Skip to main content
Original Issue

BEEN THERE, WON THAT

AGAIN PHILLY CALLED ON ITS RELENTLESSLY MODEST (BUT STATISTICALLY MIND-BLOWING) BACKUP QB TO SAVE THE SEASON. AFTER BEATING THE BEARS, NICK FOLES AND THE SUPER BOWL CHAMPS ARE, JUSTIFIABLY, LOADED WITH CONFIDENCE. AFTER ALL, THEY'VE SEEN THIS BEFORE

OF COURSE. Of course the Eagles called on Nick Foles last month in Los Angeles to save their season, after another injury to starter Carson Wentz, in the same place and on the same week they had summoned their backup a year earlier. Of course Foles turned the bleakness of 6--7 (and a 14% chance at making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight) into the bliss of three straight wins, eking into the postseason. And of course Foles, rewarded with an NFC wild-card date against the NFL's stingiest defense, rallied Philadelphia to a stunning 16--15 upset on Jan. 6 in Chicago.

Consider this all the latest chapter in the burgeoning legend of Nick Foles, reserve QB turned Super Bowl LII MVP ... turned placeholder 2018 starter ... turned backup again ... turned savior again. Foles may resemble a sturdier Napoleon Dynamite, and he may tuck his polo shirt into his khakis as if to scream, "Suburban dad, coming through!" But that's all Aw, shucks camouflage, part of his charm and his trick. The temperature of his blood should be clear by now: absolute-zero cold.

So, of course the Eagles faced fourth-and-goal at the Bears' two-yard line with 1:01 remaining on Sunday, trailing by five. Foles found his coach, Doug Pederson, on the sideline and suggested a play they had run in practice that week with universal success. The QB liked this call because he expected "zero pressure" from Chicago, meaning man coverage, with no safety help. By employing their Zebra 88 personnel—three receivers, one tight end and one back—the Eagles could place all three wideouts on the right, against single coverage. And they liked their odds there. Foles just had to get the ball out quickly, which is a particular strength of his. In the past two postseasons he has thrown 146 passes and been sacked only three times.

Foles delivered no epic speech in the huddle. ("It's not like The Replacements," says right tackle Lane Johnson.) Instead, he radiated his usual calm, took the snap and sprinted right. He wanted to find wide receiver Golden Tate in the short right corner of the end zone—and find him he did, sidearming the ball into a cheesesteak-sized window. Touchdown, Eagles.

Whereas Foles's signature play in the Super Bowl, Philly Special, was a triumph of trickery, this fourth-and-goal call—a play every team runs—exists on the other end of the razzle-dazzle spectrum. Philly Not-That-Special typified Foles in that it was epic but never seemed that way. "I know everybody might be freaking out," left tackle Jason Peters said afterward. "But we've got Nick. He's going to do something."

Even after the Bears snaked downfield on the ensuing, clock-starved drive, all the way to the Eagles' 25-yard line with 10 seconds remaining, Foles's followers swear they still expected to win, such is their leader's mojo, the essence of improbability overcome. So there was relief but little surprise when Cody Parkey's 43-yard field goal try was tipped at the line, hit the left upright, then the crossbar, then bounced back out of the end zone—no good.

Of course.

NICK FOLES was lounging on the golden sand beaches of Oahu's North Shore, looking out at an endless horizon. This was early in July 2018, two years and 2,500-odd miles removed from the fly-fishing trip he took to the Sierra Nevada Mountains after deciding, briefly, to retire from professional football. And five months after he beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Finally Foles had found a brief respite, and so he rented an oceanfront beach house that could fit eight adults and six children for a week. The whole family flew out to celebrate his mother-in-law's 60th birthday. Foles threw a football around in a backyard that led right up to the Pacific; he waged water-balloon fights and dived all over the grass in heated games of Spikeball. At night, he ate scallops and lobster tail, seared mahi-mahi and ahi tuna on the grill.

Yes, there was some reflecting done that week—on the unprecedented path traveled and on the ultimate triumph earned—but those were conversations the rest of his family members had among themselves. Not Nick. He never talks football at home. Larry Foles says he hasn't discussed the Super Bowl with his son even once since last February. Occasionally in Hawaii someone would ask, "Can you believe where you are now compared to two years ago?" Nick would only laugh.

That vacation marked Foles's lone break in a chaotic offseason. One day after the Super Bowl in Minneapolis he did an 8 a.m. press conference, then immediately flew to Disney World. The following months were packed with the promos and appearances required of a Super Bowl MVP, then a book tour for his autobiography, Believe It. Before he knew it, another campaign was underway.

The 29-year-old entered this season in a position rare for him: unquestioned starter. But he knew the designation was impermanent. Wentz was close to a full recovery from a left ACL tear (later it would be a back problem), and there was no debate about what would happen when the No. 2 pick from the 2016 draft was fit—at least, not within team headquarters. Instead, with one year remaining on a two-year, $11 million contract, Foles spent most of the offseason hearing chatter about potential trades.

For two months he wondered where he would play in 2018—right up until general manger Howie Roseman reworked his contract rather than trade him to a team that surely would have plugged him in as a starter. The deal made Foles the highest-paid backup quarterback in the league, at $9 million, an expensive contingency plan that highlights the premium the Eagles place on passers. They paid Foles almost like a starter because they expect him to perform like one. Of course he wanted to be the guy, his family says. A real starter, not a temporary one. But Foles knew he had no agency in the decision. And he doesn't worry about things outside of his control.

He led the Eagles to a season-opening win over the Falcons, but he was inconsistent, not near the level of that postseason run. The following week, in Tampa, where temperatures hovered near 100º, he was much improved, passing for 334 yards, but Philadelphia narrowly lost.

That early part of the season, according to family members, was difficult for Foles, who knew his time as QB1 would be limited. Not that he would ever say so, even in private. In Week 3, Wentz tapped in, and Foles slid back to the bench without complaint—no Wait a minute, no I earned this. For 12 weeks he wasn't written or talked about much, marking a sort of return to normalcy for a quarterback who had made 44 starts in seven NFL seasons.

As the backup, Foles was again in charge of making Bulletproof coffee for the quarterbacks room. Every morning at 6, Foles, Wentz and third-stringer Nate Sudfeld would retreat to their small oasis—a converted closet in their practice facility, decorated with wallpaper of mountains on one side and oceans on the other, white Christmas lights hanging year-round—to watch film. All agree that Foles makes the best brew, a recipe containing grass-fed butter, MCT oil and collagen protein.

Foles also reclaimed the inglorious role of leading the scout team in practices, and teammates report that nothing about him changed—not his attitude, not his work habits. Second-teamers felt strange playing alongside someone so accomplished, but they say Foles exuded an eerie calm every time he took the field. Here, as always, he kept quiet about last season. No bragging or reminiscing—not even when those wide-eyed backups wanted him to.

"They built a statue of him," says defensive end Chris Long, referring to a bronze sculpture unveiled in September outside Lincoln Financial Field, "and he hasn't changed a bit."

Foles's father knows that a return to the bench was difficult for his son. But not once did he hear Nick complain. The family believes that Foles's flirtation with retirement two years ago, and that subsequent fly-fishing excursion, gave him clarity in his life and in his career. Foles knows what's important—his faith, his family—says his brother-in-law Ryan Moore, and he has eliminated everything that is not. Like worrying about whether he'd ever play again for the Eagles.

"He knew his time would come," Larry says. "Whenever that might be."

ONE DEFINING characteristic of Roseman's tenure as Philadelphia's GM: his love of quarterbacks. And not just star quarterbacks, or even starting ones, but all signal-callers, from raw projects to highly paid backups who win Super Bowls. Roseman has looked anywhere and everywhere to fortify the position.

This affection dates back to the 2002 season, Roseman's second year in Philly, when the Eagles earned the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC despite quarterback Donovan McNabb's fracturing his right fibula in Week 11. Shortly after McNabb went down, Roseman, a salary-cap specialist at the time, ran into coach Andy Reid. "We are going to be just fine," Reid said, issuing a vote of confidence in backup Koy Detmer. Then, the following week in San Francisco, Detmer dislocated his left elbow. When A.J. Feely took over and led the Eagles to four wins in their final five games, paving the way for McNabb to reach the NFC championship game, Roseman realized the value of depth at the position.

That feeling would be reaffirmed throughout his career. In 2003, McNabb was knocked out of the NFC title game; in '05 he had a sports hernia and played only nine games; in '06 he tore his right ACL and backup Jeff Garcia led the team to a wild-card victory. On and on it went, and it all led Roseman to sign Foles in '17—a move that has saved his skin not once but twice. The position "is too important," the GM says. "We've seen seasons hinge on second-quarterback play. It only becomes an issue when you need one."

Of course, not all backup QBs are built the same. Some are simply made for the big moment. Jeff Hostetler knows that as well as anyone. The Giants took him in the third round of the 1984 draft, and seven years later he'd started only two games when Phil Simms broke his right foot in Week 15. Enter Hostetler, who just a week earlier had sat down for dinner with his wife and decided he'd retire. "Six weeks later," he says now, "I'm winning a Super Bowl."

Sound familiar? After Wentz's injury last season, Hostetler received phone call after phone call, everyone asking the same question: "Do the Foles-led Eagles have a chance?"

"Of course they do," Hostetler would respond. "Let's see what Foles can do." There were so many similarities between them when they had their runs: Hostetler was 29, Foles 28; both played behind fan-favorite QBs on league-leading teams; both contemplated quitting the game right before being thrust into the spotlight. It was, Hostetler says, "the closest situation to what I had gone through."

And when Hoss took over? Sure, there was doubt, he says. The toughest thing about being a backup is maintaining confidence, he notes. But "the sign of a guy that can handle it is [that he can] put away that doubt, put away the fear of failure. You have to be able to control it."

Last month in L.A., Foles told NBC's Michelle Tafoya that after Wentz was ruled out this year he immediately thought back to 2017 and the emotions that came with that special run. He said he had to "fight the human side of it" and focus not on the clock or the scoreboard or memories, but only on what he could control. Sound familiar?

Ryan Holiday watched that game and recognized a kindred spirit. The author-lecturer-guru has inspired athletes and entrepreneurs with books and speeches about Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy that teaches detachment from the sharp vicissitudes of life. And in Foles he saw someone who uses the Stoic mind-set to manage one of the more challenging situations an elite athlete can confront. Starter or backup, Foles remains unchanged because he doesn't allow external events to influence him. That, Holiday says, is Stoicism: "It's not that you don't care—it's that you care so much you want to push out everything extraneous.

"The idea of being a role player is sort of an epithet in football. You want to be a star, not a role player. But Nick Foles is the ultimate role player, in front of 100 million people or on the practice squad."

THE EAGLES held no special meeting when Foles took over this time; there was no rousing speech, no rehashing of last year's heroics. There didn't have to be. This time there was no sense of impending doom. For possibly the first time in NFL history, a backup quarterback replaced an MVP-level starter in a lost season and begat ... increased optimism. This was not the end. It was a new beginning.

Foles had a straightforward conversation with his father that same week. "You've been there and done that," Larry said.

"You're right, Dad," Nick responded. "I'm ready."

The Eagles did beat the Rams, again, even if their season remained tethered to life support. In dark jeans and a plaid shirt Foles stood tall at the press-conference dais in L.A., looking comfortable, at ease. There might even have been a slight puffing of the chest. He said he understood there would be comparisons to last season. But this is a new year, a new team, a new challenge.

Not that he was worried. "I really thrive in staying in the moment," he said. "We'll see what happens."

Four days after that first, season-saving win, Long showed off a shrine he had erected in his locker to Foles: six white votive candles; five tall prayer candles, each adorned with an image of Jesus; a signed copy of Believe It; and a photo of the QB from his journeyman days with the Rams. The defensive end called this mini altar a "sacred place" and said of his new god: "He's been there to bail us out before. I know he's going to show up big."

The Eagles still needed two more victories—and help from a few other teams—to secure a miraculous playoff bid, but there was an overwhelming sense that they would do just that. Players couldn't quite explain this conviction, but they could all feel it, that Nick Foles energy.

Asked whether Foles lacks a certain, well, swagger, Long says "swag comes in a lot of different forms." For Foles, it's more of an understated confidence that he imbues to everyone around him.

"A huge calm comes over his body," explains Larry Foles, who says this goes all the way back to high school. "When it's his time, it's his time."

In Week 16 the Eagles needed a victory over the surging Texans, winners of 10 out of their last 11. Foles threw for a franchise-record 471 yards and four touchdowns, got smashed in the chest by end Jadeveon Clowney and exited the game with a rib injury—only to come back, with the home crowd chanting his name, and lead the offense on a 72-yard drive for a 32--30 win. Foles ran off the field blowing kisses to the crowd.

The finale against the Redskins required perhaps a bit less magic but it was no less marvelous: At one point Foles completed 25 straight passes, tying an NFL record, in a 24--0 victory that, combined with a Vikings loss, completed a wildly improbable but seemingly inevitable run. Afterward, Philly fans waited in the away parking lot for the QB, doing Minnesota's Skol clap while chanting Foles's name. He'd done it again.

AFTER BEATING the Bears, Foles holds a 10--1 record in prime-time or playoff games since his rookie year. In addition to owning or tying the NFL record for 1) most consecutive completions and 2) touchdowns in a single game, he has the 3) highest completion percentage in a single postseason, 4) highest all-time postseason passer rating and 5) highest completion percentage in postseason history. Already two of his jerseys are on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps it is time to call Foles what he really is: the Eagles' second starter, if not their best one.

Still, this notion seems a bit new. Even after the upset of New England there remained some debate over whether Foles had just gotten lucky. Maybe those three playoff wins were a fluke. The longer this season's run extends, though, that argument becomes considerably more difficult to make. It's almost impossible after what happened on Sunday.

The visitors' locker room at Soldier Field betrayed no shock. Foles chatted with the quarterback he replaced and the GM who believed in him, sent a few texts and failed to notice the guy walking past in a mink coat. He tucked his polo shirt in and took a vitamin. When asked once more to explain how he keeps doing what should not reasonably be done, he said the same thing he's always said, in the same monotone: "Just staying in the moment."

Teammates, too, said about what you'd expect: No one thinks they can beat the No. 1--seeded Saints. It all sounded nice, but it masked feelings left unspoken, that these Eagles believe they can become the NFL's first repeat champions since the 2004 Patriots because of their backup QB, not in spite of him.

Parkey's missed kick sealed Foles's third second-half comeback in four postseason games and netted him a $1 million bonus. (He'll haul in at least another $500,000 if, as expected, he plays 33% of the snaps next week against the Saints, in the divisional round.) He also became the first quarterback in history to win a playoff game in consecutive years despite making five starts or fewer in the regular season.

However this season ends, Foles will almost certainly become a free agent—likely the most sought-after quarterback on the market—or he will be signed and traded by the Eagles for a hefty price. He will be paid handsomely to become some team's unquestioned starter, adding to his obligations and taking barista off his résumé, everything changing once again. Of course.

"SWAG COMES IN A LOT OF DIFFERENT FORMS," SAYS LONG. FOR FOLES, IT'S MORE OF AN UNDERSTATED CONFIDENCE THAT HE IMBUES TO EVERYONE AROUND HIM.