When Chip Kelly decided on Michael Vick as his starting quarterback in September, he had the backing of the man who hired him.
Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles’ longtime chairman, is still supportive of his first-year coach’s decision to go ahead with the 33-year-old Vick, despite the quarterback’s age, track record of injuries and recent struggles.
But he also believes the team’s top priority going forward is finding the next young franchise quarterback to pair with Kelly, the way Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb came together during the most successful decade in franchise history.
Nearly every Super Bowl-winning franchise was built around an elite, cornerstone quarterback.
“We need someone to step up, whether it’s an existing young quarterback or somebody we go out and acquire,” Lurie said in an exclusive interview with CSNPhilly.com. “We know -- this is no secret -- quarterback is the [ultimate] position and the most important difference-maker.”
Lurie views Sunday’s game against Oakland as another significant measurement of second-year pro Nick Foles’ ability to embrace that mantle. Foles will start against the Raiders at O.co Coliseum, backed up by rookie Matt Barkley with Vick out indefinitely after aggravating the hamstring injury that already sidelined him for two games.
“We want to have very healthy, high ability at that position, with excellent leadership and a lot of smarts and a lot of moxie. Someone that really can take that position and run with it,” Lurie said. “And so Nick is going to have a great opportunity to showcase what he’s done. He’s had some outstanding games and he’s had one poor game.
“Time will tell. I think it’s really wide open for those that are on the team and it’s wide open for what our strategy might be if we don’t have it. But it’s a No. 1 priority. We’ve got to solidify that position in a really good way.”
The interview with Lurie lasted about a half hour and touched on a variety of subjects as the Eagles reached the midway point of Kelly’s first season at 3-5 following Sunday’s 15-7 loss to the Giants, a loss that marked the team’s 10th straight at home dating back to 2012 and extended their offensive touchdown drought to eight quarters.
The losing record and offensive slump have done nothing to lead Lurie into believing he made the wrong decision in January, when he hired the former Oregon Ducks head coach, who had never coached in the NFL at any level. He even compared Kelly to coaching greats Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson (see story).
It’s clear, though, the owner believes that Kelly needs to find long-term stability at the game’s most important position. The Eagles have always felt strongly about Foles, a 2012 third-round pick out of Arizona who went 1-5 as a rookie last season filling in for an injured Vick. Foles was also the first rookie in NFL history to complete 60 percent of his passes and average 240 passing yards per game.
Interestingly, Lurie referenced some of Foles’ accomplishments when discussing the need to find the next quarterback to build around. He also emphasized the importance of being patient and the need for an honest sample size for evaluation.
“It’s not rebuilding. It’s about finding key players to take the horns, and one of it is quarterback,” Lurie said. “You can’t win in this league without great quarterback play. We had really good quarterback play when we played Tampa Bay, [with Nick Foles winning] Player of the Week. We need that kind of play at pretty close to that level each and every week.
“The better quarterbacks are real consistent. Rookie quarterbacks are not. Troy Aikman, John Elway, Peyton [Manning]. The only guy I know is Dan Marino, who was great from the get-go. I don’t know anybody who wasn’t like really erratic (as a rookie). So I think you’ve got to just look at it really in an analytic sense. Anyone who thinks that a rookie quarterback, whether it’s Nick or Matt, is going to flow through and be Player of the Week every week is silly.”
Foles won NFC Player of the Week after carving up Tampa Bay on Oct. 13 for 296 yards and three touchdowns, completing 71 percent of his passes and compiling a 133.3 passer rating. The week before, he took over for an injured Vick and passed for 197 yards and two touchdowns in about one half of action, completing 64 percent of his throws and registering a 114.9 passer rating.
On Oct. 20, starting for Vick against the Cowboys at the Linc, Foles turned in one of the worst performances by an Eagles quarterback in team history, managing just 80 yards on 11 for 29 passing, completing just 38 percent of passes with a 46.2 passer rating.
Still, Lurie said Foles “has a lot going for him.”
“A lot,” Lurie added. “He’s going to have an opportunity now to show us all. We just have to be supportive. I hope the players around him protect him well so we can see him flourish, and [to] know what we have going forward would be great.”
Lurie agreed with Kelly’s against-the-grain decision to open the season with Vick, who was coming off two disastrous seasons and hadn’t started 16 games since 2006. Vick accepted a pay cut to come back and compete for the starting job.
Lurie likened the strategy to the one employed by 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who drafted project quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round out of Nevada but started his tenure with veteran Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick who had a 19-31 record after five unfulfilling seasons.
Under Harbaugh, Smith posted then-career highs in completion percentage (61.3), yards (3,144) and passer rating (90.7) and took the Niners to the NFC Championship Game.
“He resurrected Alex and gave him a very, very good winning record and performance," Lurie said. "They were a team that was ready to win big, because of all those years in the lottery you pile up a lot of high No. 1 picks. He had that. So he went with Alex.
“There’s other cases of that happening. Dick Vermeil went with Trent Green, who then got hurt and it was Kurt Warner. I understand why [Kelly] wanted to, for sure, see Michael and what he could do, because, when healthy, he was accomplishing a lot. Not healthy, it’s hard to accomplish a lot. So, yes, that was potentially a positive short-term strategy.”
And for the long-term?
If it’s not Foles, maybe Barkley. If not Barkley, maybe someone from the 2014 draft class -- be it Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or whichever dynamic, dual-threat quarterback Kelly would likely prefer to execute his read-option schemes.
Kelly had the chance to draft either of the two top-rated quarterbacks from 2013 class -- E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith -- but Lurie signed off on the decision to bypass both prospects and select Barkley in the fourth round.
“We could be wrong, but the fact that one of those quarterbacks would now be our potential franchise quarterbacks for the next four years, we couldn’t find anybody we were high enough on,” he said. “Now, we could be wrong. History will decide. If any of those guys -- E.J. and Geno -- come through in a big way, then that was great picks by those teams. We didn’t feel it.”