Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Does Nick Foles Have Another Miracle in Him?

By Anthony Brancato

Three years ago, Nick Foles, after a two-year sojourn in Missouri — first with the then-St. Louis Rams and then with Kansas City — returned to Philadelphia (from where he had been unceremoniously bounced by Chip Kelly, who also ran DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy out of town in exchange for absolutely nothing and essentially nothing, respectively) to back up Carson Wentz.

But in December of that year, something unforeseen happened: Wentz tore his ACL, forcing Foles to come off the bench at the beginning of the fourth quarter of a game against the Rams, who by then had returned to Los Angeles — and come off the bench he did, leading the Eagles to 12 unanswered points and a 43-35 come-from-behind victory.

Talk about poetic justice, considering that Foles had been benched by Jeff Fisher, he of the six winning seasons in 23 years, after a 37-13 loss by the Rams to the Bears in which the lovely and talented Jay Cutler torched the Rams defense, none of whose starters got benched, to the tune of 19 out of 24 for 258 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. That's a 151.0 passer rating, if you're scoring.

Following his late-game Hollywood heroics, Foles went 5-1 the rest of the way — the lone loss coming in a Week 17 "Siesta Bowl" because the Eagles had clinched home field throughout the NFC playoffs the week before, and Foles played only the first quarter — the "rest of the way" culminating in a 41-33 upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl LII; despite their top-seeded status, which gave them a first-round bye and two playoff games, both at home and both versus domed-stadium teams playing outdoors in Philadelphia in January, the Eagles were underdogs in four of the six games in which Foles started.

Foles opened the 2018 season as Philadelphia's starting quarterback because Wentz had not been medically cleared to return from his injury. That happened, however, after just two games, relegating Foles to the bench once again. But as in 2017, Foles would be called upon late in the season again, and once more due to an injury to Wentz — and as to prove that lightning can indeed strike in the same place twice, it would all commence in a game against the Rams in Los Angeles, with almost the exact same result, the Eagles winning by 7 this time around.

The following week, the Eagles returned home to face Houston, and Foles broke Donovan McNabb's team single-game passing-yards record, also directing the consummate two-minute drive to set up a walk-off field goal by Jake Elliott to keep the Texans winless in five lifetime games against Philly. Then came the regular-season finale, a 24-0 Eagles victory, sending the team to the playoffs, in which Foles tied an all-time NFL record with 25 consecutive completions (in 2013, in his first stint with the Eagles, he had tied an all-time NFL record, with 7 TDs in a game against the Raiders, the franchise's first win, and, as it will turn out, only win ever at Oakland).

Then, of course, came the "Doink Bowl" at Chicago, even though subsequent replays showed that the would-be game-winning field goal had in fact been ever-so-slightly deflected at the line of scrimmage, sending Foles and the Eagles to the Elite Eight, where a pass that Alshon Jeffery allowed to go right through his hands and be intercepted by Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore aborted a potential comeback after the Eagles had blown a 14-point first-half lead.

Three weeks later, after the Eagles exercised a $20 million option on Foles' contract, Foles negotiated a $2 million buyout, making him a free agent, signing with quarterback-starved Jacksonville five weeks after that.

As a Jaguar, Foles would find himself on the other side of the injury coin from the side he was on as an Eagle, breaking his collarbone in the opener. He would not return until Week 11 (Jacksonville had a bye the week before) and, reminiscent of his days in St. Louis, he was benched after two and a half games in which Jacksonville's defense allowed 100 points, or 40 per game (Doug Marrone, the beleaguered, to put it generously, Jags head coach, made the move at halftime of Foles' third game after the bye).

The benching may have fostered resentment on Foles' part, because on March 31 of this year he was traded to the Bears for a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round that the Jags had secured by losing more of their own free agents than they had signed from other teams the year before (until recently trades involving such picks were not allowed).

About a month ago, Foles became the subject of a rumor that he planned to "opt out" and not play in 2020 because of COVID-19 — a rumor he flatly debunked in a videoconference with the local media on July 31. When training camp opened last Monday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy launched into the usual coach-speak about how the starting quarterback job is "wide open" between Foles and Mitchell Trubisky. But anyone who takes that seriously also undoubtedly believes that a certain bridge that links two boroughs of New York City is for sale.

Foles joins a team that had no chance of repeating their 12-4 finish of 2018 last season, having to take as they did a staggering 90-percentage-point jump in strength of schedule (their 2018 opponents went .430 in 2018, their 2019 opponents. .520 in '18) and not having had a first- or second-round pick in the 2019 draft (only one team lacking a pick in either of the first two rounds — the 2002 Buccaneers — has ever won the Super Bowl).

The Bears will play the exact same strength of schedule this season as they did a year ago, based on the 2019 final records (.508), and while they did not have a first-round pick in the 2020 draft either (on account of the Khalil Mack trade), they had not one but two second-round selections. Both factors should contribute to better prospects for Chicago — and for Foles — this season.

So should we be ready for another Foles miracle?

Stranger things have happened. Lots of them.

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