PHILADELPHIA — He was ready to quit. Retire. Ditch the game he loved at only 26 years old. Nick Foles' experience with the St. Louis Rams in 2015 was so miserable that he didn't touch a football for eight months.
In Philadelphia, he had been on the cusp of greatness, of the absolute peak of his profession. His sparkling 119.2 passer rating just two years earlier had been the third-best all-time—better than anything Tom Brady or Joe Montana or Dan Marino ever accomplished. He had led the Eagles to a division title, a home playoff game and a lead with 4 minutes and 54 seconds left against the Saints.
Drew Brees answered in that game. The Saints won. And before he knew it, a year later, Chip Kelly had shipped him to St. Louis with no explanation. Surrounded by a coordinator calling plays in the NFL for the first time, a sieve of an offensive line, zero playmakers at wide receiver and a head coach (Jeff Fisher) who possesses an uncanny ability to get the worst out of his quarterbacks, the Rams Experiment was crashing and burning.
Nick Foles wanted to win for you, for Philly, and exorcise five decades of demons. Wanted to change lives forever.
But now all that was gone. All his love for the game had evaporated.
The Eagles of today might as well quit themselves. That's the consensus since one horrific scene at the L.A. Coliseum on Dec. 10.
Quarterback Carson Wentz was smashed in the end zone, wobbled off the field with a towel over his head and was diagnosed with a torn ACL.
This was the MVP front-runner. This was the disciple dusting off one blitzing linebacker and juking another before resetting his feet, rifling touchdowns and answering your prayers.
The backup was, uh, Nick Foles. The guy you probably assumed quit football after that awful year in St. Louis.
Yet less than 24 hours after the soul-crushing injury, head coach Doug Pederson stood at the mic and sternly stared at everyone in the room. This was a team, he said, that overcame the loss of a left tackle (Jason Peters), a running back (Darren Sproles), a middle linebacker (Jordan Hicks), a core special teams player (Chris Maragos) and a kicker (Caleb Sturgis). Losing a quarterback, he promised, would be no different.
This situation, he told reporters, is "the reason we went out and got Nick Foles."
At which point, fans either laughed their guts out and changed the channel or cried themselves to sleep and endured nightmares of Ronde Barber prancing 95 yards downfield, Donovan McNabb lollygagging in the waning minutes of Super Bowl XXXVIII and Chip Kelly trading away LeSean McCoy.
The players here did neither, though. Talk to them, and you'd never think this was a team that had its heart ripped out.
They point to their defense. They point to Foles' 2013 magic. They point to their home-field advantage. They sincerely see themselves still hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, which begs the question:
Is this hope real? Or is this delusional rationalization?
On Saturday at 4:35 p.m. EST against the Atlanta Falcons, Foles supplies the answer.
Outside of players' grandmothers and maybe two or three characters on Always Sunny, nobody around the league is giving the Eagles much of a chance to win three games in a row. They're even the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog in the divisional round since 1970.
Players know this, of course. And they're not pleased.
After one grueling bye-week practice, All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson takes a seat at his locker, catches his breath and looks around at the local media with a scowl.
"There's always negativity they try to put inside this locker room," Johnson says. "We use it as motivation. We know what people think of us. We have the elements to our side—people will have to play up here. I've seen Nick do some big things. I think it's about adjusting the game plan to what he does well. The capability's there."
The faith ricochets throughout the room.
To Torrey Smith: "He's a guy who made the Pro Bowl. Threw seven touchdowns in one game. He's still the same guy."
To Alshon Jeffery: "He's a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. Nick is ready for the challenge. I'm sure he hears the doubts just like everybody else hears it.
To Beau Allen: "We all have a lot of faith in Nick. He's a great quarterback. I don't think anybody has doubted him in this locker room."
To Nigel Bradham: "Nick Foles knows this offense well and has the capability to run it to an extreme level."
Foles can forge a legacy, right now, in Philadelphia forever.
Win three games—that's all—and he'll likely get his own bronze statue right next to Rocky Balboa, a lifetime supply of cheesesteaks and cult status that'd put Sam Hinkie worship to shame.
Go ahead and pencil the Falcons into the NFC Championship Game, though.
Maybe these Eagles are all in denial.
But maybe they're right, too.
Those who know Foles best say he takes a holistic approach to football. He is always reading, always trying something new to improve performance: a diet, oxygenated tents, even lasers that help with recovery.
Because he sincerely views football as a means to help people. Winning is fun, but he wants to leave an everlasting impact on everyone in his world.
When that season in St. Louis went so south, so fast, of course Foles was demoralized. Those close to him told him he couldn't let the Rams win. He couldn't let one awful season define him.
As he explained in a video posted on YouVersion's Bible app, faith drove him back to the field. Diving into the Bible fed a "completely reinvigorated outlook on the game."
He specifically gravitated toward 2 Corinthians 12:9 and Philippians 4:13. The former, he explains in the video, helped him regain the heart to play football again. Admittedly "weak" at that point in his life, Foles realized he needed to use the platform that God gave him. As he prayed, a newfound "sense of calm" overtook him. The latter, he says, is often taken out of context. What stood out to him was how Paul was persecuted yet remained content and "satisfied no matter what."
So Foles himself stopped stressing about all the chaos around him.
"If something bad happens in my life," Foles says, "I'm going to stay steady."
Days after their hopes and dreams were shredded along with that precious ACL, Philadelphians were treated to a billboard refueling that hope. Right there, towering above the I-95, was Nick Foles in a Santa Claus hat with the words "Philly believes in you… ST. NICK."
Ah, yes, an inspiring sight for a perpetually pessimistic fanbase that's gone 57 years without an NFL champion.
Then St. Nick himself threw four touchdown passes against the Giants that Sunday.
Glide down the highways surrounding this city now, however, and a different billboard stares down. This one twists that knife in the collective chests of locals a little deeper. And deeper. It's a huge shot of Carson Wentz with the message, Vote Carson Wentz for MVP.
Right on cue, St. Nick crashed his sleigh on Christmas Day against Oakland, then again a week later.
This is how any visualization of Nick Foles in a Super Bowl goes. Any hope, any blissful daydreams can be easily countered with a Yeah, but… reeling your imagination back in.
Torrey Smith sees the billboard and agrees Wentz should win MVP. Wentz was a show-stopping magician in 13 games this season, throwing for 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. But Smith is also annoyed at all hysteria outside this locker room. Look, he argues, nobody is freaking out if he doesn't drop a routine cross against Dallas in Week 17 and races 39 yards to paydirt.
"All of a sudden," Smith says, "I score and nobody's talking about that. They're talking about, 'Oh, the Eagles offense is going in on a positive note,' instead of questioning whether he's capable or not. We know he's capable."
The vet is quick to cite Foles' timing and leadership and sees no reason Foles can't go full Joe Flacco, citing his 2012 Ravens team that lost four of their last five in the regular season. Flacco was an average quarterback that year—there's a decent chance Baltimore would've hit eject in the offseason—and then was en fuego all postseason.
Foles, Smith assures, can uncork the same downfield throws.
Foles, he assures with wide eyes, was "dropping dimes" in practice moments earlier.
"We're lucky we have a veteran guy we can go to."
Yeah, but… Foles does not move nearly as well as Wentz. Players concede there's no replacing Wentz's athleticism. Nobody in the NFL escaped mosh pits in the pocket like this 6'5," 237-pound bull from North Dakota State. Foles won't do anything remotely close to this or this or this. All season, the Eagles relied on Wentz's dazzling improvisation.
A scramble-drill rapport with receivers grew.
And here's Foles building his own rapport with Smith, Jeffrey and Co. from scratch.
Of course, where you see a Napoleon Dynamite doppelganger, players see a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback who back in that 2013 season piloted Chip Kelly's hyperventilating spread offense with devastating precision. Everyone constantly points to "27 and 2," as in: 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions that year.
No wonder Foles spent hours over the bye week reliving that film. He wants to unearth that Pro Bowler within.
Yeah, but… that was four years ago. Yeah, but… there's a good chance Foles was nothing more than a robot programmed by Kelly who took the NFL by storm one moment before self-destructing the next. That '13 Foles may be nothing more than a Lou Bega song, a Furby, a passing fancy now buried in a thrift store bin. Kelly's offense failed, twice.
Michael Vick was there for it all in Philly—pre- and post-Chip—so he should know if that Foles can resurface.
He first hedges that any quarterback is only as good as his play-caller.
"The offensive coordinator has to know the quarterback and what he does do well," Vick says. "Can he make the game easy for him? We know it's not, but in terms of play-calling, every quarterback with experience knows what it's like to get into a rhythm. Sometimes, you know what plays are coming in before they even come in. That's what Nick had with Chip that year."
So Foles and Pederson must cook up their own miracle on the fly. While that could be an impossible proposition, Vick views this as a match made in heaven. He loved Pederson as a player. The stories Pederson shared from his days with Brett Favre put him in stitches, and he was blown away by Pederson's West Coast acumen. And, in Foles, Vick still sees someone who can thwart defenses with his mind and "stretch the field with his big arm."
The two aren't total strangers, either. Pederson had a big say in the Eagles drafting Foles in 2012, when he was their QBs coach. And he was offensive coordinator in Kansas City from 2013 to 2015, leaving behind elements of an offense Foles would learn when he signed with the Chiefs in 2016.
"I think Nick understands the offense. I think Nick understands Doug," Vick says.
"I think they can rally, man."
Maybe this duo finds a way to taser the Falcons with looks they don't see coming. Some Eagles do think Pederson will dust off pages of Chip's playbook. Bradham smiles and says the Eagles will "probably" use some of that uptempo, assuring Pederson's plan will be "very unique" this postseason. Smith expects Foles to attack like he did then. It's January. As far as he's concerned, why hold back any secrets?
"Plays don't really roll over, so you have to use it," Smith says. "I don't know if [Kelly's offense] is something we've necessarily done, but he has that ability. That's something he's very comfortable with."
Adds Jeffrey, "This is the playoffs, man. It's whatever it takes."
Yeah, but… that '13 Eagles team was also bursting with playmakers. Shady and DeSean Jackson and a young Jeremy Maclin aren't walking through that door. Yeah, but… shifting the offense into fifth gear could also put a major strain on Philly's suffocating defense. On, really, the team's greatest shot at shocking the world.
This defense isn't shy, either.
It is confident it can carry Philly, and Foles, to the Super Bowl.
Nigel Bradham pictures a rickety Peyton Manning and cannot help but chuckle. Man, that was a weird sight. The sheriff, the quarterback who shattered records and revolutionized the game, was a shell of himself by age 39.
His arm was shot. His body's tank was on "E." But the Broncos won the Super Bowl anyway.
"We've seen it. We've seen it!" Bradham repeats. "That defense definitely, definitely carried them."
OK, so there are six (and counting) $100 Million Quarterbacks. Every rule, every trend, every time Roger Goodell sneezes, the position benefits. The days of intimidation could be over, so go ahead and call Bradham crazy for even entertaining this thought. He truly sees that Broncos defense in this Eagles defense.
The linebacker believes this team can win a Super Bowl one sack, one bone-rattling hit, one interception at a time.
"We know our defense is good enough to carry us," Bradham says. "We have the No. 1 rushing D in the league. We know what we can do. We know what our special teams can do. We can force turnovers and be efficient on third down.
"And the other main thing? Everybody has to come here."
Bradham points out that this defense has shut down every type of running back, mashers and dashers. The Jordan Howard-Tarik Cohen tandem had minus-five yards on nine carries. Marshawn Lynch? Only 3.8 yards per carry. Denver's C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker combined for 35 yards on 19 carries. And Carolina's Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey? Four yards on 12 carries. This is a unit that fully expects to get teams in 3rd-and-long and force turnovers. A unit that wants your experience at The Linc to feel something like running into a brick wall for three hours.
The plan is to hold offenses to 10 points, a field goal, hell, nothing.
"We have the players to do it, the confidence to do it," Bradham says. "We just want to shut down everything to make it easy on us. You know what I'm saying? Who knows, that might be what it takes."
Adds Allen, "We know how good we can be. And we want to get there by any means necessary."
So quite possibly, the Eagles still possess their greatest asset: Jim Schwartz. He's the defensive coordinator who, as Bradham puts, "intensifies aggressiveness" in every way imaginable. Defensive linemen are borderline belligerent (Packers guard Josh Sitton once said Schwartz's Lions were "dirtbags" and "scumbags" and it all started with a coach, "a dick" he'd never play for). Linebackers attack on a beeline. All year they've heard Schwartz shouting, "No shooing the chickens!"—meaning he doesn't want players chop, chop, chopping their feet. He doesn't want anyone overthinking, anyone chopping their feet. They must only go, go, go.
Defensive backs are instructed to keep their eyes on the quarterback and attack when the ball's in the air. Philly had 19 picks and forced 16 fumbles.
And, of course, there's his rhetoric. Schwartz wants everyone playing with swagger.
Bradham, who had a team-high 88 tackles, believes he's an extension of Schwartz on the field and is eager to introduce himself to the world.
"This is my time to shine," he says. "And that's going to be my mentality. The postseason. This is my first time in it, and I'm trying to stay in it as long as possible. I'm trying to win the whole thing."
Vick agrees a team today can still win on the back of its defense.
"There's still hope, man," Vick says. "When you have a defense as strong as the Eagles defense, all you have to do is make plays on offense where you're complementing what the defense is allowing you to do. … If Nick plays well, if Nick does everything he knows he can do—play with confidence, be assertive, take the bull by the reins and just run with it, [the Super Bowl is realistic].
"And have fun, man. Don't put too much pressure on yourself. It's always easier to play when you've got a good defense. He has that."
Unfortunately, for the Eagles, history is not kind.
Sure, Denver's defense conquered Big Ben and Brady and Cam in bloody succession. Sure, the Buccaneers once rode a rabid pack of Hall of Famers to a title and it'd be impossible to tell Foles and Brad Johnson apart in a quarterback lineup. But of those 12 Super Bowl champs in-between, 11 featured Canton-bound quarterbacks. Flacco is the lone outlier. And all delivered gutsy throws that'll live forever.
The Eagles cannot ask Foles to only be a caretaker. Part of Bradham seems to know that, too. He's quick to say Foles knows how to decode defenses and threw next-to-no interceptions all season on the Eagles' scout team.
On Saturday, he now must elevate from scout team to savior.
No, his career would not end with the Rams fizzle. Foles picked up a football, asked the team for his release and signed with the Chiefs.
He didn't get to play much as Alex Smith's backup, but he was good when he did, posting a 105.9 rating—36.9 points higher than he'd had with the Rams. Foles zeroed in on his footwork, release, movement, throwing on the run and playing in a West Coast offense. His faith grew. He was rejuvenated. Then in the offseason, he signed back with Philly. After Wentz went down, Foles came in to earn a satisfying win over that Rams team that nearly drove him to quit.
Back in 2013, he had truly felt like he was starting to leave an everlasting impact on the city of Philadelphia. On teammates. On the community. That's what stung most when he was at his lowest. He'd tell friends: "I didn't get to finish. I still had a ways to go to impact people." Now, with the chaos around Foles swirling at record speeds, he can achieve exactly that.
This city feels its title hopes, yet again, slipping away, but Foles will stay steady.
And so will everyone around him.
There is a slight odor of unease around the Eagles. While players glow with confidence—real or manufactured—Pederson sure was terse in his first press conference this week, answering reporters in hurried three- and four-word bursts.
Any time a head coach forces a no-bull persona to this degree, you wonder.
Behind the team's "We all we got, we all we need" drumbeat could be grave concern.
Backups are almost never thrust into this spotlight at the eleventh hour, failing when they are. Connor Cook couldn't replace Derek Carr. Ryan Lindley couldn't replace Carson Palmer. Their brains likely overflowed with information, with responsibility.
The Eagles haven't made Foles or any assistant coaches available for one-on-one interviews, incubating him as much as possible these last two crucial weeks.
Pederson's message to Foles has simply been: "Be Nick." Foles, to his credit, has been a cool customer.
But make no mistake: If Foles sputters, Pederson has to think about benching him for Nate Sudfeld. For anyone. Each snap will be precious Saturday.
Lane Johnson flat-out announces this game as Foles' chance to silence all doubters.
"We know what he's capable of," Johnson says. "We know what he can do."
So when the league's reigning MVP strikes Saturday, Foles must strike back. The Falcons will show him zero respect. They'll load the box, dare him to throw, and he'll need to be ruthless. Such an attitude is a necessity in January, and Pederson made it clear this week he wants Foles to be aggressive. Wentz might've come across publicly as a choir boy, but he'd also throw his share of elbows on the basketball court in high school. His brute physicality in the paint keyed a state title run. And here's Foles. You half-expect him to poof out an afro, grab a paint brush, a palette and go full Bob Ross to capture such a beautiful winter's day.
Vick acknowledges Foles is "laid-back" and "low key." But Foles' 2010-11 offensive coordinator at Arizona promises there is a fire inside. Seth Littrell remembers poking his head into the gym and seeing Foles crank up the intensity in heated games of one-on-one.
"He has that presence," says Littrell, now the head coach at North Texas. "His teammates respect him, the way he works. There is a lot of pressure, but there's always a lot of pressure. He's going to lean on his faith. … He's going to be prepared. He wants to do everything he can to help that team win a football game."
Vick makes it known to all of Philadelphia: a Super Bowl is coming. With Carson Wentz locked in the next 10 to 15 years, he promises it's only a matter of time.
And then, he catches himself. His voice cuts on a dime.
Vick realizes winning in 2021 or 2023 may not be good enough for many fans, the ones who look up at that billboard of Wentz today and feel a splitting pain in their chest. Philly wants a winner right now, and Foles, he asserts, can win right now.
"I still think they can make it with Nick," Vick says. "It's just about putting it all together and making it work."
If St. Nick can pull off that miracle, he will achieve his ultimate goal—changing lives.
The man who once considered retiring in disgust could instead be forever remembered as a legend.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.