The toughest job for an offensive play caller is designing a system that maximizes the talents of the roster, particularly those of the quarterback. The task is more difficult when the team is heading into training camp without a clear-cut starter at the position.
New Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is facing the arduous challenge of rebuilding an ultra-talented offense with three candidates -- Michael Vick, Nick Foles and Matt Barkley -- vying to be the triggerman. As each quarterback possesses a unique set of skills, Kelly must show unprecedented flexibility and adaptability when it comes to his offensive scheme. With training camp on the horizon, here is how I could see the Eagles' attack operating with each of the three different candidates at the helm:
If Michael Vick wins the job ...
... the Eagles are handing over the offense to a dynamic playmaker capable of terrorizing opponents with his feet and arm. Despite turning 33 last month, Vick still has the speed and quickness to pick up big gains on impromptu scrambles and designed quarterback runs. He is slippery and elusive in space, and also shows the burst to run away from defenders down the field. Of course, Vick's brilliance as a runner is overshadowed by his injury history and penchant for turnovers. The 11th-year pro has completed just one full season as a starter, having missed 13 games in the past three years with the Eagles. Additionally, he has fumbled 32 times in 35 games since 2010, with 12 of those fumbles recovered by the opposition.
As a passer, Vick is a deep-ball specialist with exceptional arm strength. He excels at pushing the ball down the field on play-action or movement-based plays, particularly when he's rolling to his left. Vick also displays the ability to connect on deep balls following a quick-rhythm three- or five-step drop in the pocket, as evidenced in the video clip to the right.
If I had to point out a flaw in Vick's passing game, I would cite his accuracy problems on intermediate throws. He lacks the anticipation to "throw" receivers open against tight coverage; imprecise ball placement also makes it tough for him to string together completions. Consequently, Vick has posted a completion rate of 60 percent or better just once in his career.
To accentuate Vick's strengths as a playmaker, Kelly likely will incorporate some of the elements of Oregon's offense (namely, the zone-read) in coordinator Pat Shurmur's adaptation of the West Coast offense. By adding the threat of the quarterback run to the inside or outside zone, the Eagles will prevent at least one defender from pursuing the running back. In addition, the zone-read concept provides Vick with an opportunity to make plays on the perimeter with his legs. With the defense forced to play honest due to Vick's explosiveness, LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown could find bigger running lanes between the tackles.
Kelly will tap into Vick's athleticism by using a variety of movement-based passes to get him on the edges. This will give Vick an opportunity to take advantage of his skills as a dual-threat playmaker while simplifying the reads with a half-field progression. Consequently, Vick will be able to get rid of the ball more quickly and avoid sacks. Most importantly, it will allow him to be more decisive with the ball, leading to fewer negative plays.
In addition, Kelly will routinely dial up "shots" (deep passes) to capitalize on Vick's superior arm strength. Looking back at Vick's phenomenal 2010 season, I was amazed by how many deep shots the Eagles took in each game. Andy Reid cleverly designed home-run plays for Vick off of misdirection in the backfield that allowed DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin to win on vertical routes. Kelly likely has studied those game films to get a feel for what his veteran quarterback does well. Look for the Eagles to incorporate those concepts to create deep-ball chances for Vick, as in the video to the right.
If Nick Foles wins the job ...
... the Eagles are giving the keys to a traditional pocket passer with outstanding potential. Last season, Foles created a buzz in scouting circles after completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions in six starts. Although those numbers don't jump off of a stat sheet, they are pretty impressive for a rookie starter thrust into the lineup near the end of the season.
After reviewing Foles' play in the All-22 Coaches Film, I came away impressed with his sound footwork and fundamentals in the pocket. He displays exceptional balance and body control at the tops of his drops, enabling him to make strong throws to every area of the field. Foles' superior arm strength, velocity and zip are a byproduct not of pure arm talent but of his solid mechanics. Additionally, superb accuracy and touch are the result of his ability to keep his eyes and feet connected in the pocket.
For most young quarterbacks, the speed of the game is overwhelming, and that can create hesitancy at the tops of drops. However, Foles rarely displayed "happy feet" in the pocket last season; his decisiveness led to timely throws within the progression. As a result, the Eagles' offense stayed on schedule behind the young quarterback.
Of course, Foles still suffered through the normal growing pains associated with a first-year starter. He had a tough time deciphering complex blitz/coverage combinations, and the resulting uncertainty yielded miscues in the pocket. Additionally, Foles' limited athleticism prevented the Eagles from incorporating the quarterback runs that were a significant part of the game plan when Vick was the starter.
In Kelly's offense, Foles will be asked to play primarily as a pocket passer. He will execute the typical three-, five- and seven-step drops required in most pro-style offenses, relying on his timing and rhythm as a passer to defeat opponents. When Foles was protected and allowed to throw on time, he displayed the kind of pinpoint accuracy and ball placement coaches covet in franchise quarterbacks. The video clip above showcases his impressive arm strength, anticipation and accuracy as he connects with Jason Avant on a sail route on the boundary. Not only does Foles deliver the ball on time, he puts it in a location where the route is indefensible, with the Dallas Cowboys in two-deep coverage.
Kelly certainly will maximize Foles' strengths by having the Eagles run an intricate passing game built on timing and precision. If he can get Jackson and Maclin free access on the perimeter through motions and/or bunch formations, the impeccable rhythm between thrower and catcher could be nearly impossible to defend.
And despite Foles' athletic limitations, the Eagles still can utilize some of the zone-read concepts popularized by Kelly at Oregon. Instead of using the quarterback as a potential runner, Kelly will add the bubble-screen element to the play to exploit vulnerable areas of the defense. The Eagles have employed variations of the wide receiver screen game in the past to get the ball to Jackson and Maclin in space, but the team might expand the package with Kelly in charge. At Oregon, Kelly used the receiver screen not only to complement the zone-read, but to create big-play opportunities down the field. The Ducks would frequently fake the screen to the outside receiver before taking a shot to a slot receiver streaking down the boundary.
Last season, the Eagles used a similar concept with Foles on the field. The video clip above showcases a screen-and-go play, with Foles hitting Maclin on a 46-yard pass. Given the amount of screens the Eagles are likely to use to complement a zone-based running attack, taking four or five shots per game on deceptive screen-and-go plays could produce explosive gains.
With Foles on the field, Philadelphia will feature McCoy prominently in the game plan as a receiver. The shifty running back is an explosive playmaker with home-run potential on the perimeter. He can turn short passes into big gains with his combination of speed, quickness and burst in the open field. This adds another element to the passing game, which should help the young Foles succeed. In the video clip to the right, Foles connects with McCoy on a slow screen following a fake to a bubble screen on the opposite side. With the wide receiver screen likely to be a huge part of the game plan, particularly with Foles on the field, the complementary running back screen is bound to get some burn, as well.
If Matt Barkley wins the job ...
... the Eagles are betting on the rookie's exceptionally high football IQ to run the offense at a frenetic pace. After serving as a four-year starter in college, Barkley enters the NFL fully prepared to direct an offense from the line of scrimmage. Additionally, he has a strong familiarity with the Eagles' offensive system, based on his experience directing Lane Kiffin's West Coast offense at USC. From making hot reads and sight adjustments to changing the pass protection at the line, Barkley is comfortable in the system.
Brooks: Perfect fit for Philadelphia
From a schematic standpoint, the Eagles will use a number of short-to-intermediate route concepts to maximize Barkley's talents as a pocket passer. He excels at throwing quick slants, Y-sticks and seam routes -- staples of traditional West Coast offense playbooks. Barkley is also a Steve Nash-like distributor who is very comfortable spreading the ball around to multiple receivers to exploit the defense. With an exceptional supporting cast featuring a pair of speedsters on the perimeter (Maclin and Jackson), three big-bodied pass-catching tight ends (Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey) and two dynamic runners (McCoy and Brown), Barkley will simply be asked to "connect the dots" from the pocket.
While some will cite Barkley's lack of arm strength and subpar athleticism as potential roadblocks in his bid to become an NFL starter, the top quarterbacks in the game know how to maximize the talent around them. Kelly will put the young quarterback in a position to succeed by having him act as a distributor, not a playmaker.