PHILADELPHIA -- A few hundred miles away from here, the Buffalo Bills were waiting to find out if the quarterback who had been elevated from their practice squad earlier this year would be healthy enough to start this weekend against the NFL's only undefeated team. Of course, the Bills were not expected to revolutionize offensive football this season, so their quarterback travails are slipping under the radar -- far from where the daily parsing of Michael Vick's hamstring, Nick Foles' head and Chip Kelly's intentions have set up a permanent place.
Five teams already have used three quarterbacks for considerable stretches this season, a staggering indication of both the vulnerability of the position and the frantic search for people to successfully fill it. But here, as first Vick, then Foles, then Matt Barkley walked off the practice field, each wearing the red jersey, their gait and manner were scrutinized as if the future of the Philadelphia Eagles' offense could be divined simply by reading their body language.
On Wednesday, Kelly announced Foles will start this week against the Oakland Raiders, settling the matter for, oh, a few minutes. That's how long it took Kelly to get irritated when he was pressed about what he has called "instability" at quarterback. That instability was born of Vick's injuries and Kelly's decision to bet on him, as well as the trickle-down effect on an offense that has morphed from jaw-dropping to yawn-provoking over the course of the season.
A reporter wanted to know what Kelly would do when Vick -- the quarterback he had wanted to run his read-option offense -- was healthy, and whether the possibility of Vick's return was merely perpetuating the instability. Kelly was in no mood for hypotheticals or for peering into a future that seems less and less likely to include the veteran signal-caller beyond the end of this season. Still, the coach clearly would like to have this settled, too. When asked if his quarterback decision was a week-to-week thing, Kelly replied:
"God, I hope not."
The truth is that Kelly's answer about Vick is almost irrelevant already. This is Kelly's experimental year, his first in the NFL and likely the only one in which he will not have a hand-selected quarterback. Kelly is adamant that he is thinking only of now, not the future, but everyone else, including Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, has taken a longer view. Yes, the Eagles are in the thick of the NFC East race, but that is a testament to how weak the division is and to the early shock value of Kelly's offense. Nobody expected this to be a one-year turnaround. Vick was a semi-suitable stand-in because he is famously mobile, a factor that forced defenses to account for him.
The Eagles have gotten the most from their playmakers in Kelly's offense when Vick has been running it. With Vick at quarterback, Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson average 18.7 and 18.5 yards per reception; when Foles is in, that number drops to 14.3 and 11.5, respectively. LeSean McCoy leads the league in rushing yards with 733, but the team's rushing totals have slipped in each of the past six weeks, dropping dramatically after Vick was first injured in Week 5 against the Giants. It is no surprise that McCoy said it is more "congested" near the line of scrimmage now than it was at the beginning of the season. Defenses haven't just figured out that Kelly really wants to run first. Without Vick, there is no threat that the quarterback will take off.
Of course, Vick also is famously fragile, his small frame -- it is surprising, still, just how slight he looks at 6 feet and 215 pounds -- having held up for a full 16-game season just once in his career. That always has been part of the risk-reward equation with Vick, the one that Andy Reid was willing to take on, too. In exchange for Vick's dazzling ability to break away from a defense, a team had to hold its breath and hope he would not take a hit on that run.
Kelly surely knew that. Maybe he thought his new-era methodology, imported from Oregon to address everything from practice schedules to nutrition, would stave off any injuries. At one point in the early part of October, days before Vick would first feel pain in his hamstring, Kelly talked about how the Eagles' new conditioning regimen had limited soft-tissue injuries. However, in the long run, nothing can save the soft tissue in the back of the leg of a 33-year-old quarterback who is simply too small to take the punishment that Kelly's offense demands.
That is what Kelly really needs to make the Eagles go, rather than trying to jam a square peg like Foles into the round hole of his offense. Philadelphia might have been better off drafting EJ Manuel or Geno Smith this spring and allowing a prospect to develop in Kelly's system from the start. Regardless, it is hard to imagine the Eagles won't draft a quarterback next year from what will be a deep class.
In the meantime, Kelly has to figure out how to make this work, although he seems reluctant to change his system.
"It's the same group; for six games, we were on track to set records," Kelly said earlier this week. "So I don't think we're going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say we have to do something new here."
But perhaps Kelly should listen to his own players, who, while admiring the coach's ability to get the offense into correct plays, also know that defenses have adjusted.
"Defenses definitely change up a little bit, depending on who the quarterback is," said center Jason Kelce, one of the most thoughtful members of the team. "Mike is obviously much more of a running threat, so there is much more accountability to keep contain on him in the pocket. If he's running a read, they respect that a little more. I think, through the first four games, we were the best running team in the NFL. A lot of teams have put a huge emphasis on stopping the run. The holes are a lot smaller."
And the expectations are a lot higher. The walls of the Eagles' training center are decorated with newspaper stories about the team's past success, much of it achieved under Reid's guidance. Kelly's hiring was a coup for Lurie. But the heights Kelly reached at Oregon, which once made him such a hot commodity, now serve only as a contrast to the crucible he is in, two defeats away from equaling the total number of losses he had during the entirety of his tenure as the Ducks' head coach.
When he was at Oregon, Kelly developed a reputation for innovation. Perhaps the most intriguing question is how he and the Eagles will change after this season, whether he will adjust his practice schedule, his scheme or his post-practice smoothies to address the things he'll have learned this year.
Kelly already has had one hard lesson about life in the NFL: No matter how innovative his offense is, he still needs a quarterback -- and one who looks a lot like those he saw in college.
Here are 10 other things to watch as the league passes the halfway point:
1) Can Kansas City's defense continue to hold opponents to 17 points or less? No Chiefs opponent has scored more than 17 points through the team's 8-0 start. But an unexpectedly tough test could come this Sunday, as the Bills have scored at least 17 points in every game this season. If the Chiefs hold the Bills to 17 points or less and win the game, they would be the first team since 1934 to start a season with nine consecutive wins in which their opponents scored 17 points or less. The Chiefs have not faced a team that currently has a winning record, and that won't change this weekend, as the Bills are 3-5.
2) Can Alex Smith finally shed the label of game manager? Smith, who has nine touchdown passes (25th in the league), had gone three consecutive games without a TD pass before tossing two in a win over the Browns last weekend. It's worth noting that while the Bills have Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus, who have a combined 15 sacks, Buffalo's back end has been shredded in the past three games, allowing 11 passing touchdowns to a combination of Andy Dalton (three), Ryan Tannehill (three) and Drew Brees (five).
3) Will Rob finally get the best of Rex in the Ryan family feud?Jets coach Rex Ryan is undefeated after four meetings with his twin brother, Rob, as a head coach and coordinator. But this week, Rex's defense has to stop Drew Brees while Rob's gets Geno Smith. Last Sunday, the Jets' secondary was torched by the Bengals, yielding five touchdown passes to Andy Dalton. Drew Brees had five touchdown passes against the Bills last week, but the good news for Rex is that Brees' passer rating on the road this season is nearly 40 points lower than it is at home -- and he's particularly vulnerable in the fourth quarter. Brees' road passer rating is 42.4 this season.
4) Can Tom Brady regain his usual form against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Brady's completion percentage (55.7 percent), passer rating (74.9) and yards per attempt (5.94) are the lowest they've ever been through the first eight starts of the season. His nine touchdown passes rank 25th in the league, putting him on pace for 18 this season -- 16 fewer than last season, and the same number he threw in 2001, when he took over for Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the season. The Steelers are struggling against the run, but they rank second against the pass and have given up the fewest passing touchdowns (five) this season.
5) How will the loss of Reggie Wayne affect Andrew Luck against the Texans? In 885 career pass plays with Wayne on the field, Luck completed 56.6 percent of his throws. In 22 pass plays without Wayne, Luck completed 23.8 percent. The Texans' season has unraveled because of their quarterbacking meltdown, but their top-ranked defense (allowing just 267.7 yards per game) remains stout. One big problem for Houston: Linebacker Brian Cushing is out for the season with a knee injury. Last season, the Texans' defense allowed almost nine more points per game without Cushing than when he played.
6) Are the Vikings the cure for what ails the Cowboys' defense? During last Sunday's loss to Detroit, the Dallas defense gave up 623 total yards and 480 yards passing, both the most in franchise history. The Cowboys' defense ranks last in the league in total defense and passing defense, and has allowed opponents to gain more than 500 yards in three games this season. Just five teams in history have allowed 500 yards more than three times in a season. The Vikings probably won't be the opponent to make Dallas the sixth, though, as their 29th-ranked offense averages 305.9 yards per game. Also, Christian Ponder, who will start over Josh Freeman at quarterback, has the fourth-worst passer rating (69.4) in the league. Freeman has the worst (52.6).
7) How low might the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sink in Seattle? The Seahawks haven't lost at home since Christmas Eve, 2011 -- that's an 11-game home winning streak. They've scored nine more points and allowed seven fewer points in Seattle than they have on the road. This could be a chance for the Seahawks' offense to recover after Russell Wilson was sacked seven times by the Ramson Monday night. The Bucs' defense, meanwhile, has regressed, allowing exactly 31 points in each of the last three games, 13.5 more points per game than it had been allowing.
8) Will anyone add to the 400-yard passing game total? There have been 14 individual 400-yard passing games this season -- already the third most in any season in history. The most came in 2011, when there were 18. With Peyton and Eli Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Matthew Stafford all on byes this weekend, four obvious candidates are out of action. But keep an eye on Drew Brees, who has one.
Harrison: Week 9 Game Picks
9) Can the Bears stop their recent skid against the Packers on Monday night? The Bears have lost three of their last four, and now the offense is in the hands of Josh McCown. That probably means more touches for Matt Forte, who already is on pace for career highs in rushing touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards, although he hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game through the first seven games for the first time in his career. He also is on pace for 265 rushes. For what it's worth, Bears-Packers is the only Week 9 game that features two teams with winning records.
10) Can the Redskins' slowly improving defense stop the Chargers? Washington has allowed an average of 159 fewer yards per game in the past three weeks. Can the Redskins keep that trend going against the Chargers' offense, which is third in time of possession and fourth in total offense? The Redskins' defense, 27th against the pass, faces a tough matchup against Philip Rivers, who is in the top six in the league in passing yards per game, touchdowns and completion percentage.