Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Eagles was still in question with 3:26 left in the second quarter and the Vikings dropping back to pass on a 3rd and five from the Eagles 16-yard line. They were down just 14-7 and at the time Eagles fans were sitting on the couch hoping for a stop just to force a field goal. The Vikings had just had a 61-yard, 11 play drive that was about to culminate in some points and, outside of their first drive that was a 9 play, 75-yard masterpiece that cut through the Eagles elite defense, it was the best they’d looked all night. Eagles fans had reason to feel nervous.
On that play, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum dropped back to pass, reared his arm back to throw, and was poised to throw to either Kyle Rudolph on a corner route for a touchdown to Stephon Diggs on an in-breaking route for a first down. Both receivers had a step on their defenders, so it may have been a touchdown or first down. Instead, Eagles first round pick Derek Barnett came around the edge, almost unblocked, to sack Keenum and force a fumble, which was recovered by Chris Long of the Eagles.
The Eagles didn’t go into their two-minute offense and in some ways seemed content with taking the ball into halftime up 14-7 with the promise of receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter. They started the drive with 3:16 on the clock and ran just two plays before the two minute warning with both plays going for two yards. After the two minute warning though, back-up quarterback Nick Foles led a drive that seemed to provide him with confidence for the rest of the game in a NFC Championship performance fit for a star.
On 3rd and six Foles hit running back Corey Clement on a swing to the left. Clement made a beautiful spin move at the line of scrimmage that forced Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr to miss on the tackle, then ran for eight yards and a first down, while getting out of bounds to stop the clock. The next play Foles hit Torrey Smith with a wide receiver screen for 11-yards and a first down.
Foles didn’t connect on his next two passes with both of them amounting to throwaways in the face of good coverage down field. On 3rd and 10 though, Alshon Jeffrey ran a 15-yard dig and go route that cornerback Terrence Newman bit on, which resulted in a 53-yard touchdown that brought the score to 21-7 in favor of the Eagles.
The Vikings earned one first down on their next drive, but unfortunately for them, rather than pin the Eagles deep, Ryan Quigley’s punt went into the end zone and the Eagles started at their own 20-yard line. With just 38 seconds on the clock, if the ball was inside the Eagles own ten-yard line, it’s likely they would have taken a knee and went into the halftime. Instead, on the first play, Foles hit running back Jay Ajayi behind the line of scrimmage in the flat and Ajayi ran for 11-yards and out of bounds after acquiring the first down. Foles then hit tight end Zach Ertz on another beautiful double move where he ran a 9-yard out near the sticks that burned safety Harrison Smith for a 33-yard out-and-up, while he also got out of bounds. Now on the Vikings 33-yard line, they were already within kicker Jake Elliott’s range, but another pass to Ajayi resulted in a 13-yard gain that made Elliott’s kick a more manageable 38-yarder. He made the kick and the score was 24-7 at the end of the half with the red-hot Eagles offense and a confident Nick Foles getting the ball to start the third quarter.
In my pregame write up I posted on Saturday, I mentioned that along with advantages on the offensive and defensive lines, I thought the Eagles had too many offensive weapons for the Vikings to stop all game. In the first drive of the third quarter, Torrey Smith became a focal point of the offense—a player who was fourth on the team in catches and yards on the season with 36 for 430, but is a talented enough player to have 1128 receiving yards for the Ravens in 2013 and earn a five-year, $40 million contract with the 49ers in 2015. In the Eagles’ offense though, he doesn’t need to be the top receiver; he’s instead in a role more suited for a player of his caliber. While Ertz provides an elite tight end, Jeffery draws the attention of the opponent’s top cornerback due to his abilities as a first-tier caliber receiver, while Agholor provides dynamic ability out of the slot.
On the first two plays of the drive, Foles hit Smith for four yards on a hitch, then six yards on an in route and a first down. Ajayi ran for three yards on first down, then Foles hit Jeffrey for 10-yards and a first down while getting laid out by Barr as he threw. Ajayi then ran for five yards on first down, running back LeGarrette Blount had a run for -1-yard, then Foles hit Smith on another wide receiver screen for a first down, running the same play they ran towards the end of the first half.
With the ball on the Vikings 41-yard line and the team steadily marching downfield, Doug Pederson made a tremendous and unexpected call. (The value of great coaching is immense, as the success of Foles might not work without Pederson’s great game planning these last two weeks.) Corey Clement took a handoff and immediately pitched it back to Foles for the flea-flicker. Torrey Smith acted like he was running his cornerback, Trae Waynes, off and then moving in to block him, but he did it in a lackadaisical manner that receivers sometimes will when the ball is being run to the opposite side of the field. When Waynes’ eyes went into the backfield to see where the ball was under the assumption that it was a running play, Smith took off and used his most valuable resource, his speed as a deep threat to beat Waynes and safety Harrison Smith over the top for a 41-yard touchdown. The Eagles fourth best receiving option over the course of the season had 58-yards on the 75-yard touchdown drive, and the score made it 31-7 and put the game seemingly out of reach for the Vikings with 10:05 left in the third quarter.
Not many teams have a player of Smith’s caliber in that kind of role, which is something the Patriots have traditionally done well and a strategy more teams should be trying to implement through their salary cap construction. Rather than spend heavily on a quarterback and top receiver, maybe spend on your quarterback, but find depth in the pass catchers through building the offense around a lower cost tight end with multiple pass catchers at mid-tier costs.
Between the score that made it 31-7 and Barnett’s sack when the game was 14-7, the Vikings ran just six plays for 22-yards. The Eagles had three scoring drives to the Vikings one drive. It’s that kind of performance at the end of a half, while getting the ball to start the second half that has helped the Patriots win so consistently and it was a great sign for Eagles fans that their offense was able to capitalize on the mistake and blow the game wide open. The Patriots are adept at hitting a field goal at the end of a half, then taking the ball to start the second half and going down for seven points, scoring 10 points before the opponent’s offense has a chance to respond.
On the next drive the Vikings got the ball down to the Eagles seven yard line, but rather than have the ability to settle for a field goal in a closer game, the Vikings had to try to score a touchdown with about six and a half minutes left in the game because of the 24 point lead for the home team. Rather than kick a field goal and play football with over 20 minutes left, say if the game was 21-7 or 24-7 at the time.
Instead, the Vikings failed, the game was still 31-7 and the Eagles had the ball back. On the ensuing drive, the Eagles were moving the ball, then Foles hit Agholor for a 42-yard gain after he got behind Waynes on a scramble drill where he broke his route deep from its intended 10-yard out. Ajayi lost two yards on the next play, back-up tight end Trey Burton had a 12-yard catch for a first down, then Clement had a 14-yard rush that had 15-yard added to the end of it due to an illegal hands to the face penalty by Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Two plays later, with the ball on the Vikings five-yard line, Foles hit Jeffery for a touchdown over the middle of the field to make it 38-7.
The entire game was changed with Barnett’s sack fumble—and Barnett was drafted with a first-round pick that the Eagles received from the Vikings, along with a fourth rounder they used on running back Donnel Pumphrey, in exchange for Sam Bradford. This brings us back to a topic I’ve discussed many times on Over The Cap and will come back to many times in the future: the value of the quarterback.
We just watched an NFC Championship Game where both quarterbacks started the season as back-ups; Blake Bortles was in the AFC Championship Game as well, almost beating the greatest of all-time in Tom Brady. While Foles went 26 for 33 (78.8%) for 352 yards (10.7 yds/att) and three touchdowns and Bortles had a good game going 23 for 36 (63.9%) for 293 yards (8.1 yds/att) and one touchdown, Keenum was kept under pressure all game by an Eagles defensive line that goes seven deep. Bortles played poorly down the stretch though as the Jaguars offensive coordinator lost his nerve, became predictable, and went away from play action passing where Bortles had completed 91.7% of his play action passes on the day according to Pro Football Focus. Also according to PFF, Case Keenum was under pressure on 24 of his 50 drop backs. He ended the day completing 28 of 48 passes (58.3%) for 271 yards (5.6 yds/att) with one touchdown to two interceptions, while going 11 of 22 for 108 yards with an interception under pressure.
That interception under pressure was Patrick Robinson’s 50-yard interception returned for a touchdown that made the game 7-7. Chris Long hit Keenum’s arm while he threw, which caused his pass to not reach his target and instead fall into Robinson’s arms. The two biggest game-changing plays in this game, the interception that tied up the game early on as the Vikings seemed to be flowing on offense and a sack fumble when the Vikings had the opportunity to tie it up themselves, were caused by defensive pressure. While Foles had a great game, there are alternative strategies to success than the “you need a quarterback to succeed” school of thought that many people in the NFL and NFL media have adopted.
The key factor in this game was defensive pressure and it seems to be a key factor come playoff time. The Eagles got pressure on Keenum and the Jaguars vaunted defensive front didn’t get enough pressure on Brady as they only pressured him on nine of 42 drop backs, which is 21.4%. While Foles was kept clean for much of the day against a Vikings defensive line that wasn’t nearly as deep or explosive as the Eagles line, Keenum was under pressure all day with those pressures being deciding factors in the game. It kind of makes me question: what would this game have looked like if the Vikings didn’t trade for Bradford?
The Eagles started the 2016 offseason aiming for a three quarterback strategy, which I explain in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, as I had talked to members of their front office in November about the efficacy of a three quarterback strategy considering it was clear that Bradford was not the solution that would lead them to a Super Bowl. Rather than sign him long-term in an offense that thrives on mobility, the Eagles signed him to a flexible two-year contract that decreased dead money against the cap if he was traded. The deal gave Bradford the equivalent in guaranteed money that the franchise tag would have given him, while his potentially $23.5 million cap hit with the Eagles, which would have been over 14% of the cap signaled to me that they had no intention of keeping him beyond the 2016 season.
They signed Chase Daniel to a three year contract at $7 million per season, then they traded the Browns five draft picks in return for two and the right to move up to draft Carson Wentz, who has proven to be an ideal system fit for Pederson’s offense. This strategy was predicated on the understanding that quarterback is the most highly valued position in the NFL to the point where it’s overvalued—with the Eagles knowing they’d be able to trade Bradford to re-coup some of the picks they lost in the Wentz trade at some point with the hope being that he’d have a good season and, after the season, he would gain them something similar to the second-round pick and conditional pick the 49ers received for Alex Smith from the Chiefs in 2013.
Instead, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down just before the 2016 season with a devastating knee injury and the Vikings, thinking they had a Super Bowl caliber team, traded the Eagles that first round pick and what ended up being a fourth round pick as well. They received even more than the 49ers were able to get for a more proven Smith as desperation at quarterback causes teams to overpay in a way they’d never behave for another position. The Eagles in turn got to draft a promising defensive end who helped turn the tide in this NFC Championship match-up with the Vikings and a 2018 fourth round pick, which they traded to Miami for running back Jay Ajayi who was one of the Eagles most valuable players in this game with 99 offensive yards on 21 touches. With Wentz being down, Ajayi has turned out to be a most vital move as the depth and talent in the backfield are something Foles can lean on.
With Wentz on a low-cost rookie deal, the Eagles have been able to eat the dead money that Bradford and the now departed Daniel have produced with the three players combining for 11.12% of the cap in 2017. And rather than hang on to Daniel, once Foles became available with the Chiefs declining his second year option, the Eagles signed him to a two-year deal that had a cap hit of just 0.96% in 2017. A very smart and, as we now see, important move for the Eagles to sign a player who knew Pederson’s offensive system that he was drafted to run by the Andy Reid regime when he and Pederson were in Philadelphia. In the trade to the Browns, they lost a first, third, and fourth-round pick in 2016, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick. They got back the 2016 first-round pick with the #2 pick that they used on Wentz and a 2017 fourth-round pick. Then in the Bradford trade they got back the 2017 first and fourth, which makes the Browns trade feel like they almost just lost the 2018 second-round pick, while the rest of the picks have been recovered with the only consequences being the loss of the pick and the dead money attributed to Bradford and now Daniel.
It’s an unfortunate situation for the Vikings because I can’t fault them for making the trade as, considering their 2017 season, they clearly had a roster that could compete for a championship, but they also made it happen with “journeyman” Case Keenum under center and Bradford on the sideline, injured again with his bad knees.
With Bradford at 10.78% of the cap on the Vikings bench after ceding the job to Keenum, that team could have been much improved around Keenum or another quarterback without that trade and without the expense of Bradford or the two picks they lost because of it. It’s unfortunate for the Vikings that Bridgewater got hurt because the roster had already been constructed in this run-first, defensive model that just needs an efficient quarterback already and Bridgewater was doing a good job in that role with a career 64.7% completion percentage and just nine interceptions in 2015. Bridgewater is accurate, he’s mobile, and he protects the football, which are three keys to victory with this kind of young, rookie contract quarterback, similar to what the Eagles have when Wentz is healthy. Pairing that young mobile quarterback with an effective rushing offense, as the Vikings, Eagles, and Jaguars did in 2017, is the key to success for a team built in this model. A good running game makes play action makes him more effective, which improves the odds of success for the quarterback with any distance created between his pass catchers and the players defending him increases his margin for error.
Instead of having Bridgewater at 1.31% of the cap with Keenum at 1.14%, the Vikings also had Bradford at almost 11% without those two picks. Together they cost 13.23% of the cap, rather than the under three percent of the cap that Bridgewater and Keenum with a rookie contract quarterback as the third stringer would cost. Just playing the scenario out, the Vikings may have been able to sign another offensive and defensive lineman with that money; maybe they sign another receiver as well so they have more options. Maybe they had the cap space to sign center J.C. Tretter to a contract, rather than starting 2017 third round pick Pat Elflein at center. Maybe the first round pick they gave up for Bradford is another offensive or defensive lineman and maybe the fourth rounder is a contributor on special teams. Maybe the Vikings might have had a better rushing offense if Dalvin Cook was healthy and this NFC Championship Game would have looked different as well? The Vikings had a formidable roster, but the Eagles clearly had a better one that was deeper at numerous key positions.
While it could have worked out, I’m typically against these kinds of short-term moves to win now, rather than the longer-term viewpoint. I understand the position the Vikings were put in, but philosophically, they could have traded the Chiefs for much less to get Nick Foles last year. Interestingly, Vikings GM Rick Spielman also liked Foles according to Ian Rapoport and it’s likely he could have gotten him for less and re-signed him for less, giving the team more cap room to spend on pieces around the quarterback. If Pat Shurmur could get this kind of season out of Keenum, he probably could’ve done the same with Foles. Both offensive play callers in this game illustrate the value of great coordinators and the importance teams must place in hiring elite creative problem solvers to their coaching staffs.
Bradford had a good season in 2016 with a 71.6% completion percentage and 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to five interceptions, but even with Bradford under center the Vikings only went 8-8. With all three quarterbacks on their roster free agents in 2018 and considering the roster construction and on-field strategy they already have in place that is built on running the football with Dalvin Cook coming back and defense, I would likely go for whoever the cheapest quarterback is between Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum. If Bradford’s knee is an ongoing concern, then I would cross him off that list. Same with Bridgewater. If they can sign Keenum to a three-year contract worth about $15 million per year, like Jason Fitzgerald has predicted here at Over The Cap, then that could be a good deal with him never breaching 9% of the cap. If Bridgewater is healthy and they can sign him to a two-year deal worth the $6 to $7 million that Jason predicted in that same article, that would be an even better deal as the Vikings would really be primed to continue building on this strategy for success.
The Eagles lost 7.48% of the cap in 2017 to Bradford and Daniel with Bradford also carrying $11 million (7.08% of the cap) in dead money in 2016, which was manageable because of Wentz being on the rookie contract. Outside of the dead money cap hits, they lost out on one more draft pick than they gained through the Wentz and Bradford trades. The ability for the Eagles to maintain depth on their roster and overcome dead money cap hits comes from the strong caponomics they used this season with no player making over Lane Johnson’s 5.89% of the cap heading into the season. Alshon Jeffery ended the season at 6.50% of the cap after signing an extension. Philadelphia’s balance has been maintained through a strong spread of spending that sees 26 cap hits over one percent of the cap, plus the ability to still draft Wentz and Barnett as difference makers at two very important positions. They had 18 cap hits over two percent of the cap with much of their roster depth coming in this area.
Nick Foles had a superstar caliber game, but the game turned on two great plays by Eagles’ pass rushers and the Vikings offense was off balance all night because of that pass rush as well. When a team has a rookie contract quarterback or doesn’t have an elite quarterback available to them, they must build their roster in this fashion. With first Wentz and now Foles performing at this high level under Pederson’s tutelage and a pass rush that produced pressure almost 50% of the time against the Vikings (after a season of producing pressure on 40% of all passing games) the Eagles pose a real threat to dethrone the Patriots as they’ve created a formula that can get pressure with just four pass rushers with seven defensive backs behind them, which has beaten Tom Brady before. The Jaguars almost beat the Patriots in Foxboro using this strategy that Tom Coughlin used to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, so if the Eagles can produce at the same level they did against the Vikings, the city of Philadelphia may see it’s first Super Bowl champion.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, an NFLPA certified agent, and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.