In the days after Philadelphia Eagles Coach Doug Pederson was forced to give his offense to backup quarterback Nick Foles last December, he handed Foles something even more vital: the chance to say no.
The Eagles had to change their offense from what worked best for previous starter Carson Wentz to what Foles preferred. This is the hardest part of the adjustment when a starting quarterback gets hurt and the backup has to take his place. The coaches must adapt, too. Priority is no longer the beauty of squiggling lines in their playbooks, it’s what the quarterback likes most.
In the case of Foles, Pederson realized his new quarterback did a good job of executing run-pass option plays, or RPOs, when Foles played for the Eagles a few years before. And so a Philadelphia offense built for a quarterback who sometimes scrambled on his own, turned into one where the quarterback’s runs were more calculated.
“We had to go back and sort of find his rhythm within the offense and then just keep repping that over and over again,” Pederson said.
The Eagles were 10-2 when Wentz fell to the ground in Los Angeles last Dec. 10, his ACL torn and his season over. Wentz had been a favorite to win the league’s MVP award before he went down. Many predicted Philadelphia would collapse without him. Instead, with Foles running his RPOs, the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl.
When the Redskins meet the Eagles on Monday night, it is Washington’s Jay Gruden who faces a similar challenge to Pederson’s. Much like Philadelphia last year, the Redskins were in first place in the NFC East when starting quarterback Alex Smith broke his leg and was lost for the season. Washington’s hold on first was far more tenuous at 6-3 — it has since dissolved to 6-5, and the team has tumbled into second place following the Dallas Cowboys' win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night. But the basic principle is the same. An NFC East contender has lost its quarterback, and people are predicting doom.
Because there were only three days between Smith’s injury and Washington’s next game, a Thanksgiving loss to Dallas, his replacement, Colt McCoy, had little time to properly prepare. It wasn’t until this past week that McCoy was able to throw to the first-team receivers, tight ends and running backs as the starting quarterback. It was also the first week he could properly prepare with his coaches — points Gruden has emphasized in recent days.
“Now you really have time to put a game plan together,” Gruden said this week.
But the most important part of that plan is not what Gruden or his assistants want, it’s what McCoy says he wants.
Coaches and quarterbacks always discuss plays in the days before games, and those quarterbacks usually have a final say on what plays are eventually used in the game. In the case of Smith and Gruden or Wentz and Pederson, they were likely in agreement about what plays to run because they had worked all season on game plans. With a replacement, however, the comfort of the replacement quarterback becomes ever more essential.
“Never call a play the quarterback doesn’t like,” said former Colts and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, now an analyst for the NFL on CBS.
This is one of the most sacred rules of head coaches, one emphasized this past week by Gruden, who proclaimed that he had “never, ever put in a play that a quarterback is uncomfortable with,” before adding, with a chuckle: “You can believe that if you want, but it’s true.”
For some coaches this can be a hard concept. Coaches, especially offensive ones, can fall in love with plays. They spend months designing them, fine-tuning them, getting them exactly right. They believe in them. But if the quarterbacks don’t feel right, the coaches have to put them away.
“It doesn’t matter how much you love it, the quarterback has to run his stuff,” Arians said. “You don’t work with systems, you work with players. You have to do what he wants. If you don’t, you’re a bad coach.
“You might start putting in some [plays] on Wednesday that you really think will work but when you meet with him on Friday and Saturday he might scratch it off the board. He either doesn’t see it or like it or he doesn’t have a rapport with a receiver.”
Arians, who used to let his quarterbacks pick the list of the first 15 passing plays the team ran in the game, as well as all the third-down and red-zone throws, has plenty of experience in dealing with quarterback disasters. In January 2015 he was forced to start a 25-year-old Ryan Lindley — with only five career starts — in a wild-card playoff game against Carolina. Last season, he went through Carson Palmer and Blaine Gabbert before starting Drew Stanton in Week 16. Stanton won the team’s final two games to pull Arizona to 8-8.
These were trying experiences, Arians said. Lindley only threw for 82 yards in the playoff game and was intercepted twice, but the score turned out to be a relatively close 27-16 loss. The key, he added, is to “never blink” and to realize that the people who are affected most by a quarterback change are the coaches and the quarterback. The plays the team will use are already in the offense and have been practiced during the season, they just won’t be the same plays the previous quarterback used.
“You just put on the film from Install Day No. 5 or whatever, say it’s crossing routes, then you say, ‘We will be using these.’”
Chances are, Gruden and McCoy won’t have to adjust much to the new game plan. Just as Pederson had worked with Foles before last year, this is the fifth season Gruden and McCoy have been together in Washington. In many ways, McCoy knows what Gruden likes in his offense more than Smith did. The coaches were still trying to figure out which plays Smith felt most comfortable with when he went down. They probably have a much better idea of what McCoy likes, and vice versa.
Earlier in the week, McCoy talked about having a good knowledge of the ideas and goals of Gruden’s offense. “It’s an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “What were we designing on this play? Where is the ball supposed to go here?” Because he knows the reason Gruden installed the play in the first place, he probably won’t have much disagreement over the game plan.
“We talk about every play,” Gruden said. “Somebody might say something different but … I try to make him as comfortable as possible.”
For now, with his team’s once-solid playoff hopes now teetering, Gruden said he looks to last year’s Eagles for inspiration. “You can learn a lot from that,” he said. As he works with McCoy in the days and hours before Monday night’s game, he will listen as much as he will talk. This is the first rule for coaches and quarterbacks, after all: Never call a play the quarterback doesn’t like.
“It’s tough,” Pederson said of making the midseason adjustment. “You have to worry about the other members of your offense and you can’t necessarily change your offense midstream. But I think you can find things that would be very beneficial whether it’s shotgun or under center or whatever it is.”
Just make sure it’s what the new quarterback wants most.
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