The photo in the NovaCare Complex hallway from his 2013 Pro Bowl season still looms large, and there are others now, even bigger, on other walls, from Super Bowl LII, to remind Nick Foles of what he is capable of doing.
Foles will open the season Thursday night as the Eagles’ starting quarterback, the team opting to be cautious with franchise quarterback Carson Wentz as Wentz returns from knee surgery. But that caution isn’t expected to extend more than a week or two. The plan is for Foles to retreat to the sideline before the leaves turn.
If Foles spends most of the year performing mop-up work, as he did in 2016 for Kansas City behind Alex Smith, can Foles command offers to become a starter somewhere when he hits free agency in 2019? And what will this season be like for Foles, if he spends most of it wearing a ball cap and holding a clipboard, this man who put together the most amazing playoff run in franchise history?
Everyone has ego, even the humble, pious, team-first Super Bowl MVP. Foles acknowledged this after the Super Bowl, in his book, Believe It. In it he talks about that Pro Bowl hallway reminder, from the season when he threw 27 touchdown passes with just two interceptions, before he got hurt in 2014, traded to the Rams in 2015, and nearly retired after crashing and burning there.
Foles and co-author Joshua Cooley wrote that in deciding to sign with the Eagles to back up Wentz for the 2017 season, Foles had to confront that hallway photo, “a constant reminder of what was, at that point, the greatest season of my NFL career. And I was going to have to walk right past it nearly every day on my way to and from the team meeting room.”
Foles doesn’t go on to say that he averted his eyes every time he passed the photo or anything. In fact, he then makes a point of underscoring how he didn’t come back to the Eagles to start, that “I just wanted to support Carson to the best of my ability. … I am a competitor, so it was hard for me to stand on the sidelines. But I knew what I’d been brought to Philly to do.
“If the past three seasons had taught me anything, it’s that you never know what the future holds. All I wanted to do was be part of an organization that I loved and glorify God in my role, no matter what happened that season.”
What happened was that Foles indeed became an afterthought as Wentz put up MVP-candidate numbers, right up until the moment on the afternoon of Dec. 10 when Wentz got crunched while diving into the end zone on a touchdown scramble that would be called back anyway, because of a Lane Johnson penalty. Wentz ended up with a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee, and Foles ended up taking the helm of what would become the first Eagles team to win a Super Bowl.
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Now he’s filling in again, before becoming the backup again, at 29. He’ll turn 30 on Jan. 20, before next year’s Super Bowl, and before free agency. Isn’t it harder this time, to contemplate receding into the background, to think about having to sit and watch?
“That’s the challenge,” Foles said recently. “That’s the challenge for anyone in my situation … I told y’all in the playoffs, just staying in the moment. Like, really focusing on today, in this moment, because that’s all I can control. It’s hard at times, there’s times where your mind wanders, and then you start dealing with it. But that doesn’t help you, it just takes you off the moment and what you need to do right now.”
In making it clear he wanted to stay with the Eagles in 2018, with a revised contract, that he wasn’t looking to be traded after completing 72.6 percent of his passes for 971 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception in his three-game playoff run, did Foles pass up an opportunity that might not come again?
Maybe. But to understand why he is OK with that, you have to understand Foles, who is not wired like many successful NFL quarterbacks. Relationships and emotional comfort are important to him.
“He didn’t have to sign that [reworked deal]. He could have demanded a trade after the Super Bowl,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “But … he wanted to come back and be with his boys. He’s had great experiences here.”
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy, now an NBC Football Night in America analyst, knows Foles well through their shared Christian faith.
“I absolutely believe if he ends up being the backup for 16 weeks, he’s going to be disappointed, he’s going to want to play, but it’s not going to be a negative,” Dungy said recently, before the announcement that Foles would start the opener. “Where someone [else] comes in and says, ‘Hey, I’m the Super Bowl MVP. How can I be a backup?’ He’s not going to be disruptive.”
During training camp, Foles said: “I know who I am. As a player and person, I know why I’m here. … I’m very fortunate to play this game, very blessed to be here. It’s a very unique situation. My career path has been talked about as a unique career path. But at the end of the day, I love the guys I work with, I love the coaches.
“The guys know in this locker room that whatever this team asks of me, I’m going to give it. If I’m not playing, I’m going to help in any way possible. If that’s running the scout team, I’ll run the scout team, give the defense the best look possible, and be there to support the starters. That’s how I approach this game. That’s why I can come out here and play loose and enjoy every moment.”
In the preseason, Foles looked a bit too loose. He compiled a 48.7 passer rating and failed to lead the first-team offense to a touchdown in appearances at New England and at Cleveland. In Thursday’s opener, will they get the playoff Foles or the preseason Foles?
“I feel really great right now,” Foles said Tuesday. He said he learned from making preseason mistakes, and “grew as a player.”
Foles acknowledges this is somewhat the story of his career — sometimes really good, sometimes really bad. He talked the morning after the Super Bowl, at the news conference in which commissioner Roger Goodell presented him with the MVP trophy, about “not being afraid to fail … failure’s a part of life. Part of building character and growing.”
He also speaks, in nearly every interview, of the importance of getting into a rhythm. That was hard to do in the preseason, with the limited time given the starters, and the fact that the Eagles’ offense lacked some key contributors, most of whom will be on hand for the opener, with the exception of wideout Alshon Jeffery (shoulder).
“Just getting in a rhythm, getting a feel,” Foles said Tuesday, when asked what determines whether he will play well. “Having a great workweek with a clean game plan, stuff that I feel comfortable with. Having a lot of talks with the coaches where we build it around me and the personnel and what we’re doing, understanding the game plan. … It’s an emotional game — good, bad, whatever it may be.”
Foles lacks Wentz’s playmaking verve. When Foles took over for Wentz last season, a man who has coached Foles said he thought Foles was perfectly capable of running the Eagles offense at a high level, “but you do really have to protect him, now.”
Foles, sacked just twice in the playoffs, not once in the Super Bowl, took a half-dozen sacks in two preseason games and did not have a clean pocket very often.
It’s impossible to say if Foles could deliver another Lombardi Trophy, should Wentz not recover as planned. Odds are very much against it. But really, are they stacked any higher than they were in last season’s playoffs?
“Ultimately, Carson’s getting ready to play, he’s getting healthy,” Foles said in the spring. “But at the same time, I’m ready to go out there and play. I’m equipped. I think I’ve shown that. But it takes more than one person to make a team. I think that’s what’s beautiful about this team. I think that’s what this team showed last year. It’s not one person, it’s the entire group. …
“Everyone puts their egos to the side when they walk in this building. They’re all working for the Philadelphia Eagles. I think that’s why we have something so special here.”