PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles stood on stage at the ESPYS this summer, looking out at a sea of stars as a montage of his Super Bowl heroics played on the giant screen behind him. He tried to sum up the trip to this moment, which he admittedly never expected to be in.
"It's been a crazy career," he said after accepting an award for Best Championship Performance. "If any of y'all know my career path, it doesn't make sense. But, I'm here right now."
The polarity of Foles' NFL career may be unequaled. How do you go from throwing 27 touchdowns and two interceptions one year to getting traded, then benched, in subsequent seasons? How do you go from arguably the worst start of your professional life, against the Dallas Cowboys in 2013, to throwing a record-setting seven touchdowns your next time out?
How do you go from almost retiring to sputtering backup to Super Bowl MVP, outdueling Tom Brady in the largest of moments along the way?
And, most importantly moving forward, is there a way to harness the good, and minimize the bad, in order to stabilize and become a dependable, maybe even top-tier starter in this league?
Another chapter in The Curious Case of Nick Foles will be submitted Thursday night. He'll start in the 2018 opener against the Atlanta Falcons while Carson Wentz awaits medical clearance to resume play following a multi-ligament knee injury suffered in December. Whether it's a game or two or more before Wentz's return, this is Foles' limited chance to leave a fresh impression on evaluators for 2019. The additional tape could help Foles' bid to land a starring role elsewhere in 2019, and it could also prove to be a most damaging development. Judging off history, there is likely no in-between.
Foles' six years as a pro have been a study in extremes. When he's on, he can go blow-for-blow with anyone on the planet -- just look at what he did in Minneapolis in February -- and when he's not, he struggles to play at this level.
His win/loss splits may tell the tale best, and they're striking. In his 29 NFL wins, Foles has completed 64 percent of his throws (8.2 yards per attempt) with 49 touchdowns to eight interceptions for a 107.5 quarterback rating. That's a level of play on par with Drew Brees. In his 20 losses, Foles has completed just 55 percent of his passes (5.8 yards per attempt) with 12 touchdowns to 21 picks, generating a rating similar to that of Zach Mettenberger, who owns an 0-10 lifetime record.
Foles' Total QBR is 67.2 in wins and 29.2 in losses. To put it in perspective, the difference of 38 between his QBR in wins and losses is third-highest among the 58 QBs with at least 100 pass attempts in both wins and losses/ties since Foles entered the league in 2012, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The only QBs with more divergent splits are Robert Griffin III and Mark Sanchez.
Maybe even more stunning, Foles has a 6.13 touchdown-to-interception ratio in wins, which is ahead of Brady’s 5.93 ratio in wins since Foles entered the league. Foles is at 0.57 in losses, however, which is tied with Ryan Mallett and just ahead of Tom Savage and DeShone Kizer in defeats.
Foles has proven that he can reach the absolute heights of his profession, but when you run that hot and cold, evaluators often end up lukewarm. This is why the Eagles weren't overrun with trade offers this offseason even after his Super Bowl triumph. Some view Foles as a lower-end starter to a high-end backup; others are a little more bullish on him.
"Good QB and better than half the QBs in the league," a high-ranking AFC executive said of Foles. "You'd rather have him than many starters around the league. Proven he can win, and [proof of why] you need a real backup in this league. Aaron Rodgers goes down and it implodes in Green Bay."
A couple more starts like the ones he had in the postseason could help establish a decent market for the 29-year-old Foles for 2019. He can buy out of his current contract with the Eagles following this season. Veteran starting quarterbacks are commanding about $20 million a year on the open market, as evidenced by Sam Bradford's deal with the Arizona Cardinals in free agency this offseason.
Adding to the intrigue: Foles and his coaches are learning more about how to summon "Good Nick" while keeping "Bad Nick" at bay.
The key for him is finding a rhythm. He'll tell you that every time the subject of his variance in play comes up. Recruited to play basketball in college, he likened it to the mental groove you can get into on the court where you're just feeling it and the mind relents to the moment.
"I have to get to the point in the game where I'm not really thinking and I'm just seeing and reacting and understanding subconsciously," he said, "and that's where I sort of hit my zone as an athlete."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson and his staff needed to find a way to get Foles in that state, and fast, last January. He had ended the regular season with a thud, going 23-of-49 (47 percent completion rate) with a touchdown, two interceptions and a pair of fumbles in his final two outings. It was clear they needed to adjust their approach.
They went back and looked at reams of film, most notably during his supernova 2013 season under Chip Kelly, to identify the types of plays that Foles excelled at running. They cut the playbook by about a third, scrapping many of the more layered designs and concentrating on simpler quick-read plays that allowed Foles to grip, rip and not overthink. The run-pass option plays (RPOs) had the perfect read-and-react element to them for a quarterback like Foles, so they used the heck out of them.
During the playoffs, they kept going back to what he was most comfortable with. In the Super Bowl, they dressed the same mesh concept up six different ways and used it over and over, including on the critical fourth-and-1 conversion late in the game that led to the go-ahead score.
"Getting a rhythm, getting a feel, having a great work week with a clean game plan, stuff that I feel comfortable with," Foles said of what brings out his best. "Having a lot of talks with the coaches where we build it around me and personnel and what we're doing; understanding the game plan."
Maybe it's no surprise Foles was so shaky this preseason. He finished exhibition play 16-of-26 for 171 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles lost while being sacked six times. There was no real scheming and few, if any, RPOs -- and a good portion of the first team was missing, including receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor and left tackle Jason Peters.
"He doesn't look like the Super Bowl Nick Foles right now. But you know what? Prior to the stretch he had in the playoffs, he didn't look like Super Bowl Nick Foles, either," ESPN analyst and former team executive Louis Riddick said recently. "They know him better than anyone. He is definitely a guy that has some limitations. And remember this: He is not playing with a full deck in terms of the people that are surrounding him in these preseason games.
"Everyone knows that Nick kind of needs the deck stacked in his favor in order for him to excel. And once the regular season starts and you start game planning specifically for opponents, things can change dramatically in terms of how individuals play here."
The Super Bowl banner will be lifted into the Lincoln Financial Field rafters before the game Thursday night. It is fitting, in a way, that Foles remains on center stage. When the ceremony is over, time will be unfrozen in Philly for the first time in months. A meaningful game will be played and the Super Bowl season will move into history.
Foles will drop back against Atlanta's defense, and he'll either feel it or he won't. If he can achieve that subconscious state, the party in Philadelphia will continue deep into the night, and concerns about exactly when Wentz will be back on the field will abate. If he can't, the tumble back down to earth could be swift and jarring, both for the MVP and his supporting cast.
When it comes to Foles, it usually goes hard in one directions or the other.