Backup quarterbacks are the NFL’s version of insurance policies, and because insurance is boring, we usually don’t talk about them much until the storm hits and we check the premiums.
But for the Chiefs, other than the rehab of stars and the emergency call for a pass rush, the development of an alternative for a possible injury to Alex Smith is the most important task of this preseason.
And, it should be noted, with 17 days remaining until the season opener, the Chiefs appear to have knocked this off the list of reasons to worry.
By signing Nick Foles three weeks ago, the Chiefs made clear a lack of confidence in the incumbents for the QB2 job opened by Chase Daniel’s departure for Philadelphia.
Foles was underwhelming in his debut against the Seahawks. His timing appeared to be a tick off, and his passes weren’t as accurate as they needed to be, particularly against coverage. That was to be expected, less a reason for worry and rather more confirmation that it’s difficult for a human being — no matter his familiarity with a coach or system — to be ready to play NFL quarterback in five weeks.
That changed in a big way last weekend against the Rams, with Foles showing perhaps as much improvement from the first game as anyone on the roster.
“He certainly (looked) a lot more comfortable,” co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. “He did a great job knowing where to go with the football. You saw some things with him moving out of the pocket, being able to adjust and throwing the football. Just an overall comfort with everything we’re doing.”
This is no small thing. Foles completed 4 of 8 passes against the Seahawks, the balls arriving a split-second too late or a few feet off-target. Once, he led Demetrius Harris over the middle and into danger, directly in front of a safety. Those are the kind of throws that erode a receiver’s confidence.
Foles was much better against the Rams, completing 18 of 22 passes for 133 yards. His completion percentage was a bit inflated by a steady stream of short passes, but there was a crispness to his footwork and a confidence in his throws that was lacking the week before.
This was best seen when Foles — playing with and against backups — was regularly forced out of the pocket. He’s 6 feet, 6 inches and 243 pounds, but he has good feet and enough athleticism to escape pressure. He’s not going to be the same threat to run as Smith, but he appears capable of extending plays and giving his receivers more time to get open.
He showed that repeatedly against the Rams. He broke out of the pocket to his left, and threw across his body for a completion downfield to Tyreek Hill. He stood against pressure and made a nice throw to running back Darrin Reaves for what would’ve been a big gain if not for a holding penalty. His best play may have been a throw on the run, off one foot, to tight end Ross Travis to convert a second-and-10.
These are all promising signs. In some ways, it was easy to take all of this for granted. Foles, after all, was drafted by and spent his rookie season with Andy Reid and several other current Chiefs coaches in Philadelphia. He also has 35 career starts, including a 27-touchdown-and-two-interception season in 2013.
But it’s been four years since Foles was with Reid. The coach’s playbook is vastly different (and much bigger). The quarterback’s weaknesses have been exposed (including inconsistent accuracy), and he’s now been given up on by two teams in two years.
So this development is critical for the team if Smith goes down. This isn’t something that every team, or every player, could pull off.
“He’s a pretty quick study,” Childress said.
That’s particularly important here. If the Chiefs need Foles to get them through a few games, they will almost certainly adjust and shrink the playbook. So the ultimate success would depend not on Foles learning it all, but on him learning some of it very well.
This may amount to nothing, of course. Smith has made all but two starts in three years for the Chiefs, and one of those was as a healthy scratch when the team sat most of its best players to rest for the 2013 playoffs. But Smith did have an extensive injury history in San Francisco, and only five quarterbacks have made at least 15 starts in each of the last four years.
The possibility of needing to get through a few weeks without Smith is real. Even with the need for an edge-rusher and a cover corner to play opposite Marcus Peters, this is the best Chiefs roster in years — probably a decade, at least. The quickest way for it to be derailed was always an injury to Smith.
Signing Foles was an aggressive, all-in move to cover a potentially fatal flaw. But that was only the beginning. The Chiefs still had to work with him. And Foles, whose confidence is likely shaken after throwing 20 interceptions over 19 starts in the last two years, still had to learn.
The Chiefs are roughly halfway through the preseason, but they already appear to have built a nice insurance policy.
Now, about that pass rush ...