By Michael Bennett
If the Eagles lose tomorrow to the Falcons at the Linc as a No. 1 underdog to a No. 6, Nick Foles will get the blame.
A former starter, Foles has appeared to be on the verge of stardom several times in the past.
Despite Foles’ 2-1 record over the final three weeks of the season, Vegas declared that the Birds were cooked.
The Eagles had already secured home-field advantage before being shut out in Week 17 against Dallas, so an uninspired performance on that day can be excused.
But to understand how little ball movement the Eagles generated under Foles, an instructive statistic is his adjusted yards per attempt, which accounts for the effect of interceptions. Among the 46 quarterbacks who attempted 50 or more passes this season, Foles’s adjusted average of 5.42 yards per attempt ranked 38th. His average was not only worse than that of every quarterback in the playoffs, but he also found himself ranked lower than players like Tom Savage, C.J. Beathard and Trevor Siemian, each of whom lost their starting jobs despite playing for non-contenders.
Coach Doug Pederson has tried to remain upbeat about the Birds’ ability to win without Wentz, and told reporters that getting a chance to go over film of Foles’s more successful stints in the past had given the team a blueprint for success.
“My message to Nick is, ‘Listen, you have a great opportunity. Just go be Nick. Go play. Let’s go execute the offense,’” Pederson said.
For Foles, that most likely means focusing on film from the 2013 season, when he burst onto the scene as an ideal fit with coach Chip Kelly’s offense in Philly.
In 10 starts that year, Foles went 8-2, leading the NFL with 10.54 adjusted yards per attempt. He threw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions, earning a Pro Bowl appearance and making people quickly forget Michael Vick, who had been ineffective earlier that season before a hamstring injury sent him to the bench.
Foles followed up his strong 2013 regular season with a decent showing in the playoffs — he threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns in a wild-card round loss to the New Orleans Saints — and he was 6-2 as a starter in 2014 before a broken collarbone ended his season.
That injury was just the first blow in a difficult three-year period: Foles was traded to St. Louis for Sam Bradford, lost his job with the Rams to Case Keenum, was signed as a backup for Kansas City in 2016 and then eventually came back to where he started in Philadelphia.
Still just 28, Foles may in fact have what it takes to succeed in the N.F.L. A few weeks of practice with the first-team offense could help shake off some rust, and he could emerge as a player capable of leading them in the playoffs. Or, even if he continues to struggle, Philly could ride a great performance by its defense and its rushing attack and win in spite of him.
It is not that a healthy amount of skepticism is unwarranted based on Foles’s play thus far, but some Eagles, including starting right tackle Lane Johnson, consider their underdog status to be a huge motivational advantage.
“I think everybody perceives us as being the weakest and that is fine,” Johnson told reporters this week. “I think that is good. I think if teams want to overlook us, that is good. We’ll just see about Saturday.”
But the Falcons will have no shortage of motivation in their quest to topple the top team in their conference: Of the four No. 6 seeds to knock off the No. 1 seed since 2002, two of them went on to win the Super Bowl.