Even With Foles, Zone Read Here To Stay
This time last offseason Michael Vick was splitting first-team reps with Nick Foles. And given the little that we knew about Chip Kelly‘s offense, you couldn’t help but think Vick had the leg up. Day after day we saw the Eagles practice the zone read, over and over. The QB would cross paths with the running back and, depending on how the defense responded, would either complete the handoff or keep it and head for the edge. This didn’t seem to be a particularly good sign for Foles, who once said: “If I can adapt I want to, but I’m not a zone read quarterback. Some people are gifted with different things, that’s just not one of my skill sets.”
Kelly phrased it this way at the beginning of training camp last season: “To be honest with you, if I called 20 read options with Nick Foles in the game, you should fire me. We’re talking about practice right now. I think we’ve got to figure out who our quarterback is before we understand the direction of where our offense is going.”
It took some time to get the QB position settled, but it eventually blossomed in the hands of Foles. And while Foles never kept it 20 times in a game (the most rushes he had in a single outing was nine), the zone read didn’t go away. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Eagles ran the zone read 304 times during the regular season — 135 times more than the next highest team. About 60 percent of those came when Vick was out of the lineup.
Foles obviously doesn’t pose the same threat as a runner and there were challenges that came with that, namely that the unblocked defender would crash down on the running back with more frequency instead of staying home in case the QB pulled it. Kelly added some wrinkles to adjust to the way defenses were playing it. LeSean McCoy, after an initial dip with Vick out of the lineup, went over 130 yards rushing four times in the final seven games with Foles under center.
And we learned that there were more branches to this concept. The Eagles ran packaged plays that included passing options as part of the read process. The zone read proved to be a great set-up for the play action with Foles at quarterback, as the Eagles had nine plays of 30 yards or more and racked up 12 touchdowns off play-action over the second half of the season.
Vick is now in New York and the quarterback room consists of three non-running signal-callers in Foles, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley, but the zone read remains.
“The vast majority of our runs are read runs,” said Jason Kelce after Monday’s practice. “All the plays that were in last year with Mike are still in there with Nick. Things evolve throughout the whole season so we are doing some new things and there is some stuff that we are doing differently, obviously, but for the most part the vast majority of the playbook is exactly the same.”
Added Kelly: “We’re going to run the same offense we ran when Nick was in there last year.”