at quarterback this year? Both Vick and Foles have had their outstanding moments, and by and large the offense has been dynamic and productive with either of them on the field. Kelly says the only just way to evaluate is to take the entire body of work, which is coachspeak for saying "let's discuss at the end the season, when we can evaluate clearly how a player performed through the course of a full season."
Nobody should have a problem with that. And yet, there is such a rush to judgment at a position that hasn't been stable since Donovan McNabb's prime seasons. The Eagles won games when their quarterback played well on a weekly basis, but since McNabb was traded and Vick's play tailed off after the dynamic 2010 campaign, the Eagles have been a struggling franchise. That's not a coincidence. It's very difficult to win consistently in the NFL unless you have a quarterback playing at a high level every week.
There was such an undercurrent of thought last week in the media and among the fans that a strong performance from Foles could positively impact his chances for being the 2014 starter, a notion that Kelly shot down when asked in the days leading to the Dallas game. That Foles played his worst game in the NFL likely doesn't alter Kelly's thought process. He wants to see how it all plays out before deciding on personnel.
Kelly wants to judge the full body of work of a season before he makes any decisions. Who is the quarterback of the future? It will play itself out on the field. How does Kelly evaluate Vick? Foles? Let's see how they play the rest of the season.
I know that you want to know what you asked at the very start of the spring practices, a question that remains today and will persist until the Eagles get their man: Who is the franchise quarterback who will lead the Eagles back to the playoffs, to the Super Bowl, to greatness? It's an impossible question to answer right now, and Kelly is right to avoid the topic.
His focus, and this team's focus, is on winning Sunday's game, reaching 4-4 at the halfway point of the regular season, and setting itself up for a playoff run in the wide-open NFC East. That's all that Kelly can control right now, even as Eagles fans clamor for an answer that isn't apparent right now. This is still an open quarterback competition, as it was in the spring. It's become a week-to-week situation or, in the case of right now, day to day as Kelly and the Eagles zero in on a rematch against the Giants.