Nate Sudfeld and Nick Foles had the same routine before every home game. The Eagles’ backup quarterbacks would hit the steam room at the Nova Care Complex and then, just before heading across the street to Lincoln Financial Field, play one game of Pop-A-Shot.
In 2017, Foles won every time.
“We would have some battles and there would be close games, but for some reason I just couldn’t quite beat him,” Sudfeld said this week. “He would always pull it out in the end. He was so clutch, and I was a little rattled by that.”
Foles’ basketball prowess has long been the stuff of lore. But Sudfeld might have had the best Pop-A-Shot touch in the Eagles’ locker room, and by the end of the 2018 season, he was winning on a weekly basis.
Sudfeld couldn’t say why. A theory was floated: Could it have been a symbolic passing of the torch, a metaphor of his readiness to replace Foles as the Eagles’ No. 2 quarterback?
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Sudfeld said with a laugh. “But something finally got me over the hump, and I was able to beat him consistently.”
He knows that filling Foles’ considerable shoes as the backup is a much higher mental hurdle. Starter Carson Wentz certainly has to endure more of the shadow cast by the Eagles’ only Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but Sudfeld’s success – if he ever gets to play – will also be judged against that of his predecessor.
Sudfeld is mostly a mystery, his lack of playing time considered by some to be a negative. But it’s a Catch-22. How can he get experience until he has the opportunity to get experience?
“I get it,” Sudfeld said of the outside perception, “but I have played a lot in the preseason, and I’ve played a couple games in the regular season. The preseason doesn’t feel too much different. It’s almost more nerve-racking because guys are playing so hard because it’s for their livelihood.
“And there isn’t as much game planning. That can be a little more challenging.”
It will have to do for now. Sudfeld is expected to get more than his share of repetitions in the preseason over the next several weeks and could even start Thursday night against the Titans if coach Doug Pederson elects to bubble-wrap Wentz for a week.
A sixth-round pick by Washington in 2016 who joined the Eagles just before the 2017 season, he has only one preseason with the team under his belt, and he was inconsistent. There wasn’t enough on the wrong side of the ledger for the front office to move on this offseason. In fact, he was virtually handed the job. But there’s only so much you can learn from practice.
“I think it can be a really good indication for him,” Pederson said of the preseason. “The goal would be to get him as much time as we can behind center in these four games. I don’t want him to feel like there’s any kind of pressure, but there’s always pressure to just go perform.”
But it’s still a far cry from when the games count. The biggest difference may be the speed of the game, and that, Eagles quarterbacks coach Press Taylor said, has long been a point of emphasis with Sudfeld.
“Obviously, most of his reps have been in practice where you’re wearing the red jersey and you’re not at risk of getting hit,” Taylor said in June. “So there’s a certain comfort that comes from that. But trying to get him to continue to speed up throughout the game – different looks, blitz situations, getting the ball out of his hand, getting it to playmakers and letting them do what they do well – I think that comes with experience.”
Sudfeld already knows what it feels like to be the backup. He spotted Foles for 11-plus games, five of them in the playoffs, over the last two seasons. He even took a snap and threw a pass when Foles briefly left the Texans game last December.
“I’ll never have a more intense scenario than the Texans game last year,” Sudfeld said. “Two-minute drill and Nick’s playing out of his mind and I have to go in. I didn’t do anything. I kind of threw the ball away for one play, but still feeling that and backing him up in the playoffs and into the Super Bowl two years ago before I ever really played much.”
Sudfeld also played in the season finale – a blowout win over the Redskins – and completed his lone throw for a 22-yard touchdown. But the only extended regular-season time he’s logged came in the meaningless season finale against the Cowboys the year before.
He did fine, completing 19 of 23 passes. And he even had a 22-yard run. But Sudfeld averaged only 5.8 yards per attempt as most of his passes were check-downs. He was more willing to throw downfield last preseason, but there were more mistakes with the larger sample.
In three games, Sudfeld completed 43 of 74 passes (58.1 percent) for 524 yards (7.1 per attempt) and five touchdowns against three interceptions. He had a passer rating of 85.6.
Foles is gone, of course, so there have been natural changes. For instance, Sudfeld now has the locker stall next to Wentz. His training-camp snaps have increased as well, but not much more than last year as Wentz sat out team drills.
Sudfeld started out slow in camp but has seemingly come on of late. Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said that his presnap reading of the defense has improved and that he’s done a better of job of checking the offense into better plays.
“I feel like I have some leeway,” Sudfeld, said, “because they trust what I see.”
How much they trust Sudfeld beyond this season will depend on various inside and outside forces. He is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Could he follow in Foles’ footsteps and get the opportunity to start elsewhere?
That scenario might depend on whether he plays meaningful snaps this season, something the Eagles would rather not see. But if Wentz were to miss time, Sudfeld said he is prepared, having watched one of the best ever at coming off the bench.
It’s unlikely he’ll ever surpass Foles’ accomplishments as a backup – or that he’ll ever get that far. The same could be said of Sudfeld’s reign as Pop-A-Shot king. The Eagles removed the arcade game from the locker room.