Tolstoy wrote that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” To fully appreciate Nick Foles potentially leading the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl glory, you must understand that this maxim also applies to the NFL’s millionaire clipboard holders. While each backup quarterback fills in a similar position on the sideline, each is a backup in his own distinct way.
Some are dependable veterans who have long accepted that they aren’t starting material. Others are youngsters hoping to break through. There are players who signed as starters, but were usurped by more talented options; players who have a job because they’ve previously worked with a certain staff; players who have styles similar to teams’ starting quarterbacks; and players who have a history of mentoring younger stars. I think there’s at least one backup who has an NFL job because he pinky swore that he wouldn’t kneel during the pregame national anthem.
To summarize Foles’s situation, please watch Terry Bradshaw ask the man who could win Philadelphia its first Super Bowl how it feels to know that even achieving the sport’s greatest triumph will not prevent him from being Carson Wentz’s backup again next season. Much as the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of the sport, Bradshaw’s question is the pinnacle of football awkwardness; Foles’s response twists and sputters—just like his career.
Foles is not the first backup who has led his team to the Super Bowl. (Once upon a time, Bradshaw did it.) But no two backup quarterbacks are alike. If Foles’s winding path leads him to Super Bowl victory, it will be one of the great stories in NFL history.
Between seven and nine backup quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl, depending on who you ask. That’s a large number considering that there have been only 51 Super Bowls, and most have featured two quarterbacks who entered that season as a starter. But most of those backups haven’t gone through anything like Foles has.
In some cases, a backup started in the Super Bowl simply because a team’s coaching staff thought it was the right decision. The most famous example is Doug Williams, who led Washington to victory in Super Bowl XXII after making two starts during the 1987 regular season. Head coach Joe Gibbs just chose to bench starter Jay Schroeder entering the playoffs. Trent Dilfer took over the Ravens offense midway through the 2000 season because starter Tony Banks was not good, and the team’s incredible defense propelled Baltimore to a Super Bowl XXXV championship. Bradshaw spent two stints as a backup in 1974, losing his job as the Steelers’ established starter in part due to his decision to take part in a player’s strike during the preseason. But he eventually proved himself the superior option to both of the quarterbacks head coach Chuck Noll preferred (Joe Gilliam and Terry Hanratty) en route to Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl IX title. And Roger Staubach is sometimes labeled as a backup who won Super Bowl VI, although really he was part of a QB tandem that would never exist in the modern NFL. Staubach traded snaps with Craig Morton for the better part of two years before officially establishing himself as the Cowboys’ best quarterback midway through the 1971 season.
There is also precedent of backups who were forced into action because of injury going on to win the Super Bowl, but most of these cases differed significantly from that of Foles. Kurt Warner was the Rams’ starter for the entire 1999 campaign after Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee injury in preseason; St. Louis beat Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. Tom Brady—heard of him?—took over for the Patriots in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe went down Week 2; he led New England to a title in Super Bowl XXXVI. Jim Plunkett took over for the 1980 Raiders in Week 5 after starter Dan Pastorini suffered an injury; he was later named MVP of Super Bowl XV. (Plunkett was also briefly benched during the 1983 season, meaning he kind of won the Super Bowl as a backup twice, although the latter instance doesn’t count for our purposes.) In all of these cases, the quarterbacks who won Super Bowls weren’t backups so much as they were new starters: Warner transformed the Rams into the Greatest Show on Turf; Brady continued to start well after Bledsoe was medically cleared to play.
The first set of Super Bowl backup quarterbacks were given championship opportunities because their coaches decided that they were the team’s best starters. The second set had near-full seasons to settle into the starting role. Foles falls into neither camp. He is certainly not starting due to a coaching decision, and the injury that thrust him into action came in Week 14. The only Super Bowl–winning QB who falls into a comparable camp was Jeff Hostetler, who took over for the 1990 Giants following a Week 15 injury to Phil Simms, started two regular-season games and two playoff games, and helped New York edge Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. It makes sense why this rarely happens: While early-season quarterback injuries can allow time for teams to adjust, late-season quarterback injuries can leave a roster scrambling in the middle of the stretch run.
And thus the awkwardness of the Foles situation. Everyone knows that Philadelphia’s success this season stems largely from the stellar play of Wentz, and that if he were healthy he would start on Sunday. Foles is Philadelphia’s best option right now, but he’s still clearly no. 2. He isn’t even the team’s starter on the Super Bowl’s official media donuts:
Nick Foles is not represented on the donut frosting here at the Super Bowl Media Center pic.twitter.com/4SlwKXkWNx— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) January 29, 2018
Foles has had the most soap-opera career of any backup quarterback since Matt Saracen. In a span of just six seasons, he’s experienced a whirlwind of stunning successes, bitter betrayals, and dramatic reunions.
His first professional action led to the longest-tenured coach in the NFL getting fired. The Eagles selected Foles in the third round of the 2012 draft, pairing him with head coach Andy Reid and quarterbacks coach Doug Pederson. He started six games as a rookie, Philly sputtered to a 4-12 finish, and the entire regime got the ax.
Foles’s second head coach seemed like he could make the quarterback a star. Under Chip Kelly, Foles led the NFL in passer rating, touchdown percentage, and yards per attempt in 2013, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process. But things quickly went south. He threw 10 interceptions in 2014, and Kelly gave up on him. After wrangling control of personnel duties away from Howie Roseman—the general manager responsible for drafting Foles—Kelly shipped Foles to St. Louis in the 2015 trade that netted the Eagles Sam Bradford.
Things only got worse from there. Going from Kelly to Rams head coach Jeff Fisher was the equivalent of going from a Lamborghini to a 1979 Ford Pinto. Just two seasons after tying an NFL record by throwing seven touchdowns in one game against the Raiders, Foles threw for seven scores in an entire season. The Rams traded up to take Jared Goff with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and Foles asked for his release. He even considered retirement, citing a loss of “love for the game.”
But then, a critical pair of reunions. In 2016, Reid reached out to Foles, asking him to serve as a backup for the Chiefs. And this past offseason, Roseman, who’d returned to a position of power with the Eagles and promptly set about undoing virtually every meaningful move made by Kelly, opted to bring back Foles. “[Nick is] someone we’ve won games with,” Roseman told reporters. “We want to do everything we can to keep Carson healthy and on the field, but if Nick is out there … he can win games for us.”
It was a relatively odd move. The previous year, the Eagles had signed Chase Daniel to a $21 million contract, stunningly large for a player expected to be a backup. But they brought in Foles nonetheless, getting Daniel to agree to a release. Perhaps the reason was to save money. After all, who cares about backup quarterbacks? Longtime Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore famously explained why Peyton Manning’s backups got relatively few practice reps with the following quote: “If [no.] 18 goes down, we’re fucked. And we don’t practice fucked.”
But thanks to the decision to sign Foles, the Eagles were significantly less expletived than the average NFL team forced to swap in a backup QB directly before a playoff run. Philly’s head coach is Foles’s first position coach. Its roster and staff is filled with players who worked with Foles during the most successful season of his career. At the beginning of the playoffs, the Eagles looked at the highlights from Foles’s breakout 2013 campaign, and Pederson installed a bunch of Kelly-infused plays. For example, the Eagles ran run-pass options with Wentz; knowing the success Foles had found using RPOs under Kelly, they now run them even more.
Foles went 26-of-33 passing for 352 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-7 rout of the Vikings in the NFC title game. It may seem odd that a journeyman quarterback could post such an incredible performance at such a critical juncture of the season—but it’s only roughly as odd as the fact this journeyman posted one of the best statistical seasons in recent memory before seemingly vanishing into NFL oblivion.
Backup quarterbacks who’ve won the Super Bowl rarely follow the same path to that stage, just as every backup quarterback situation is different. As it turns out, Foles was the ideal backup for these Eagles. His history with the team and coaches made him perhaps the only backup on Earth who could have kept Philadelphia in Super Bowl contention despite Wentz going down as late as he did. The Eagles are not Foles’s team in the long term, but they are this month, and their decision to sign him might win them a championship.