The mysterious brilliance and mediocrity of Nick Foles
NFL 

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
  • Written for ESPN.com since 2000
  • Three-time Sports Emmy Award winner

AS THE STRIPS of green and white confetti fluttered from above, onto shoulders and heads and the turf below, Justin Schulman frantically searched for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles.

The clock had just expired on Super Bowl LII, with Foles’ Eagles surprising the defending champion New England Patriots 41-33. Eighteen months earlier, at a McDonald’s in Mojave, California, Foles had texted his wife, Tori, and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid that he was done with football. Now he was a Super Bowl champion, the 20th quarterback to win the game’s MVP, joining the likes of Bradshaw, Montana, Elway and the man he had just defeated, Tom Brady.

Foles had picked apart the Patriots’ defense, completing 28 of 43 attempts for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown on a trick play he’d suggested to coach Doug Pederson, the “Philly Special.” In the postgame scrum, everyone wanted a handshake, a hug, a quick word. When Schulman, Foles’ agent, finally reached the quarterback, he had an important question to ask. But before he could say a word, Foles spoke first.

“What just happened?” he asked.

WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED. Three words that seem so simple yet revealed so much. Not only was much of the football world stunned by Foles’ MVP performance, but the quarterback himself couldn’t quite process how he had ended up here. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe. He’s a professional athlete, after all, and one with deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. But the path from third-round draft pick to Pro Bowler to near retirement to Super Bowl MVP was as improbable as they come. Had talent evaluators missed something? Was this the real Nick Foles? Or had the tall kid from Austin, Texas, merely found himself in the right place at the right time? Only time would tell.

Now, nearly three years and three franchises later, an image has developed. And in many ways, it’s defined by that postgame Super Bowl question. Peg Nick Foles as one thing or another and he will undoubtedly surprise you — for the good, bad and sometimes ugly. It happened in Week 3 this season, when Foles replaced Mitch Trubisky in the third quarter of Chicago’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, transforming a 26-10 deficit into a 30-26 victory.

But as quickly as a new Chicago legend was born, Foles has become the lightning rod for all that is wrong with the Bears. Once 5-1, begging the NFL to trust that they were elite, the Bears have lost three in a row, all with Foles under center. As the Bears take the field on Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, it is in no way hyperbole to suggest that their season — and with it potentially the job of head coach Matt Nagy and the legacy of Foles — is on the line.

Was Super Bowl LII the pinnacle of Foles’ career? Has he since become fool’s gold, with coaches and GMs futilely trying to replicate the fairy tale from Philadelphia? Or is there more magic left in his right arm? Another what-just-happened story to be told? It depends whom you ask.

“He’s as unflappable of a person as I’ve been around,” says Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, who coached Foles in Philadelphia. “He’s extremely talented. A big-time passer. And he has this knack for making big plays like few players I’ve seen. He’s a stud, man.”

“He is the ultimate backup quarterback,” counters David Kaplan, host of “Kap and J-Hood” on Chicago’s ESPN 1000. “He’s a Buick when your team needs a Mercedes. There are moments where it’s like, ‘Wow, did you see that?’ But as soon as you cast your lot with him, he breaks your heart. He’s just not good enough.”

AS HE SAT on the plastic bench in the third quarter of the Bears’ Nov. 1 game against the New Orleans Saints, Foles rested his elbows on his knees for a closer look at the tablet before him, his face expressionless.

Earlier in the game, he dropped a 50-yard dime to receiver Darnell Mooney, the team’s longest offensive play of the year. Two plays later, he hit a diving Allen Robinson in the end zone for a 24-yard score. Finally, the Bears’ offense was clicking.

But in the first four possessions of the second half, the Bears moved the ball those same 24 yards — total. Early in the fourth quarter, on a critical fourth-and-5 from the Saints’ 36, Foles took the snap, backpedaled 11 steps and, off his back foot, overshot Robinson by a good 5 yards. The ball landed in the hands of Marshon Lattimore, who somehow dropped the gift, saving Foles from what would have been his second interception in three possessions.

If any fans had been allowed in Soldier Field, there’s no question they would have booed. Instead, they undoubtedly screamed at their televisions as the image of Foles staring into the tablet covered their screen. Said play-by-play man Joe Buck: “I imagine Mitchell Trubisky sitting on the bench wondering, ‘What’s it gonna take?'”

So what happened next? Of course Foles went 6-for-6 on a 75-yard scoring drive that pulled the Bears to within three. He then orchestrated a two-minute drill that led to the tying field goal at the end of regulation. The Bears lost in overtime. What. Just. Happened.

Schulman has heard all the labels put on Foles since signing him after the quarterback graduated from the University of Arizona. Erratic. Inconsistent. Slow. Game manager. A system quarterback. Schulman insists it all misses the bigger picture, looking past the talent and culture that Foles had around him at each of his stops.

Schulman was on vacation with his family in the Bahamas when Foles returned from a fly fishing trip in the summer of 2016 and changed his mind about retirement. A text from Andy Reid persuaded Foles to join the Chiefs as Alex Smith’s backup.

“I spent the rest of the vacation between the business center and my bathroom floor working out a contract with the Chiefs,” Schulman says.

It was the latest stop in a wild quarterback journey. It started with Foles breaking all of Drew Brees’ passing records at Austin’s Westlake High. He then committed to Arizona State and ended up going to Michigan State before transferring to Arizona.

A third-round draft pick of the Eagles, Foles replaced an injured Michael Vick in 2013, his second year in the league, and under Chip Kelly had one of the best seasons in NFL history. He set an NFL record with a 27-2 TD-INT ratio and tied two other NFL records with 25 straight completions and seven touchdowns in a game. Foles finished that year with what was then the third-highest single-season passer rating in league history, behind Peyton Manning (2004) and Aaron Rodgers (2011).

But again, the success didn’t last. In 2015, Kelly shipped Foles to St. Louis, telling the quarterback of the trade in a phone conversation that Foles said lasted less than a minute. St. Louis was a disaster. Foles’ 69.0 quarterback rating ranked him last among QBs with a minimum of 10 starts. He wanted to quit the game. He instead joined the Chiefs in 2016 and a year later returned to Philly to back up Carson Wentz. Wentz’s torn ACL in Week 15 against the Raiders paved the path for Foles’ Super Bowl magic.

“There’s no other career like this in NFL history,” Schulman said. “The highest of highs, the lowest of lows. He’s not Tom Brady. He’s not Aaron Rodgers. He’s not Russell Wilson. People in my office joke that I could write a book about working with Nick.”

After the Eagles committed to Wentz as their starter in 2019, Foles signed in free agency with Jacksonville with the largest guaranteed contract in Jaguars history. It didn’t last. Foles injured his shoulder, struggled on the field and lost his job to rookie Gardner Minshew II.

The Jaguars bailed on the Foles experiment in March, trading him to the quarterback-starved Bears. With the trade, Foles became only the third Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback (Mark Rypien, Kurt Warner) to play for three different teams after winning the award.

Foles lost the job to Trubisky in the offseason but replaced him in Week 3. Since then, the story has been a familiar one on the shores of Lake Michigan: all defense, no offense. Under Foles, the Bears have averaged only 17.3 points per game, 30th in the league. In his six starts, Foles is 2-4 and his quarterback rating ranks 27th. Nagy believes there is no one wired better than Foles to get the Bears out of their offensive funk.

“One of his greatest strengths is going through adversity,” says Nagy, who also worked with Foles as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City. “We are in that part now.

“To me it’s about the guys and how they respond to negativity, to criticism, to losing, to getting hurt. Do they fold up shop and say it’s not meant to be, or do they bounce back and have success stories? Nick’s done it.”

ASK ENOUGH PEOPLE to crack the code of Nick Foles and explain how he’s able to bounce back in the face of adversity and a pattern emerges. The ones who know Foles and have played with or coached him speak of a deeply religious man who is uniquely wired in a way teammates gravitate to.

When Nagy told Foles in the preseason that he had lost the starting quarterback job to Trubisky, Foles ended the conversation by asking Nagy if he could call Trubisky to congratulate him. Then he made the call.

“If that doesn’t speak to who he is as a human being,” Nagy says. “I think there is some realness that you all need to understand what kind of guy he is.”

It might seem cheesy or fake, but Foles’ teammates insist it isn’t. There’s an intangible there, a genuine care for his teammates and coaches as people, that makes him the perfect leader for a situation like the one the Bears find themselves in.

“His ability to connect is so unique,” says Chris Maragos, Foles’ teammate in Philadelphia. “When he has a conversation with you, he cares what you’re talking about. He follows up. Most people listen and nod. With Nick, he’s going to ask you next week how that thing you mentioned is going. You don’t get that a lot in this world anymore. Guys want to rally around that.”

This past offseason, even after the trade to the Bears, Foles hosted Jaguars director of player engagement Tim Owens at his home in California. While in college at Arizona, Foles connected with Wildcats running backs coach Garret Chachere after hearing Chachere’s son Grant was being badly bullied at his middle school. Foles visited the school, had lunch with the young man and during recess threw a bomb to him in a playground football game Grant had never before been invited to join. A picture of Foles and Grant sits on the mantel in the Chachere home.

“It was a day that changed my son’s life,” Garret Chachere says. “So we’re very defensive about Nick in our house. My kids get pissed when people say bad things about him. He’s not playing well for the Bears. My kids know that. But they believe in him. They know how special he is.”

Longtime college and NFL assistant Frank Scelfo, who coached quarterbacks during Foles’ time at Arizona, said he’s never seen another player as committed to helping others as Foles.

“He’d go to the last guy on the depth chart and offer to throw him some balls. A guy would drop a hitch in practice and he’d say, ‘Let me throw you 10 hitches,'” Scelfo says. “Often to the detriment of what he needed to be working on, to be honest. But he has such a concern for other people. He doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body. And that lifts the team around him.”

AFTER THE BEARS beat the Carolina Panthers in Week 6 to move to 5-1, skepticism reigned outside the locker room. Though the team found itself in first place in the NFC North, it had done so in uninspiring fashion, scoring more than the league average 25.3 points only twice. In two of its wins, the team needed to come back from 16-point fourth-quarter deficits. But inside the locker room, confidence soared. Foles danced with his teammates to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” When asked in the postgame news conference whether the Bears were an inconsistent offense that wins ugly, he went on a two-minute-and-20-second rant defending the team and the path it was on.

“Great teams find a way to win a game. Bad teams win with prettiness,” Foles said. “You don’t just go out there and play football. You have to care about the man next to you to make those plays.”

The Bears haven’t won since, losing to the Rams, Saints and Titans. During the Rams game, Foles unknowingly found himself in the middle of controversy when ESPN analyst Brian Griese told viewers that Foles said during their pregame production meeting that “sometimes playcalls come in and I know I don’t have time to execute that playcall.”

Reporters asked Foles and Nagy about Griese’s revelation after the game. Foles insisted that’s not what he said. Immediately after his postgame news conference, he went to Nagy’s office to clear the air.

“Even though it wasn’t true what Brian said, it was important for Coach and I to speak about what was said for our relationship,” Foles says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a marriage or whatever. You keep something away from your wife and don’t ever talk about it, then it turns into something it shouldn’t.” Said Nagy: “Everything we do, we do together. I always want to know what Nick’s thinking. We’re in a really good place right now.”

But that cohesiveness has yet to pull the Bears out of their slumber. The offensive line has struggled to protect Foles or open holes for a rushing attack that ranks last in the league. Against the Titans, the Bears started two offensive linemen who had never before started an NFL game. Their starting center had only four career starts before the game, none of them at center.

“Nick is not the type of quarterback who can win ‘in spite of,'” says ESPN Monday Night analyst Louis Riddick, who was part of the Philadelphia front office that drafted Foles. “You give him time, you stay ahead of the chains and get him in a rhythm and he can carve you up. But he doesn’t have the playmaking ability to make up for an offensive lineman whiffing like a bullfighter. And that’s what you’re seeing happen.”

Riddick insists that isn’t to absolve Foles of some of the throws he’s missed. And there have been plenty. But like most quarterbacks, pressure Foles and his eyes begin to leave his receivers and look at the linemen bearing down on him. And unlike Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, Foles struggles to make something happen when everything around him collapses, Riddick says.

“Nick probably got too much credit when he won the Super Bowl and is getting too much blame for the struggles in Chicago,” Riddick says. “The fans see a championship-caliber defense and think it’s all Nick’s fault and Matt [Nagy] can’t call plays and they just suck. And it’s just not that simple.”

AS THEY STOOD in the center of the chaos that was the postgame Super Bowl celebration and Foles tried to process what had happened, Schulman knew there was business to take care of.

Before the game, Disney had tried to lock in Foles, as it does all potential Super Bowl stars, for its “I’m going to Disney World” campaign. But Foles refused to commit to that or any other promotion, insisting his only focus was football. As Foles and the Eagles took control of the game, Disney pressed harder, phoning Schulman in the stadium multiple times hoping for a yes. During the game, Schulman had asked Tori, who assumed her husband wouldn’t be interested, as it would have meant flying to Orlando from Minneapolis the next morning. But now Schulman needed to know for sure.

“Do you want to go to Disney World tomorrow?” Schulman asked.

Foles looked at Tori, confused. The Disney guys hovered nearby. Foles had never been comfortable with the spotlight. But now a Super Bowl MVP, the days of blending into the background were over. Schulman told Foles he needed to do this. The quarterback agreed. And right there, with Tori by his side holding their 8-month-old daughter, Lily, in bright pink headphones, Foles said those five words.

The next day, with Cinderella’s castle behind him, Foles shared a parade float with Mickey Mouse and headed down a Main Street lined with thousands of fans. He repeated two words over and over: Unbelievable. Unreal.

Seven months later, outside Philly’s Lincoln Financial Stadium, the Eagles’ Super Bowl run would be forever remembered in a statue of Foles and coach Doug Pederson commemorating the Philly Special.

They’re still arguing Foles vs. Wentz in Philly. Just this week, in the wake of Wentz’s recent struggles, Brett Favre said he was surprised the Eagles sent Foles packing. That forced Pederson to again defend the decision he made nearly two years ago.

Now 31, Foles is a Super Bowl MVP who would seem to be chasing a repeat of that moment, still searching for his quarterback home. But Foles doesn’t define himself by trophies or touchdowns as much as by the relationships he’s built. He believes there’s a reason he’s ended up in so many different locker rooms, able to connect with so many different people.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about winning. It’s just not how he defines himself. Through the Bears’ current skid, he has preached patience and a trust in the Bears’ culture. The team is working hard. Players believe in one another.

These are the times that test teams. How much can chemistry, camaraderie and intangibles overcome a lack of talent? Or inconsistent execution? Can Nick Foles pull a rabbit out of a hat one more time? Or will the next what-just-happened moment come for all the wrong reasons?

“I think it’s so easy to write people off so quickly,” Foles says. “We do that too much as human beings. We don’t allow people to struggle and go through adversity.

“This is the toughest part of sports. Someday when I’m not playing I’ll miss these times. But the good teams find a way to get through it in a positive way and improve. It’s going to take every single person to buy in and believe. That’s the only way these things get fixed.”

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