By Ben Sullivan
If you are an Eagles junkie and are on the ledge about to jump because Nick Foles is out for 6-to-8 weeks with a shoulder injury, here are two reasons not to worry:
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio thinks Mark Sanchez is more than a worthy replacement; and
Nick Hornsby of Pro Football Focus agrees.
Here is what Hornsby wrote:
1. Foles is not the reason the Eagles are winning
While Sanchez’s past exploits with the New York Jets have hardly seen him wreathed in glory, Foles has not been the reason for the Eagles’ positive start. In truth, he’s played poorly, performing significantly worse than last year, when some of his failings were masked by a QB rating that made him look like the second coming of Joe Montana.
In 2013, Foles started horrendously but then got on a roll that didn’t end until the playoffs. However, his 119.2 QB rating was misleading because it included a number of poor throws that luckily went unpunished, such as dropped interceptions or actual interceptions called back on penalty. The most important fact that people forget about the NFL’s QB rating is that it’s really a measure of the offense, not specifically the quarterback; most passers can throw a bubble screen, but how effective it is really isn’t on him.
Now, did Foles play poorly in 2013? Not at all. He was pretty good (our No. 17-rated QB), but he certainly wasn’t as good as his NFL passer rating suggested.
Fast forward to 2014, and not only are those interceptions actually counting against him, but he’s been playing poorly outside of throwing picks. A full 12 percent of his passes have been overthrown with receivers open. It’s not a protection issue, as he’s being pressured on an identical percentage of plays this year as last year (34 percent), but this time it’s affecting him much more. He’s already thrown five interceptions when under pressure (against zero last year) and his PFF grade has declined from minus-0.8 to minus-7.8.
Worse, his play when not harassed has fallen off even more sharply. His plus-14.8 PFF grade from a clean pocket in 2013 has plummeted to minus-2.0 in 2014, which ranks 28th out of the 32 passers with more than 100 dropbacks. His overall PFF grade ranks 29th in the league — also known as Derek Carr and Austin Davis territory.
So if Foles is playing so poorly and the team is making it through on an improved defense (from 20th in our rankings in 2013 to seventh in 2014) and excellent special teams (they made a huge jump from 24th to second), is a below-average QB able to fill in effectively?
2. Sanchez has been well below average
This is where things get interesting, because only at his best has Sanchez ever been in the realm of the slightly-below-average signal-callers; more often, he’s been well below average.
Unfortunately, in his time with the Jets, Sanchez’ performances could be better categorized as being among the league’s worst than just below average. Many argued that Sanchez didn’t have an outstanding supporting cast in New York, but he was under duress on a lower percentage of plays than Foles (30 percent compared to the 34 percent mentioned earlier), and that area was really his Achilles’ heel; his minus-16.2 grade under pressure in 2012 makes Foles’ minus-7.8 this year look almost acceptable.
On Sunday, Sanchez was much better. He wasn’t great, but he was certainly decent, with mitigating circumstances on both of his picks. He played well enough to keep a good team ahead of an average one without really doing anything exceptional.
The obvious question is: Was his year and a half of riding the bench the break he needed that he never got after leaving USC? It was widely speculated that he wasn’t ready for the NFL as a rookie, and it certainly played out that way in New York. However, he still has the tools his draft status (No. 5 overall in 2009) indicated, and most of his issues were cerebral. On occasion, such as his early-career playoff games, he has played well enough to make that pretty clear.
The key here is not how good or bad Sanchez was, but how good he will be with Chip Kelly pulling the strings. After all, there’s a lot of talent elsewhere on this roster. A quick scan through PFF’s player grades for this season reveals a handful of Eagles near the top of several positions on offense, with standouts including wideout Jeremy Maclin, offensive tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles haven’t had great seasons so far, but they make up a talented duo. And as mentioned above, the defense and special teams are greatly improved from last season.
The sample size is incredibly small, but so far the signs are good. I’m going out on a limb as I believe Kelly’s deft touch will be enough to keep Sanchez performing at a high enough level — and keep the Eagles playoff-bound.