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The Nick Foles Conundrum

Last season’s Super Bowl MVP has more than one miracle run under his belt. What could the quarterback’s 2013 season tell us about his ability to perform moving forward?

A treated photo of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles throwing a ball Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Don’t tell our boss, but the Philadelphia Eagles aren’t too far away from becoming the modern NFL’s model franchise. From the unbelievable rise of Doug Pederson to the incredible comeback of Nick Foles, we’re spending today celebrating the defending Super Bowl champs.

When Nick Foles took over for an injured Carson Wentz and guided the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory, he cemented his status as a Philadelphia hero: Philly’s first Super Bowl win was delivered by a backup quarterback against the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen. The 2017 Eagles were a 30 for 30 playing out in real time.

What makes it all even more incredible is that Foles’s 2017 run isn’t the only fairy tale of his career. Five years earlier, Foles also took over for an injured Eagles starter and went on a completely different—but nearly as magical—run. While Foles didn’t take home a Lombardi Trophy in 2013, he did log one of the most efficient passing seasons of all time. What would have been the highlight of Foles’s career is now only the second most incredible thing he’s accomplished. How did this happen?

Like in 2017, Foles was never supposed to start in 2013. Chip Kelly was entering his first year as head coach of the Eagles and implementing his Oregon system, which benefited from a mobile quarterback. So, it was no surprise when Michael Vick was named the starter that August. But Vick and the Eagles offense didn’t hit the ground running, as Philly went 1-3 across its first four games. Then in Week 5, Vick hurt his hamstring and Foles came in for his first significant action of the season, and instantly he was … fine, throwing for two touchdowns and 197 yards.

From there, Foles and Vick played a brief game of musical chairs: Foles put up another three passing touchdowns (and a rushing touchdown) the next week against Tampa Bay, but in the next game against the Cowboys threw for just 80 yards and no touchdowns before leaving in the fourth quarter with a head injury that was later diagnosed as a concussion. Vick started the next game, but re-aggravated the same hamstring injury. In Week 9, the Eagles turned to Foles, and his legend was born.

In that game, Foles lit the Raiders on fire, throwing for seven touchdowns and 406 yards. While Foles certainly cooled off in his subsequent games, he managed to produce one of the best seasons in NFL history. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, Foles’s 2013 is the third-best season by adjusted net yards per pass attempt, third by passer rating, fourth by passing touchdown percentage, and second by passing interception percentage. Look at some of the seasons next to his: Peyton Manning’s 2004, Tom Brady’s 2007, Aaron Rodgers’s 2011, Dan Marino’s 1984, and Joe Montana’s 1989. These are legendary passers at the peak of their powers … and Nick freaking Foles.

Foles’s incredible efficiency in 2013 wasn’t even a byproduct of the NFL’s passing revolution. Pro-Football-Reference also offers advanced passing stats that adjust for era, and Foles’s 2013 is in the top six for each of the stats above when accounting for an era adjustment.

In particular, that game against Oakland will always stand out—it tied the record for touchdown passes in a game and led to Foles’s jersey being put in the Hall of Fame—but Foles’s 2013 wasn’t buoyed by that one performance. Nor was it a statistical fluke. Across his starts, Foles demonstrated a diverse skill set that showed what kind of player he could be. It began with the deep ball—Foles had a particularly strong connection with Riley Cooper, and he would frequently drop bomb passes into Cooper’s arms, like on this play in that Raiders game:

Foles went deep (more than 20 yards downfield) on 17.4 percent of his passes—second in the NFL that season—and his 124.1 passer rating on such throws was good for fourth in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. He could also thread throws intro traffic:

And remember the premium Kelly places on a mobile quarterback? Foles is more athletic than he’s given credit for, showing the ability to throw on the move ...

… and occasionally run Kelly’s read option:

All told, Foles ended up with 221 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns that season to go with his unbelievable statline of 2,891 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and two interceptions … but yeah, there was at least a touch of luck involved on some of those touchdown passes, like this one:

Still, Foles and the Kelly-led Eagles were the most exciting team in that 2013 season. Foles made the cover of Sports Illustrated that December, the Eagles won the NFC East, and Philly hosted New Orleans on wild-card weekend. But as quickly as it came together for Foles, it all fell apart.

Foles played decently enough against the Saints in Philly’s postseason opener, completing 23 of 33 passes and for 195 yards and two touchdowns (including this sweet throw). With less than a minute remaining, the Eagles had a 24-23 lead. But then the Saints inched their way into field goal position and kicker Shayne Graham gave them the walk-off win.

By 2014, the magic had run out. Foles began the year with three straight 300-plus-yard games, but threw two interceptions, matching his total for the previous year. His next outing was a 195-yard, zero-touchdown, two-interception dud, and he continued to trade touchdowns with picks for the next four games. In Week 8, Foles broke his collarbone, which forced him to miss the rest of the season, and general manager Howie Roseman had reportedly “soured” on Foles even before the injury. That offseason, the Eagles traded Foles and a handful of draft picks to the Rams for Sam Bradford and a few other picks. The 2013 miracle was all but forgotten.

Of course, that Foles started only 10 games under center means his 2013 season will never truly be in the same league as some of the best passing performances of all time, but it’s an eye-popping achievement all the same. That kind of run from a third-round pick who had previously been in and out of the starting lineup is absurd—it may be just as improbable as that same player winning a Super Bowl years later.

Now five years—and one ring—later, the Eagles are in a bit of a conundrum with Foles. The 2013 run made him a part of Eagles history, the 2017 run makes him a part of Eagles legend. And yet, Wentz is unquestionably the future in Philadelphia. The Eagles and Foles agreed to revise Foles’s contract this offseason, giving him a raise and a mutual option in 2019, but the word “trade” has been on every Philly fan’s lips for months. The Eagles reportedly asked for a first-round pick in exchange for their Super Bowl MVP at this year’s NFL draft, but were rebuffed. For Foles’s part, he’s said that he “would love an opportunity to lead a team” but has emphasized that he wants to find the right fit, and that for 2018 he wanted to remain with the Eagles.

In the immediate future, Wentz has yet to be cleared for contact following his 2017 ACL injury, and Foles just arrived back at practice after battling back spasms. Neither Wentz nor Foles played in Philly’s preseason opener on Thursday. And though Wentz is likely to take control of the offense once he is healthy, it’s worth pointing out that Foles’s second year in the league was actually better, statistically, than Wentz’s. That’s not a knock on Wentz, who showed in his second season that he can be a franchise player—it’s just a testament to how situations can change in an instant in the NFL. Strange things happen in football—and for Foles, strange things have already happened twice. Time will tell if lightning can strike for a third time.