I couldn’t watch the Bears’ kick. I turned away from the screen, put my hands on my son Harry’s shoulders, muttered something about winning or losing together as a family, and prepared for the worst. I watched his face as he watched the kick fly across the TV screen. The first “doink” showed in his eyes—they got wide and incredulous—and by the time Cris Collinsworth announced, hashtagishly, “Double Doink!” I had turned back to the screen for the replay, while Harry picked up his phone and caught his crazy father screaming, “It. Hit. The. Post!”
After the screaming ended and the emotions cooled (“You kind of smell,” my wife told me later, on hugging me after the victory) and Harry had gone back to playing Fortnite, I was left on the couch to ponder the mystery and wonder of the Eagles quarterback, Nicholas Edward Foles, the twenty-nine-year-old six-foot-six Texan from Austin’s Westlake High School. Foles is the Eagles’ onetime franchise Q.B. who became a backup, and who then became a real-life Rocky—a disrespected has-been who quit the game, only to come back to win it all in 2018, and who is now defying the nonbelievers again.
All the script needs is a few lines like those from Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” to fluff the story into Hollywood dimensions: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. But now, the people want to know how the story ends . . . ” Indeed, we do. Has there ever been a N.F.L. hero like Nick Foles? He looks more like a mall employee than a gridiron icon, a skinny and sallow fellow with a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo-like bearing. His throwing motion is a languid shrug, and his passes carve loopy, floaty arcs that seem certain to be intercepted until they settle softly into his receivers’ hands. On the field, he has no obvious rare athletic endowments that explain his success; only in the locker room, it is said by his teammates, is his special gift apparent, earning him his rude Philly nickname. As a leader, he is a doer, not an exhorter. Mic-ed up on the sidelines during the 2018 Super Bowl, Foles sounds more like Napoleon Dynamite than General Maximus directing the troops.
Is there something about Foles’s style of playing Q.B. that explains his success? On Sunday, according to the football analyst Sam Monson, seventy per cent of his passes were thrown in 2.5 seconds or less, twenty per cent faster than the next quickest Q.B. in the playoff games last weekend. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three . . . and the ball is out. Foles was a seriously good basketball player in high school, and he plays football like he’s still on the court, sliding and dishing like a point guard. His wonderful jump-ball hookups with the wide receiver Alshon Jeffery—such as the third-and-nine pass to Jeffery on the final winning drive that put the Eagles on the Bears’ two-yard line—seem imbued with hardwood intelligence.
But you can’t capture the Foles magic in a stat line; it’s like trying to catch water in a net. The Eagles were beaten in almost every major offensive category on Sunday; if you looked only at the statistics, you would be certain that the Bears had won. The difference was that final drive: once again, Foles was unbelievably clutch with everything on the line. No other quarterback in playoff history has a higher rating as a passer than Nick Foles currently holds, although he’s thrown a lot fewer passes than some on the list, such as Drew Brees, who attended the same high school ten years before Foles did, set all the records that Foles broke, wears the same number, 9, and faces him on Sunday. After losing his first playoff game (to the Brees-led Saints, in 2014), Foles has won four in a row; in two of those victories, the Eagles were behind at the half. He is 11-3 during the last two seasons in games played in December or later. He is that rare athlete who performs at his best when the stakes are highest, and go about his heart-stopping work with utter calm. “It’s scary calm,” Coach Pederson said of Foles, the day after the Bears game. “You wonder sometimes if he’s got a pulse.” And even when Foles doesn’t play that well—against the Bears he had a mediocre game at best, including two interceptions—he inspires his team to stay in the game and find a way to win.
Perhaps God is on St. Nick’s side? Football players and coaches do a lot of praying, at every level of the game. When I played in high school, we always prayed before the game. And, though you weren’t supposed to be praying to win the game, you kind of snuck that in there. In his book, “Believe It,” produced after the Super Bowl win, Foles writes about how his deep Christian faith has helped him to develop an identity off the football field, one that makes the on-field hazards—not just the extraordinary pressure of the game but also the mistakes, bad luck, and injuries, including the concussions with potentially lasting consequences—easier to absorb without losing your equilibrium. But many players in the N.F.L. are also strong believers, including Cody Parkey, the Bears’ kicker who suffered the double doink. On Sunday, as the team was leaving the locker room, several Eagles players spoke of Foles’s magic, rather than his faith. You don’t have to be a believer to believe in Nick Foles. If the team believes in his magic—the defensive lineman Chris Long built a small shrine to St. Nick in his locker before the Texans game—then maybe that’s all that matters.
The Eagles picked Foles in the third round of the 2012 draft. He was picked eighty-eighth over-all, and not before six other quarterbacks had already been taken by other teams. Andrew Luck, the first pick, and Russell Wilson, the seventy-fifth, are now franchise cornerstones for the Colts and the Seahawks, where Wilson has won a Super Bowl. Robert Griffin III, the second pick, is a third-string backup for the Baltimore Ravens; the other three—Ryan Tannehill, the eighth pick, Brandon Weeden, the twenty-second, and Brock Osweiler, fifty-seventh—are bouncing around the N.F.L., mostly as backups, too.
In 2012, Andy Reid was then in his final year of coaching the Eagles, and Michael Vick was the quarterback. As a rookie, Foles got some playing time, because Vick was frequently injured, but the team went 4-12 and Reid was fired by the team’s owner, Jeffrey Lurie, who replaced him with Chip Kelly for the 2013 season. Foles took over when Vick pulled a hamstring in the Giants game at the Meadowlands—Harry and I were in the stands that day—and, in the ensuing weeks, the Q.B. went on a remarkable run, peaking in the Oakland game in which he threw for seven touchdowns and earned a perfect passing rating, the only time any quarterback has done both at the same time. Was Foles the Messiah? The fans embraced the unmuscular Christian, and Foles loved the city right back, especially the strong strain of family that runs through Eagles fandom. The Eagles won their division that year and hosted New Orleans in the wild-card round, but lost 26-24 to Drew Brees in a game they would have won if Riley Cooper makes that catch at the end. But let’s not rehash that.
In 2014, Foles’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been the previous season, and then he broke his collarbone and spent the rest of the year recovering. One late-winter day during the off-season, Foles was working out at the gym when he got a pleasant but brisk call from Coach Kelly informing him that he was being traded to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford. Kelly thanked Foles for his contributions and hung up. The call lasted a minute. So much for the Messiah.
The Rams were in the midst of a string of losing seasons and were slated to move to Los Angeles the following year. Foles never connected with the team nor with the city in the way he and his wife, Tori, had connected with Philadelphia; he played badly and was benched midseason for Case Keenum. Now he wasn’t anyone’s franchise Q.B. anymore; he was a backup. In his book he writes:
Nobody aspires to be a backup . . . part of me
still cringes every time I hear myself described that way. Not only is
it limiting and one-dimensional, it doesn’t come close to describing
who I really am.
After the end of the 2015 season, Foles asked the Rams, who had just drafted their future franchise Q.B., Jared Goff, to release him. He decided to quit football and went on a camping trip with his brother-in-law that summer, but during the trip he changed his mind. On returning, he called his old coach and mentor Andy Reid, now at Kansas City, and, in 2016, Foles became the backup quarterback to the Chiefs’ Alex Smith. Meanwhile, the Eagles fired Chip Kelly, replaced him with Doug Pederson, and traded up to draft Carson Wentz, the North Dakota State phenom who became the Eagles’ franchise quarterback. Foles was brought back to Philadelphia the following year to be the new Messiah’s backup.
Wentz started the 2017 season, his second in the N.F.L., on fire, leading the team to a 10-2 record before going down with a torn A.C.L. against the Rams in Game 13. Foles stepped in, and secured the win and the N.F.C. East title. After a couple of shaky outings, he clicked in the second half of the divisional playoff game, against Atlanta, crushed Minnesota in the championship game, and then out-duelled Tom Brady to beat the Pats in the Eagles’ thrilling come-from-behind Super Bowl win.
But, in spite of being anointed Super Bowl M.V.P., Foles returned to serving as the backup when Wentz came back from his knee injury, in Game 3 of this season. The Wentz-led Eagles looked oddly rudderless, and even, at times, defeatist, such as in the disastrous fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers, when their 17-0 lead turned into a 21-17 gut-punch of a loss. Still, there was no serious talk on replacing the faltering Wentz with the Super Bowl M.V.P. Foles—because, dummy, Foles was the backup.
Then Wentz got hurt again, this time fracturing a vertebrae in his back. When Foles stepped in, the Eagles were 6-7, had beaten no team with a record better than .500, had lost to New Orleans, embarrassingly, 48-7, and to Dallas twice, and were facing elimination. Foles beat Jared Goff’s mighty Rams, in Los Angeles, and the Texans, at home, playing brilliantly in both games. He then played well enough to beat the Redskins in the final regular-season game, while the Bears were doing the Eagles the favor of besting the Vikings, allowing the Birds to squeak into the playoffs. These events set up the next chapter in the Foles legend—the winning drive to beat the Bears in the din and cold of hostile Soldier Field, when he went six of nine passing with the game on the line against the best defense in football, and scored the winning T.D. on fourth down with fifty-eight seconds left, on a side-armed flip to the Eagles’ Golden Tate.
After winning the Super Bowl M.V.P. last February, Foles was obliged to take part in a press conference when he accepted the award. A reporter asked him what people could take away from his unique journey—starter to backup to Super Bowl M.V.P. Foles was eloquent in his reply.
I think the big thing is, don’t be afraid to fail. In our society
today—Instagram, Twitter—it’s a highlight reel. It’s all the good
things. And then . . . when you have a rough
day or your life’s not [as] good as that, [you think] you’re failing.
Failure’s a part of life. [It’s] a part of building character and
growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I
hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes. We all are human. We
all have weaknesses . . . I’m not Superman. I
might be in the N.F.L., and we might have just won the Super Bowl,
but, hey, we still have daily struggles. I still have daily
struggles . . . I think when you look at a
struggle in your life, just know that’s an opportunity for your
character to grow. That’s really just been the message. It’s simple:
if something’s going on in your life and you’re struggling, embrace it
because you’re growing.
Wait, what? A gridiron Goliath who embraces failure and weakness as guiding principles? You ARE a highlight reel, bro! After all, the reason Foles was standing up there at all was that he had shown no weakness against the Patriots, and he had not failed when everything counted: he had delivered the championship that the city had waited so long for. Fans wanted to make Foles Superman. But Foles was coming from a different place—he was speaking as the backup.
And, even now, as he leads the team into New Orleans to face Drew Brees again, in what somehow feels like a reckoning with destiny, Foles remains the still-injured Wentz’s de-facto backup. The sports bloviator Stephen A. Smith, of ESPN, said the Eagles’ chances of of beating the Bears were “slim to none”; when they did, he allowed that Foles had played pretty well “for a backup.” And, with the Eagles opening as nine-point underdogs to the Saints this weekend, it’s obvious what Vegas oddsmakers think of Foles’s magic. If the Eagles lose on Sunday to the Saints, the conventional wisdom goes, Howie Roseman, the top decision-maker in the Eagles’ executive wing, will likely let their Magic Man go (Foles will probably become a free agent at the end of the season) so that the Eagles can sign Wentz to a thirty-million-dollar contract next year; the team can’t afford to keep both quarterbacks. (Foles could end up replacing Drew Brees, if he retires.) Wentz is, after all, younger, faster, and more mobile than Foles. He at least looks like Superman. But Foles is Rocky, and in Philly, isn’t that who wins?