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Testing Nick Foles: Mark Sanchez as placebo

The Eagles lost Nick Foles to injury. He’s got a cracked collarbone and might be out the rest of the regular season. I’ve grown up an Eagles fan, so as some kind of sports writer, it is my duty to comment on the quarterback going down, right? But what is left to say?

There is an interesting angle I’m seeing. But first we have to talk about Foles. Last year he was nearly mistake-free. It was untenable. And as FiveThirtyEight pointed out (and pointed out again), Foles was always going to regress toward the mean. The chatter about the Eagles quarterback reminds me of draft talk, the kind of things we project onto prospects. He is a system quarterback. He has some tools but it isn’t translating. These points stem from the idea that Chip Kelly’s offense is creative enough, and so effective, that it hides Foles’ flaws. It’s also convenient to use draft language when we’re talking about a high-profile, converted college coach.

If you’ve watched Foles this year, there’s certainly a disconnect from the quarterback of 2013. But fans forget last year felt like an anomaly as it happened. This year Foles has made poor decisions and questionable throws. Last week, before being injured, he threw an interception that encapsulated the nature of these mistakes. Foles threw a wobbler off his back foot, while getting hit, trying to make something happen in the general direction of Riley Cooper. You knew the pass was in trouble before the camera panned over to the defender picking it off. He’s also spent more time sitting in the pocket diagnosing the play. His progressions are taking longer. The ball comes out slower and out of sync with receivers. To be clear, these are some of the mistakes he has made, but there has also been flashes of great play. But this indecisiveness is something Grantland’s Bill Barnwell noticed after Week 1, and it hasn’t improved much. This is all to admit that—yes—Foles has been worse.

But Foles still has the ability to be a good NFL quarterback. In fact, in 2014, after eight games, his QBR is 62.2. That is good enough for 13th in the NFL, just below Jay Cutler and just above Russell Wilson. Sure, QBR is not the entire picture, but it’s a good barometer. And this is Foles playing poorly. I think it’s ridiculous to write Foles off, which yes, is happening from a portion of Eagles fans. There simply shouldn’t be an expectation on Foles to play as well as he did in 2013. We pretty much knew that level of play was unsustainable. But we can safely say he is capable of playing better than he has in 2014. But that begs the question, if we shouldn’t expect 2013’s results, and we shouldn’t expect 2014’s results, what should we expect? Is Foles actually good, or is it the system?

Enter Mark Sanchez. The Sanchize. The Butt-Fumbler himself. Say what you must, but this presents an interesting case study into how good Foles really is. In four seasons with the Jets, Sanchez posted regular season QBRs of 31.5, 49.2, 36 and 25.8. On a team with limited offensive weapons, Sanchez bobbed between league average and replacement-level play. He’s going to start a good chunk of games. If Sanchez’s play drastically improves, well, we have a better picture about what this system (and offensive weapons) can do. That, in turn, tells us more about Nick Foles. In scientific experiments you want a control. Something that is a baseline for what you’re really testing. Like a placebo to gauge a medicine’s effectiveness. Mark Sanchez is a known quantity; he is a control in the study about Nick Foles. If all other things are equal, how much better is Nick Foles than Mark Sanchez?

So, there’s that. For what it’s worth, I think Foles is better than he’s played this year, but not as good as his 2013 play (safe answer, I know). Capable of being a top-ten quarterback? Maybe. Although, the Eagles may think otherwise. Sanchez, you’re up.

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