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Nick Foles' growth has QB, Eagles facing sky-high expectations

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was just another chilly practice late last October, and Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly was fretting about what he called "instability" among his quarterbacks. Michael Vick's hamstring was balky again, sending the starter to the bench, and the offense had slowed to a crawl in two straightlosses played mostly without him. When Kelly named Nick Foles the starter for that weekend's game against Oakland -- the Week 9 contest that began the second half of the Eagles' season -- it might have seemed, in hindsight, like the moment he cast his team in a new direction.

But really, it was Kelly playing his only viable option, going with the quarterback who had lost a training camp battle to an older, riskier competitor mostly because, at that moment, Foles was upright and intact. That week, with Vick in the trainer's room, Foles forced into action and Matt Barkley unreliable, it seemed obvious that the Eagles' quarterback of the future was elsewhere, likely on a college campus. When Kelly was asked if, were Vick to become healthy again, the quarterback decision would be a week-to-week one, he responded not with a ringing tone of confidence in Foles but with weariness at the crises facing him.

"God," he said. "I hope not."

Even Kelly probably didn't dare to imagine that it would turn out the way it did, with Foles tying an NFL record by throwing seven touchdown passes against the Raiders, seizing the job with a nearly flawless performance for the season -- 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in all -- and helping the Eagles win seven of their last eight games to take the NFC East and grab a playoff spot, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process.

"I think that the play that they got at quarterback last year was real good," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. "I'm not sure that anybody totally saw that coming, but that was a big part of it."

Belichick and the Patriots certainly didn't see it last summer, when the Eagles and Patriots held the first edition of their joint practices. When Belichick got a look at his friend Kelly's team in Philadelphia last year, the Eagles' defense was often befuddled by the Patriots' electric passes, and Vick was taking an early lead over Foles in the quarterback competition.

But as the Patriots and Eagles gathered for joint practices again this week ahead of Friday's preseason matchup between the two teams, the expectations for Philadelphia have been so thoroughly transformed that Foles' two interceptions in the first quarter of the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears have set off a wave of hand-wringing about what it all might mean. Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur chalked those up to two bad decisions, but given how Foles responded in the first practice with the Patriots on Tuesday, it will probably mean nothing at all.

During said practice, Foles faced Patriots cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, among the best tandems in the NFL, in front of an overflow crowd of more than 25,000 fans -- and he did not commit a single turnover. Foles completed one deep pass to Jeremy Maclin over Revis, then hit a gorgeous deep sideline pass to LeSean McCoy.

"They're going to try to lure me into things," Foles said of Revis and Browner. "That's why they are great. I just trust in my reads."

Foles has talked a lot this offseason about getting the ball out faster and reducing the number of sacks he takes. (Foles was sacked 28 times in 2013, but remember, he only started 10 games.) And while it seems unlikely that Foles could have so few interceptions again this season, it does seem possible that, with Kelly's big-play offense fully in his command now, the quarterback could record more than 27 touchdown passes -- and perhaps take the Eagles, who were one-and-done in last season's playoffs, on a deeper postseason run.

On Tuesday, Foles took advantage of one of the benefits of joint practices, spending some of the time when the Eagles' offense was not on the field observing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Foles, who hopes to pick Brady's brain this week, said he was watching Brady's movement in the pocket, how he places the ball in the right spot for the receiver, how he is willing to take shorter, underneath throws rather than press for a bigger gain. Those are the subtleties that set quarterbacks like Brady apart, the kinds of details that a third-year pro like Foles still must master.

Because of the vagaries of roster shuffling, it is difficult to draw straight-line comparisons from season to season. And certainly the departure of receiver DeSean Jackson and the addition of running back Darren Sproles is likely to alter the complexion of the Eagles' offense -- and the throws Foles comes to rely on -- as this season progresses. But it is impossible not to be seduced by the simple timeline of Foles' development when an obvious anniversary like this one presents itself. Almost exactly a year ago, he wasn't good enough to start. Now, when he looks to Brady for clues about how to improve, it doesn't seem like such a laughable divide to bridge.

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Foles isn't much for introspection -- about last season or last week's game -- and while he said it was an honor for Belichick to praise his play, he mostly sloughed off attempts to get him to dissect his development. He said he has already put the errant throws against the Bears behind him. He acknowledges he will make mistakes again, but he said it was important that Eagles players see that one bad outing won't unravel him.

"I think just knowing this offense, the personnel, the decision-making, everything I do, I'm a little bit better," Foles said. "Every day, I want to gain a little bit. You can imagine, playing all the games since we had the practice, I'm a lot different."

So different, in fact, that nobody will be taken by surprise by Foles and the Eagles again.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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