OK, heads up. This column is going to do two completely different things: introduce a crazy idea (which happens to be true), and then see if it applies to the 49ers.
My idea is that Nick Foles of the Eagles is a new kind of quarterback: a closer, like Mariano Rivera. Except he doesn’t close out games, he closes out seasons.
Foles is not a good starting NFL quarterback. That has been established, in his rookie season (1-5, coach fired), and at St. Louis and in Kansas City, and in the preseason this year. More than anything, he’s inconsistent — hot and cold. In the first two games this year, he managed just 117 yards, no TDs and an interception against the Falcons, then lost the season’s most improbable shootout against Ryan Fitzpatrick (in his swaggy bling triumph) despite 334 yards and a TD.
But he finished last season as strong as possible, playing near-perfect in three playoff wins as he led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over the Patriots — as the game’s MVP. Since Wentz got injured again this year, Foles has won four straight games as Philadelphia secured an improbable wild card slot, and won its first playoff game against Chicago.
It’s not just that he’s lucky or clutch, though he is both. Foles’s skill set — good and bad — make him better suited for the playoffs than the regular season, at least on this Eagles squad. It’s a wonderful trait for a backup quarterback
Specifically, he is even tempered, clutch, tall (6’6), great under pressure and against the blitz, gets the ball out quick, and knows his limits.
Even his weaknesses help, in some ways. He is one of the slowest QBs around (5.14 in the 40-yard dash, slower than many offensive linemen), which pushes him to get the ball out quickly or throw it away. And he is realistic about what he shouldn’t do.
He does not have the arm strength, ball velocity or tight space accuracy of Wentz, so he plays it safer and favors underneath passes for yards after catch, or aspirational long balls that his receivers either run under, or they drop safely on the turf. In the playoffs, when you are more likely to face elite cornerbacks, this is useful.
He is also best with a lot of Chip Kelly’s old playbook — mesh routes and run pass options — that arguably restrain his coach Doug Pederson’s more dangerous instincts. NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks quoted an unnamed former NFL offensive assistant:
“Foles plays within the system and the play-caller doesn’t ask him to do as much when he is running the offense. ... When you have a more talented player at quarterback, you might ask him to do too much because you can see the potential. With a lesser player, you tend to be a little more balanced and lean on other aspects of the offense. That could be why the Eagles’ offense looks different with the backup in.”
The results were broken down in a fascinating article by Benjamin Solak at Bleeding Green Nation. It’s very detailed (and long); if you have some time, it’s worth reading the whole thing.
He praises Foles’ processing speed and pre-snap recognition, and also his risk aversion. “Carson is also guilty of playing hero ball,” he notes. Ironically, not trying to be the hero is what makes you a playoff hero, at least on a talented team with a good scheme.
The Eagles are a different offense with Foles — more 12 personnel than 11, yet fewer throws and yards go to tight end Zach Ertz, and more to WR Alshon Jeffrey. The team runs more and involves the running backs in the passing game; it’s a lot of “mismatch ball.”
So it’s not just a crazy fluke; he really is better suited to playoff ball. Of course, he still wouldn’t have played unless Wentz got injured again. His limitations make it unlikely that he could succeed for a full season (and of course, he hasn’t, except during Chip Kelly’s first year, 2013.) It was Wentz who led the Eagles to an 11-2 record that got them a bye and the home field advantage in last year’s playoffs.
Even in these playoffs, it’s likely that coaches will be better prepared and schemed against his skill set than they were last year. He did not have a great game against Chicago, getting picked twice, and needing considerable luck (doink doink) to win by one point, 16-15. The Eagles’ great defense doesn’t hurt. But Foles did lead a fourth quarter TD drive to win.
So even if it’s working for Philadelphia, I don’t expect teams to start looking for playoff closers a la Foles, per se. But sort of; I define a great backup player as either a raw developmental player with a high ceiling (Steve Young or Aaron Rodgers), or a guy who could conceivably come in and win at least one playoff game. Foles is the best of the latter kind.
So that brings us to part 2 — is Nick Mullens a Foles-type closer? He did come in after injuries and have improbable success. They even share the nickname BDN (Big SITEDECORUM Nick).
I’d say, sort of yes and sort of no. No, because Mullens lacks Foles’ height (he’s just 6’1”) and his uncanny calmness, and is just a less talented guy in general. Yes, because he makes the most of his limits, in particular decisiveness and getting the ball out quickly (so as not to be killed) unlike the toughness of Beathard, which helps no one. He’s a bit faster than Foles (4.90 in the 40 yard dash), but as we’ve seen that might make him less of a closer (if more of a regular season QB).
The bottom line is, Nick Mullens hasn’t had any real clutch situations to test his mettle. I think that he has, at the very least, a big leg up on Beathard for the Niners’ backup role next year though. If all goes well, and an injury happens, I can think of worse people to come off the bench and try to finish out a game in January.