Nick Foles was the Super Bowl MVP last year, and he parlayed that into … another year as Carson Wentz’s backup.
The Eagles wanted Foles to return, of course, but they also were quite willing to trade him if the return was substantial and if Foles would be OK with his new destination.
Foles didn’t push for a new destination, and nothing happened.
So, here we are again. If the three-game winning streak Foles has authored, making possible Sunday’s wild-card-round playoff matchup in Chicago with the Bears, seems slightly less-amazing than his stretch drive/playoff performance last season, maybe that’s because after you have done something incredible once, it isn’t quite as incredible when you do it again.
Even when doing it again is pretty darned incredible.
Foles mentioned this week that he could be playing his last game in an Eagles jersey. There’s a good chance that will be the case, given that the host Bears are six-point favorites, the largest point spread of the wild-card round, and that the mutual option in Foles’ reworked contract requires not only that Eagles be willing to pay him $20 million against their tight salary cap, but also that Foles be willing to stay, rather than test free agency.
Last spring, when Foles’ name came up in relation to quarterback openings, there was a lot of, “Yeah he was the Super Bowl MVP, he was amazing, BUT …”
It was an odd vibe around the league. Wentz, for example, checks all the conventional alpha-dog boxes: First-round, second-overall draft pick; extremely strong arm; accurate; can buy time with his legs or make plays with them when he needs to; and when he’s in the room, everyone knows who the leader is.
Foles, a third-round draft pick in 2012, throws a softer ball (one that might actually play more to the strengths of someone like Alshon Jeffery), is more limited physically, and has a different personality. He talks a lot about embracing failure and learning from it, about selflessness, about finding more purpose from his life as a husband and a father than from football. He has detailed how he nearly retired in 2015 because he wasn’t enjoying the game.
Here he is winning again, saving his team’s season again, but is he viewed any differently? Or, as he faces his 30th birthday on Jan. 20, is Foles still that guy who can do great things only in a very specific, nurturing environment, for short periods of time? Would beating the Bears make a difference? If Foles somehow won the Super Bowl again, surely that would change everything, maybe even for the Eagles, right?
Foles has been a free agent twice, once when St. Louis released him following a disastrous 2015 season, and again the next year, after a season spent as Alex Smith’s backup in Kansas City. There was no bidding war either time. He will have a much higher value this time, but fit is an important element.
“We’ll find out what the league values, I think, in March," Eagles left guard Stefen Wisniewski said this week. "I imagine it’ll be a high value, to be honest with you, and I think it should be. But, ... it seems like players with bigger personalities get more attention. Sometimes that leads to more money and whatnot. I don’t think that has anything to do with who you are as a football player. … Nick’s a winner. His numbers have been really good this year, and that’s all that matters.”
Tight end Zach Ertz vowed to try to make sure this isn’t Foles’ final game in an Eagles uniform.
“I think you could kind of put him in a box, just by his interviews and the way he approaches it, as, ‘He probably doesn’t care,’ " Ertz said of Foles. "And that couldn’t be further from the truth. He loves the game of football, he loves competing with everyone, but at the same time, he doesn’t find his value from football. He’s not going to be defined by football. And he’s just going to go out there and have fun, relish the moment, because he doesn’t know how long he’s going to play here.
“He’s always positive. No matter how we’re doing. No matter if everyone thinks they stink, he’s going to say, ‘Hey guys, I think we’re really close to being good again.’ ”
You are unlikely to see Foles in an angry exchange with a teammate or a coach on the sideline, a la Tom Brady.
Ertz said he thinks Foles, relentless positivity notwithstanding, is willing to take a teammate aside when something needs to be addressed. But, maybe one of the reasons Foles flourishes here is that he isn’t put in that position.
“Everyone’s an adult here, everyone’s mature, everyone’s trying to do their best," Ertz said. "There’s no real need, I think, on this team, to kind of berate people. I think that’s the very unique thing about our team, is that everyone loves the game of football, everyone is trying to do the best they possibly can.”
That was something Foles discussed this week.
“I’m surrounded by great people who do their job at a really high level. They care for one another. I’m just a small piece of the puzzle that goes in and does my job,” he said. “Always out there playing for my coaches, playing for my teammates. I think that’s the key, especially this time of year, is, you lean on one another.”
Foles flopped in St. Louis, playing on a bad team coached by Jeff Fisher. The Rams acquired him to be more than a small piece of the puzzle; he was expected to be the face of the franchise. And if someone gives him a huge free-agent contract this offseason, he might again have to be that guy.
“In his own way, he’s very powerful, if you will,” said Nate Sudfeld, the Eagles quarterback who isn’t Wentz or Foles. “He’s got a very quiet confidence on the field. He’s very relational – very good communicator with teammates and coaches, he’s kind of a ‘bring everyone together’ type of guy ... . I love that he stays true to who he is.
“He knows where his identity is, and he plays like it. He plays without fear and plays loose. It’s been awesome to be around.”
It’s clear that Foles responds to a certain type of coaching personality – something else Foles talked about when asked about Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Chicago coach Matt Nagy, who was Foles’ offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Long before that, Nagy was a low-level Eagles assistant when Foles was a 2012 Eagles rookie, with Pederson as his QB coach, under Andy Reid.
“I said when I came here with Doug, he was the same guy that was my quarterback coach that is my head coach. Obviously, his responsibility has changed,” Foles said. “When Nagy was a quality-control [coach] here, and then he was my offensive coordinator in Kansas City -- the same person, just the responsibility changed.
“And that is something that is very impressive, because sometimes people’s title or role changes, and all of a sudden, they’re a different person. They puff out their chest a little bit more. That’s something that I’m not drawn to. I’ve always been drawn to Matt Nagy, to Doug Pederson, to Andy Reid, because they’re genuine people, and they’re people that I enjoyed playing for.”
It’s a little early to say which quarterback-deficient NFL teams will try to sign a starter in free agency, which will try to enlist a savior, and which will persist in trying to get by with what they have. But looking at Nick Foles’ future from the perspective of what might make sense to an unbiased outsider, here are some feasible destinations:
1. The New York Giants: Eli Manning is 38, and the Giants are drafting sixth overall. Can they get their QB there? Would he be ready to lead the team back to contention right away, or are they going to waste another year of Odell Beckham Jr.’s prime? If Manning isn’t going to lead the Giants in 2019, this is a strong fit – Giants coach Pat Shurmur was Foles’ offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014 with the Eagles; Foles would have excellent weapons at his disposal, including Saquon Barkley; and the Giants have solid ownership.
2. The Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles isn’t the answer. This roster should have beaten the Patriots and faced the Eagles in the Super Bowl last year. But there seems to be a lot of strife going on, and it isn’t clear whether some top players, such as Leonard Fournette, might be leaving. Jags draft seventh, right after the Giants.
3. The Tampa Bay Bucs: Everything depends on the identity of the new head coach. Most new coaches want to draft and develop their quarterback. But, the Bucs might hire someone whose pitch is that he can redeem Jameis Winston’s potential. Either scenario would preclude going for Foles. The Bucs draft fifth overall.
4. The Washington Redskins: Alex Smith’s future is in doubt, and he isn’t going to be ready for the start of the 2019 season after that horrible leg injury. Smith and Foles are friends -- Foles was Smith’s backup with Kansas City in 2016. The Redskins draft 15th overall. Plenty of reasons to think they might make a bid. But, from Foles' perspective, organizational fit really matters. Don’t see him working for Daniel Snyder.