What If It's Nick Foles?

The Philadelphia Eagles have waited, loudly and not all that patiently, for the quarterback who could take the team where it has never been. That was not supposed to be Nick Foles.
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Last January, with 4:54 remaining at Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles took a 24-23 lead over the New Orleans Saints in the opening round of the NFC playoffs. I was at a Brooklyn bar watching the game with fellow Eagles fan and Philadelphia native Matt Quinn. Even before Darren Sproles returned the ensuing kickoff 39 yards -- plus 15 more yards after a stupid horse collar penalty -- Quinn turned to me and said, “There’s no way this holds up.”

Broadly speaking, he said this -- and I believed it -- because this is what an Eagles fan would think. More specifically, he said it because the Eagles defense was middling at best, and because Drew Brees is the sort of quarterback fans on both sides generally expect to march his team down the field and score last. He did, and the Saints kicked a 32-yard field goal to go home winners.

It was far from the worst of Philadelphia’s playoff exits, in large part because it ended a happy surprise of a transitional season under Chip Kelly. That Kelly would bring in an innovative running game wasn’t shocking, but nobody, nobody, forecasted that a third-round pick out of Arizona would put up one of the most remarkable seasons that a quarterback has had in recent memory. Certainly not one who did nothing of note in his limited 2012 time, certainly not a player that didn’t even start until Week 6. Certainly not Nick Foles.

“Think back to a year ago and fans were wondering why Nick Foles was even on the team,” says Eagles superfan/owner of Cooper Pest Control Phil Cooper. “Everyone thought Mike Vick was the perfect guy to run a Chip Kelly offense. Now, there’s a groundswell that Foles may be something special, even if none of us are quite sure how he did it and if it can be replicated.”  

It’s the question Eagles fans everywhere are asking themselves: is it possible -- I don’t even like saying these words aloud, so lean in and I’ll whisper it -- is it possible that Nick Foles is The One?

/Jumps back, awaits thunder, tsunami, various poisonous snakes to be unleashed from on high.

***

Many Eagles fans love to revel in grandiose self-loathing, especially when it comes to the team’s quarterbacks. The “30% vocal minority,” in Cooper’s words, is best epitomized by the spot-on Twitter parody account @FakeWIPCaller.

Overall, the Eagles have had it pretty good. In 1981, when Ron Jaworski took the Eagles to the Super Bowl -- where the Oakland Raiders became the first Wild Card to win it, naturally -- I was nine, and hooked. Jaws, who used to be the “Polish Rifle” and was beloved to an almost creepy degree by the same white Philly ethnics that tear up at Invincible, was a fairly pedestrian quarterback, overall. In 1980 though, he lit it up and won the Bert Bell Player of the Year award. That isn’t quite the MVP, but it beats a Tony Luke’s Roast Pork, and that’s a tasty sandwich.

A few years later, Jaworski was benched for the greatest enigma the league has ever known, Randall Cunningham. Cunningham remains arguably the most gifted athlete ever to play the position, and certainly one of the most fun to watch, but he was coached by inarguably the game’s most feeble-brained (or, at least, uninterested) offensive minds in Buddy Ryan, who literally called plays like “run around and make something happen, Randall.”

Unfortunately for him, Cunningham was a world-class oddball who never had the fellas behind him in the way that say, Jim McMahon always did. He was weirder than anyone knew, and better than circumstances ever gave him the chance to be. For the full Randall experience, check out Mark Bowden’s tremendous book about the 1992 Eagles, Bringing the Heat. It has an amazing anecdote about Cunningham maintaining so-named rooms for Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston in his palatial New Jersey home. “Randall inhabited an imaginary circle of celebrity,” Bowden told me, “They were not frequent visitors.”

Cunningham’s immense talent was never maximized in Philadelphia, and the “what might have been” vibe took full force when he took the 1998 Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship by throwing 34 touchdowns with a 61% completion rate. The Eagles replaced him, if that’s the word, with the likes of Ty Detmer, Koy Detmer, and the immortal Doug Pederson. And then along came Donovan.

To be an Eagles fan over the age of 18 is to have strong opinions regarding Donovan McNabb. Literally all of these opinions are wearisome and it’s past time to give the man some peace, but anyone who says he isn’t the best quarterback in franchise history is either a Norm Van Brocklin toady, willfully ignorant, or a real-life FakeWIPCaller.

Never forget, McNabb dragged the alleged “receiving corp” of Todd Pinkston, James Thrash, and Freddie Mitchell to the NFC Championship three years running. Pair him with Terrell Owens and the man gets the Eagles to the Super Bowl (without T.O. for the first two playoff games, for the record.) By his own admission, McNabb didn’t play great against the Patriots, but he also didn’t puke in the huddle because he’s a big giant pussy who got scared because he’s a big giant pussy, which remains the narrative regurgitated, with much less dignity, by the yahoos who bought a Riley Cooper jersey after the Kenny Chesney concert.

Once and for all, it wasn’t jangled nerves that slowed McNabb, it was Tedy Bruschi and anyway it doesn’t matter because he didn’t actually barf! Point is, McNabb is a borderline Hall-of-Famer and deserves zero scorn from Eagles fans. Scoff if you like, but for McNabb’s career, the “similar players” comparison at Pro-Football-Refrence.com include Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Bob Griese, and Roger Staubach, all of whom have big bronze heads in Canton, and none of whom spent the best years of their career depending on Todd Pinkston.

The aforementioned also all have Super Bowl rings. That’s the thing, in this conversation, silly though it is. If you want be The One, at some point, you’ve got to sport the jewelry. When we talk about whether Nick Foles is The One, we’re talking about whether he can win a Super Bowl for the Philadelphia Eagles.

***

Mike Vick had some otherworldly moments, but as expected, injuries kept him from being more than a sideshow in Philly, and it’s because of his bum hamstring that Foles took over. And then what happened happened, and now we are on the edge of greatness. Or not.

“Philadelphia is no different from other football markets except, like a few franchises, they’ve been disappointed for so long. So the perspective I get from the fans on Foles is that he’s too good to be true,” said Bowden, who also wrote Black Hawk Down and The Best Game Ever, among many others. “Everyone wants [Foles] to be the modern incarnation of Johnny Unitas, the guy drafted in the ninth-round out of the sandlots of Pittsburgh who became the greatest quarterback of his era. But there is a bit of disbelief that Foles can sustain last season’s level. I’m optimistic about Mr. Foles and the Eagles, I think Chip Kelly lucked into a really good quarterback. With the talent around him, I think the chances that Foles gets better are greater than a major drop-off.” This was all asked, it’s worth noting, before Bowden watched Foles play like a toddler on rollerskates in Week 1 against Jacksonville.

Still, going off last season, it actually does appear to be sunny in Philadelphia, at least when the offense has the ball. I’m not going to deep dive on the X’s and O’s, but a few Foles numbers seem worth dropping. The one that jumps out is, of course, Foles’ 27 TDs with two interceptions, in only ten starts. But let’s not sleep on Foles’ 2,900 yards passing on a team that had the 6th highest pass/run ratio, at basically 50%. The non-issue of whether he was a “Chip Kelly guy” died quickly, alongside the question of whether the Eagles would prefer an Oregon-style QB option attack to Foles’s 64% completion percentage and league-best 119 QB rating.

It’s worth mentioning that Foles also wasn’t locked in some West Coastian dump-off, 5-yard-out kind of thing either. He led the NFL outright in yards per pass attempt. He also rumbled for 221 yards and got to the paint three times. In both cases, the question is asked and answered: Mike Vick who?

So, fly Iggles fly, right? Ha, yes. Right. Definitely.

***

“The Philadelphia sports fan is an eternal optimist and knee-jerk fatalist, all at the same moment, That’s why Nick Foles is currently both Joe Montana, the greatest third round pick ever, and Bobby Hoying, a third round, half-season Eagles quarterback wonder, to us,” said Matt Quinn, executive editor of Ad Age. “Foles is not your prototypical Philly sports hero. We like our guys with lunchpails and grit.

“The issue is is, the prototypical Philly hero is not a prototypical superstar QB. Ostensibly, Foles has the right qualities. He’s calm, looks like a modern day QB should look, tall and sturdy, and seems to have that ‘short memory’ we hear so much about. Unfortunately, he’s a straight-laced rich kid, so he won’t be accepted until he wins. He’s a system guy. Side note: I have no idea why being a system guy would be a bad thing if the system is good.”

The funny thing funny about Foles (apart from his stellar cameo as Tom Petty kid in This is 40) is that his laconic demeanor somehow works against his being conceptualized as The One, even though The One of All The Ones was nicknamed “Joe Cool” because of his calm collected let’s-slow-it-all-down-and-it’ll-come-easy-San-Francisco-way. I’m not saying -- seriously, football Zeus I. Am. Not. Saying -- that Nick Foles is the second coming of Joe Montana. Odds are, he’ll never come close, because the odds are against anyone coming close. But if Foles falls short, it won’t be because he isn’t a red-ass like Peyton Manning or an old-fashioned slinger like Brett Favre. It’ll be because there is only one Joe Montana, and that’s part of where the potential problem lies. If Foles is to become The One, he’ll need time to grow into the role. In today’s NFL, especially in Philadelphia, he will not have that.

Just imagine, if you will, Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII with minutes left on the clock, telling the famous “there’s John Candy” story in the huddle, but in this scenario, he’s wearing Eagles green and he comes up short. They don’t win the game and the Bengals are Gatorading the turf. Fatty from Fishtown, you’re on the air: “Montana cost us the Super Bowl because he was thinking about Del Griffith. Enjoy your shower curtain rings, you John Candy-Ass!”

If you think I exaggerate, know that within a half hour after the Eagles lost a January 1993 playoff game to the Cowboys, I heard a man call WIP and proclaim, “the only way this team will ever win the Super Bowl is to trade Randall Cunningham for Ronnie Lott straight up!” Let the logic of that pronouncement sink in.

I agree with Pest Control Guy, for what it’s worth. I think the anti-Foles crowd is the “vocal minority,” but I also know they hold a lot of sway. I worry that Foles could be The One, but will end up falling victim to That Philadelphia Thing, the thing that has led so many of the city’s great athletes to get the hell out of town as fast as they can. The FakeWIPCaller types are a problem, and the silent level-headed fans can never keep it from getting ugly. I saw this firsthand when I worked as a security guard in the infamous 700 level at Veterans Stadium. It’s a virus that too many Eagles folk let boil.

“The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl, and we have three divisional rivals, all of which we hate with an irrational passion, that have all won at least three trophies. Three! It makes us sick,” said Quinn. “Because of it, we are all the Dirty 30. We loathe Santa. We’ve all spent time in the Vet jail. We’re all bummed Michael Irvin isn’t a paraplegic. And deep down we wonder if we really deserve The One.”

***

And yet, there stands Nick Foles, towering over the Eagles collective fandom’s neurosis, angst, and breakfast Jameson, over everything leading to Silver Linings Playbook pre-game melees and mucking up the Birds juju. If the choice is between the promising young quarterback and that towering edifice of bad faith and doubt, assnine one-game pronouncements from local radio jamokes, and sobbing drunken demands for unrealistic front office moves, it’s not a difficult choice.

Screw it, I’m ready to roll with Foles, not troll on Foles.

That’s terrible, but the sentiment holds. Just because the Eagles have never quite had The One under center doesn’t mean the Eagles can’t have The One. That’s what’s so thrilling about this singular moment in franchise history: not that Foles is the one, but that he perhaps could be, and that we’ll get to find out.

I can’t speak to last Sunday’s game against the Jaguars, as I was at a three-year-old’s birthday party. (I can however, say that when it comes to masters of illusion who can control a room full of little girls, Magic Evan is The One.) According to the texting machine, Foles was awful early, serviceable late. The car idles.

But part of the reason the current anticipation/trepidation/optimism/ pessimism/pessimism-about-optimism amongst Eagles fans is unique is that Foles’s career track is virtually unprecedented. Typically, a quarterback selected at or near the top of the draft takes a beating for a year or two because a team had to suck in the first place to get such a high draft pick. Peyton Manning went 3-13 in his first year, before flipping the script to 13-3 and never looking back. And in general, the lower a quarterback is drafted, the longer it takes to get handed the reigns because incumbents have all the advantages, no matter how many times the head coach says everyone in training camp is “competing for their jobs.”

Foles isn’t the first mostly unknown commodity -- he was unimpressive in his 2012 rookie campaign as a starter, but did get a brief shot -- thrust into a starting role and blowing away expectations that didn’t even exist. That would be Tom Brady, One of The Ones of The Ones, who only got the gig because Mo Lewis damn near killed Drew Bledsoe, but Brady took the ball and marched right down the field on his way to quarterback immortality. That’s an ambitious blueprint for Foles, of course, but his situation isn’t completely analogous to Brady’s incredible 2000 run in one crucial respect. Fancy QB ratings don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that ring.

That’s why this blip in Eagles time is so fascinating. Nobody knows what to think, what to be angry or upset about yet. Broaching the idea, or even the possibility of the idea, that Foles could be The One and cut from the Brady “we got this” cloth, feels unseemly. I believe, for the most part, that Philly is on board, but in a “sure he’s good, maybe he could be great, but” kind of way. The numbers are on the kid’s side; he was in high school when Brady bested McNabb in Super Bowl XXIX, and in sports particularly, past is not prologue.

“Half of Philly seems scared to death,” Phil Cooper told me. “Just waiting for the other shoe to drop. But not me. I’m not quite ready to bet my mortgage on the guy, but I think he could be it. He’s a quiet leader who’s won the team over and will win the town over. This season, I’ll be sporting a Foles jersey.”

If Eagles fans can’t buy into some cautious optimism from a 17-year season ticket-holder, then they deserve what they’ll get. But it seems to me that all involved might as well at least enjoy the chance that Foles is The One. Believe in the dream, because by the end of this season -- and, I am legally obligated to say, barring injury -- the unknown will be better known. It is not impossible to imagine Foles leading the parade down Broad Street, but who knows? The One doesn’t come along often, and they aren’t distributed equally; some teams wait decades, some teams are never blessed with that guy, and one followed Joe Montana with Steve Young.

The Ones are out there, though, and we know them when we see them. All Eagles fans can do now is watch.


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the most remarkable seasons that a quarterback has had in recent memory. Certainly not one who did nothing of note in his limited 2012 time, certainly not a player that didn’t even start until Week 6. Certainly not Nick Foles.
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