Pressure got to Nick Foles first time around, but he's Philly tough now | Jeff McLane

ST. PAUL, Minn. – When Nick Foles was drafted by the Eagles in 2012, LeSean McCoy was in his fourth season and already a tough-skinned veteran of playing in Philadelphia. Having grown up in nearby Harrisburg, the running back was already familiar with the city’s nit-picking reputation, but he said he also lacked an innocence that would sometimes make players like Foles vulnerable to outside criticism.

“A lot of players that come from other teams are like, ‘The media is so different here. Like the fans, the radio stations are so different,’” McCoy said Monday during a telephone interview. “It’s a different place. Not everybody is made for it. You got to have a thicker skin.

“But Nick is more like – I’ll give you an example: The guy said two curse words the three years I was with him. You know what I mean? He’s a good dude. So it was tough for him.”

Foles so disliked negativity during his first tenure with the Eagles, according to McCoy, that when other players would disparage teammates who weren’t in their presence, the quarterback would speak up rather than join in or stay silent, as is typically the norm.

“He’s like, ‘Come on, guys. Why?’” McCoy said. “He’s nice — like innocent.”

But the critical comments that were directed at him, and the general pressure of playing quarterback in a championship-starved town that can sometimes eat its own, would sometimes grate on Foles, current and former teammates said. He wouldn’t lash out or openly complain, but he would carp to certain friends on the team — “more in a joking manner,” according to tight end Zach Ertz.

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“He would never show that he was seriously upset about it,” Ertz said last week, “but he did throw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions [in 2013] and people still doubted him that next year, like he didn’t deserve to be the franchise quarterback.”

Foles, of course, never got to have that designation with the Eagles. Chip Kelly traded him to the Rams after the 2014 season and the quarterback had a series of setbacks that left him contemplating retirement after he was released by St. Louis.

But the trials Foles encountered, he has said, have only made him stronger. And the natural maturity that comes with time and the perspective he has gained from marriage and fatherhood, he has said, have hardened his shell in his second stint with the Eagles.

It’s difficult to imagine the 2012-14 Foles rebounding from a two-game struggle and the overwhelming doubt he faced at the end of this season as he has during his remarkable postseason run to the Super Bowl.

“That Nick is different from this Nick,” Foles said. “You could ask yourself, ‘Hey, when you were 20 are you the same person?’ You’re not. You may have the same values, you might look a little older, you might have some things that are the same, but your heart, everything about you, starts growing, changing – good or bad.

“It just depends on how you approach life. So me then and now – I’ve grown, I’ve changed, I’m married, I have a daughter. My life has changed.”

Foles wasn’t exactly unaccustomed to external pressures before he arrived in Philly. He played at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, a football powerhouse that had already produced NFL quarterback Drew Brees. In college, he played at the University of Arizona – not exactly a high-profile PAC-10 program, but at the Division A-I level, nonetheless.

But almost nothing could have prepared him for Philly.

“Playing in this city when you’re young is obviously not the easiest,” Ertz said. “You come from Stanford or you come from the University of Arizona – there’s no media coverage. You’re the best players in college and you don’t have to deal with a lot of negative talk. It feels good when people talk well about you.

“I think the more you’re in the city, the more adversity you face, everyone kind of builds that thick skin.”

Ertz said he was talking about himself as much as he was Foles. But for quarterbacks, it’s different. A team’s prospects and manner are tied to quarterbacks more than any other position. They shouldn’t fluctuate. And Foles, Ertz said, isn’t “living and dying by every single play” anymore.

At that moment, Carson Wentz walked by Ertz in one of the NovaCare Complex hallways. The injured quarterback has shown a steely resolve in two seasons.

“Nothing bugs him,” Ertz said of Wentz. “And it affects the whole locker room.”

But Wentz was drafted to be the franchise quarterback. He didn’t lose his head coach after one season. He didn’t have to learn a new offense in his second season. He didn’t have to play in a system in which the offense was run solely from the sideline.

Chip Kelly’s scheme played a significant role in Foles’ success in 2013. But it didn’t allow for the quarterback to display traditional NFL traits. The plays were sent onto the field via signaling and cards. They were run at a hyper speed that didn’t permit audibles. As former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians once said of the offense: “That ain’t playing QB. No leadership in that.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Injured quarterback Carson Wentz, left, watches current starter Nick Foles warm up during the Eagles’ practice at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018.

When Foles returned to the Eagles this past offseason and he first called his plays in the huddle in Doug Pederson’s more conventional offense, tight end Trey Burton said he and Ertz gave each other a knowing glance.

“You can see the maturity,” Burton said. “It’s just so different because it was such a different offense. Everything was blazing fast. But now it’s slowed down and he can actually talk in the huddle. It’s weird.”

Kelly traded Foles just days after McCoy was dealt to the Bills.

“For real? Oh, wow,” McCoy said with a chuckle. “He got us all out of there.”

The Pro Bowl running back didn’t hide his dismay after being sent to Buffalo. McCoy took several shots at Kelly and would refer to him only as “a certain person” during this interview. But he said he still has many friends on the Eagles and has been openly cheering on Foles and his former team.

McCoy and former Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin attended the Eagles’ divisional playoff victory over the Falcons. They watched from defensive tackle Fletcher Cox’s private box. He said he remains close with Cox, tackle Jason Peters, running back Darren Sproles, and several other players. McCoy said he’s tight with owner Jeffrey Lurie.

“He still had something to do with the trade. Let’s not kid ourselves,” McCoy said. “But he’s cool. He was put in a tough spot.”

McCoy said it was easy to root for Foles. He recalled times when teammates would engage in locker room talk, and if the quarterback didn’t like what he heard, he’d just walk away. He discouraged cursing, although when NFL Films had him miked during a 2014 game, he swore three times after a New York Giants player bent Sproles backward and injured his knee.

“It was funny hearing him curse,” McCoy said. “I was like, ‘Wow, he was pissed.’”

McCoy isn’t shocked by his run to the Super Bowl.

“It’s amazing to see. Now he’s not Wentz. Wentz is a special type talent,” McCoy said. “But I’m not surprised at all that Nick is doing this. He’s going to start somewhere. There’s a lot of bad quarterbacks in this league and he could be a starter on a lot of different teams.”

He’s battle-tested this time around.