Chip Kelly has been asked the same question over and over again since he became the Eagles’ head coach: What are you looking for out of your quarterback?
His answers have varied, depending on the day. Kelly once said it was repetitive accuracy. Other times, he’s pointed to just being able to win games. And throughout, he’s maintained the importance of standing strong when faced with trying situations.
While all of those things factor into Kelly's evaluation of his signal-caller, the No. 1 attribute he seems to value is decision-making. That's why Kelly and Nick Foles seemed to have gotten along so well last year.
"Being decisive is very important," Foles said, speaking to a roomful of reporters at the conclusion of last month's minicamp. "It’s always important to be decisive when you’re a quarterback. And honestly you play fast, and what I mean by that is the guys are gonna look to the quarterback. What’s the speed of the quarterback? What’s his body language when you’re running the offense? Is he sort of just walking up and doing whatever? Is he intense, yelling the calls, getting it? Because if they see your speed and moving and just your intensity, then all of a sudden, it’s just human nature to just zap in and do it and just go. And I think that was probably the big thing."
In other words, Foles is the tone-setter. That's on gameday, during the weeks at practice and in the offseason.
To many outsiders, this partnership seemed unlikely merely a year ago. Kelly opened up the competition during the summer, Michael Vick played better in the preseason, and that was that.
But when Foles got his opportunity, he led the Eagles to a division title and put up eye-popping numbers along the way. The question going forward is: What will Kelly and Foles do for an encore?
Asked if Kelly's offense is built to last now that coordinators will have a full offseason to study it, Foles said: "I sure hope so. I mean, when I run a play I don't want to go into a play not knowing, 'Alright, if they give me this look, we have no answer.' It's not a good feeling.
"So the thing I love about this offense is there's really an answer for every different situation. Now the big thing is execution. You might have an answer, but if you don't execute it, the play won't work or something bad happens. But that's what I love, is there's always an answer, there's always a reason. Different looks, I know where to go. It's just, 'Can I make the throw? Can I move the pocket? Can we make that cut with the running back?' Stuff like that. That's where execution comes in."
It's really a thorough and accurate description of Kelly's offensive philosophy.
"I don’t think your offense can be a thousand miles wide and an inch deep," Kelly said. "I think you have to have a system, whether that’s offense, defense or special teams. And you have to adhere to that system a little bit. You can’t just say, ‘I saw this play on Monday Night Football, let’s put it in. And I watched the University of Texas yesterday, let’s put this in.' What do you want to be? What do you stand for? What is your vision in terms of how you want to get things accomplished?"
In the Eagles' offense, Kelly hands the keys to Foles. He's in charge of making reads, getting the playmakers into advantageous situations and moving fast. For Foles, the process begins as the offense gets to the line of scrimmage, before the ball is snapped.
"Just an example: When I get a play in, I make sure everybody is on the same page," Foles explained. "I take a pre-snap read of the alignment, how the backers have shifted, where are the safeties, where are the corners and peripherals. So you just take that, and we’ll get the protection if it’s a pass. If it’s a run [play], I need to sort of key my defender or, like you said, numbers, like 'Alright, do we have numbers here? Do we have numbers in the box?' So that really all happens in a matter of a second, in my mind. And it took me 30 seconds to explain it to you, but it happens like that."
Once Foles makes sure he has the offense in the right look, and the ball is snapped, he reads key defenders, sees how they react and decides where to go with the football.
"And then when the ball’s snapped, just through years of playing, I’ve been trained to react, because the defense isn’t just gonna line up and say, 'Hey, this is what we’re doing,' " Foles continued. "They’re gonna go like this and guys are gonna come here, guys are gonna drop out, guys are gonna swipe, or vice versa or everywhere. So when you set a snap count and you see something, all of a sudden you catch the ball and look up, what happened? So you have to see what players are out of place. Where did the safeties roll? What are the corners doing? And you sort of get keys before the snap, but then it’s that instant, I know what I’m doing with the ball. Now I just go through my drop, or I hand off, or I keep the ball, whatever it is. And it’s hard to explain. It’s just, it’s just got to come to you, and you’ve got to be able to react."
The Eagles run many of the similar concepts out of different looks. Given Foles' explanation, it's easy to see why Kelly is obsessed with practicing fast and maximizing reps. The entire operation is based on the QB knowing where to go with the football depending on the look of the defense, and also all 11 guys executing at a high enough level.
"I think the fast pace, you go more with just your gut," Foles said. "Obviously there’s different checks and I’m reading the defense and there’s different hot reads and there’s a lot of stuff that goes on, but you’re not over-thinking things too much. You’re just playing with what your preparation has showed you. You’re just reacting. And if there’s a bad play, you just try to throw the ball where you do something to move on to the next play."
The results for Foles in Year 1 under Kelly have been well-documented. The third-highest single-season QB rating in NFL history and franchise records for yards and points.
Foles is fully aware of the challenges that await in Year 2. But listening to him speak, it's clear that he knows what's expected of him and what his options are. The fate of the Eagles in 2014 will depend largely on if Foles can once again make the right decisions.