PHILADELPHIA — Things were already going very well for the Philadelphia Eagles on this mild January night, but when the call came in — “FLEA FLICKER!” — from the sideline with 10 minutes, 13 seconds to go in the third quarter and the ball at the Minnesota 41-yard line, the huddle had to work to keep it together.
“I think you just try not to smile,” Eagles quarterback Nick Foles said a couple of hours later, long after he and his teammates had all stopped trying. “I don’t know if I’ve ever run a flea flicker, so it was my first time, so I just tried not to smile. Because anytime you’re a quarterback and you can do a little play like that, it’s pretty exciting, and sometimes they can go really bad.”
But nothing went bad for Foles or the Eagles in this one. This was a 38-7 thumping of the Minnesota Vikings that crowned Philadelphia the 2017 NFC champions and tacked another head-scratching chapter on to the odd story of Foles’ career. Coach and white-hot playcaller Doug Pederson sent in a flea flicker, the Eagles ran a flea flicker and Foles just dropped a dime of a 41-yard touchdown pass to a fairly well-covered Torrey Smith. Second of three touchdown passes on the night for Foles against the league’s No. 1 defense, just the way everybody thought it would go.
“I haven’t even had time to really comprehend what is going on, to be honest,” Foles said after the game. “I don’t know if I ever will. When I was up on that stage, that’s something you dream about as a kid.”
So many places to go with the Nick Foles story, but let’s start there on that makeshift stage. A team wins the NFC Championship Game, and they hop up on a hastily assembled stage in the middle of the field to get the trophy and do interviews with Terry Bradshaw that the whole stadium can hear. Pederson was up there with team owner Jeffrey Lurie and a handful of other players in their gray NFC championship T-shirts and hats, filming it all with their phones.
Somebody in charge of staging those postgame festivities spotted Eagles backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld and started shouting, “Hey! You need to be up on that stage! Nick! You need to be up on that stage!” Sudfeld shook his head and informed the earnest individual — as he had informed fans screaming “Nick!” at him during pregame warmups — that he was not Foles, and that Foles was already up there.
Foles got a kick out of the story when Sudfeld relayed it to him at the lockers a while later. He knows how crazy all of this is. He knows he wasn’t supposed to be here — that but for Carson Wentz tearing his ACL in a Week 14 game in Los Angeles, Foles would have spent this game with an earpiece in, watching from the sidelines as Wentz went 26-for-33 for 352 yards and three touchdown passes.
Foles has the perspective to appreciate the texture of his career path. He probably had the greatest statistical season any Eagles quarterback has ever had — his 27-touchdown, two-interception season for the Chip Kelly-coached Eagles back in 2013. But a year after that, he was gone from Philly. He spent 2015 with the Rams, helping turn out the lights on the NFL in St. Louis. Later cut by the Rams in camp in 2016, he pondered retirement before former Eagles coach Andy Reid hired him as Alex Smith’s backup in Kansas City. Then he signed up with Pederson, another of his former Eagles coaches, to back up Wentz in Philly this year.
Thrust into the spotlight again after Wentz’s injury, Foles flung four touchdown passes in an encouraging Week 15 victory over the miserable Giants, but then laid a huge egg in the regular-season finale against the Cowboys. The Eagles entered the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, thanks mainly to the MVP-caliber work Wentz did before his injury, but as recently as 10 days ago their fans were chewing their fingernails down to the nubs at the thought of Foles having to make one of those third-down pickups in a big spot in the playoffs.
“In sports, everything’s a process, and you can’t give up,” Foles said. “Everyone, when it’s a bad outing, wants to be really critical. But no one in the locker room doubted me.”
They really didn’t. Talking to the Eagles’ players in late December, you heard a lot about that 2013 season as proof that Foles could start and succeed in NFL games. The Eagles believed in their coaching staff and the depth of their impressive roster. Having lost left tackle Jason Peters, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks and running back Darren Sproles already to season-ending injuries, they convinced themselves they were strong enough to overcome the loss of Wentz as well.
“Most teams, when they lose their starting quarterback, the season’s over,” center Jason Kelce said. “Not this team. It’s a credit to our front office for putting a guy back there who can get it done.”
Foles is what he is. The story of his career has been one of ultra-high highs and deep, deep lows. He’s as liable to play poorly in the Super Bowl as he is to repeat Sunday’s triumph. His volatility and his unpredictability are what make him a backup, and by this point, he and those around him have more or less made peace with that.
But right now? Right now, he’s not a backup. Right now, Nick Foles is a starting quarterback in Super Bowl LII against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. And in the wake of Sunday’s victory, he moved around like a man quite comfortable in that impossibly lofty spot.
After the stage, his next stop was the X-ray room, where his team wanted him to have his ribs checked out following a night of hard hits from the Vikings’ front. They checked out fine, and he strode back into the locker room in that gray T-shirt with his uniform pants and cleats still on. At this locker, a well-worn Bible sat on a top shelf with a white piece of paper marking a passage somewhere in the middle. (“I’d rather not share which one, but I appreciate you asking,” he said.) For a full minute, he sat in his chair alone with his head in his hands, quietly pondering it all. Then he got up and, in his low-key way, joined the party.
He laughed with Sudfield at the stories of people confusing the two. He posed for a photo with the children of general manager Howie Roseman. He accepted quiet handshakes and congratulations from teammates and locker room personnel. After his shower, he sat for a while and talked with Wentz, who was walking with the help of a cane in his right hand and a heavy brace under his left pants leg. He slipped on a black T-shirt with green lettering and a message about Jesus, and over that he slipped that gray NFC Champions shirt again. A pair of clear-framed glasses and a cap that matched the shirt, and he was on his way to his news conference, where he talked openly about just how crazy this all is.
“Right now,” he said, “we’re headed to the Super Bowl, and it’s pretty unreal.”
Yeah, there’s no way Nick Foles woke up on Dec. 1, 2017 and imagined himself starting in the NFC Championship Game and then the Super Bowl. After the way he and the Eagles finished the season, it’s hard to believe any of the revelers who howled their way back up Broad Street from Lincoln Financial Field imagined it either. But Foles isn’t one to bog down in all of that. He’s basically all about the work.
“You just have to keep working,” he said. “You’re not going to always have a great day. You should never get down. You should always learn from those experiences and look forward to working through them. Because that’s the beautiful thing, when you look back at the journey and you realize that it wasn’t always great. There were bumps in the road, but you were able to overcome them with the help of the people around you, the people that believe in you and love you. That’s a special thing, and that’s what’s so special about a moment like this, because you have an opportunity to reflect and be grateful.”
Sometimes, as the man said, you have to try not to smile.