JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A quarterback will confront his past, taking the field against former teammates, when the Eagles visit the Jacksonville Jaguars for some preseason football Thursday night.
It won’t be Nick Foles, though. Jaguars coach Doug Marrone has said he won’t risk playing his starter, the man the team signed in March for four years and $88 milllion to turn around the fortunes of a bedraggled franchise. Foles led the Eagles to four playoff victories over the past two seasons, including the team’s lone Super Bowl championship.
Cody Kessler, the Eagles QB who figures to see most of the preseason snaps now that Nate Sudfeld is sidelined with a broken left wrist, was a Jaguar last season. Initially signed in Jacksonville to back up Blake Bortles, Kessler got a four-game, late-season stretch as the starter, after Jacksonville’s fortunes veered way south of expectations.
Kessler wasn’t terrible, but the Jags went 2-2 in four games and he wasn’t good enough to change management’s mind about bringing in a new face of the franchise. Kessler, who came to the Jags after two years in Cleveland, said this week that he isn’t bitter.
“Everyone there treated me great,” Kessler told reporters at NovaCare. "Obviously, we had a tough year, and everything didn’t go as planned.”
This preseason isn’t going as planned for the Eagles, who envisioned using it to get Sudfeld ready for his first year as the primary backup to Carson Wentz. Now Sudfeld will miss the preseason and at least a few regular-season weeks. Eagles coach Doug Pederson hasn’t divulged his plan for Wentz, but it didn’t involve playing Wentz in the preseason opener, and it might not involve risking injury to Wentz in a meaningless game at all.
This leaves the team with three preseason games left and two quarterbacks who don’t really know the offense very well. Clayton Thorson arrived in this year’s draft, in the fifth round from Northwestern. Kessler joined him a few weeks later, after the Jags decided they could go cheaper with rookie Gardner Minshew as Foles’ backup.
Foles was Kessler’s teammate for a little less than two months in Jacksonville. They spent a few weeks together, working in the offseason program, but they connected well enough that Foles was among the first to call Kessler after he was released.
Kessler said he draws inspiration from Foles, “a guy who’s had his ups and downs in this league, as a lot of us do.”
Just three years ago, Foles contemplated retirement after the Rams released him. He was talked into taking a backup role in Kansas City by his original Eagles coach, Andy Reid. Then, a year later, Foles signed to back up Wentz.
Before the Jags released Kessler, Foles talked to him a lot about Philadelphia, about the locker room and the organization. When the Eagles called, Kessler was eager. He said this week that everything he’d heard from Foles has checked out.
“There really is a family environment in the locker room and on the field,” Kessler said.
Thursday night, lots of Eagles players, coaches and front-office people will want to greet Foles, and Kessler will, as well, but he has a much more urgent focus. The team scored no points with Kessler and Thorson at the helm for a half in last week’s loss to Tennessee. Didn’t come close to scoring any points, in fact.
“Continuing to master the offense,” he said, when asked what he’s been working on. “Making sure I know how to run every play we’re running this week, different checks, different reads, and obviously, that’s taken time to get all that, but I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with it, and I’m looking forward to showing it.”
The result might not count, but for Kessler, the game certainly does.
“It’s just another opportunity, another game. You don’t know how many you’re going to get in this league, so you want to take advantage of each one,” he said.
This week, Kessler has moved up in practice from working with the third-team offense to working with the second team. That move also entails getting more practice reps.
Pederson said that Kessler is “still processing and working through the details of the offense. He’s working through also working with some different guys, which takes a little time, but he's handled everything really well.”
Then there is Thorson, whose 2-for-9, 7-yard performance against Tennessee left fans wondering why he was even in camp. Coaches and Thorson have leaned heavily on the narrative of the rookie’s being too fired up for his first NFL action, although Thorson has not been very accurate in practice, either.
“Obviously, I was pretty excited,” Thorson said. “I was chucking the ball a little. … That was the reason for some of those throws over their heads..”
He said veterans have been supportive as he prepares to go at it again, telling him “we drafted you for a reason.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said he liked the way Thorson handled last week’s setback.
“I think he's responded well. He's come back and just gone back to work. You wouldn't know anything different, and that's part of being a rookie quarterback in this league,” Groh said. “You're going to have your ups and downs. You're going to take your lumps, and he's just come back to work and he's been great out here on the practice field.”
Groh said Kessler and Thorson will benefit from moving up in the practice hierarchy.