What follows is based less in fact than in feel.
Something happens to the Eagles when Nick Foles plays, particularly at this time of year. He’s not a jolly old elf, but Saint Nick supplies something magical. It transcends physical skills. It outstrips statistical results. There’s no analytic for inspiration.
As resurrected running back Wendell Smallwood told NBC Sports Philadelphia late Sunday night, after Foles beat the Rams on the road in a huge December game for the second consecutive year:
“We miss that swag.”
You can’t quantify swag.
But it wins playoff games. It catches TD passes. It earns Super Bowl MVPs.
To be clear, there is no universe, parallel or otherwise, in which the Eagles are a better team with Foles as franchise quarterback instead of Carson Wentz. If the Eagles' medical team and front office determine that Wentz’s back can carry the team for the next five years then, by all means, give him the $150 million extension he can take after the season. Apparently, the “stress injury” that “evolved” in his back over the past three months -- and cost Wentz a start at L.A., and another against the visiting Texans on Sunday -- might allow Wentz to return for the finale at Washington.
Why bother? Smallwood’s right. Foles bring juice that Wentz does not.
There is no question that Wentz, when healthy, is the more dangerous quarterback. But pure skill and raw talent don’t allow for the human dynamic, and the human dynamic should never be ignored. Foles plays with a joie de vivre that infects the entire roster. Gangly, goofy, and completely faux-cool, players of superior pedigree look at Nicky 6 and say, “If that guy can do it, I can do it.”
He did it last December, and through January, and, gloriously, Feb. 4, against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, with almost 120 million people watching on some sort of screen.
Foles did it again on Sunday Night Football. Without Wentz, the defense played harder and smarter. So did the special teams. Eager to limit Foles' exposure, Doug Pederson called more running plays earlier in the game. The offensive line blocked better for the running backs, and the backs ran harder. The receivers' routes were crisper; No. 1 wideout Alshon Jeffery clearly was more engaged, with eight catches for 160 yards, his best production in five years. Every single player and every single coach knew that, on Sunday, Wentz’s superhero abilities would provide no safety net for their shortcomings, so every single player and coach had his best game.
Gotham might have developed a better police force without Batman.
At 6-7, on the brink of playoff elimination, the Eagles played desperately.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Pederson acknowledged. “I think you saw a little bit of that [Sunday] night.”
Their backs were against the wall when Wentz went down last season. Coincidentally, it also began at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Wentz shredded a knee. Foles replaced him. The team won that game and every significant game thereafter, whether or not Foles played well.
We saw a similar star-loss effect in the spring, when Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid missed 10 games at the end of the season. The Sixers won the first nine of those games. By an average of 16 points.
Again: There is no universe, parallel or otherwise, in which the Sixers are a better franchise without Embiid. Like Wentz, Embiid is an MVP-caliber player. However, as with Wentz, when Embiid cannot play the rest of the team is freed, to a degree. They don’t have to play through Embiid. This can be healthy, in small doses, particularly with a quarterback.
» READ MORE: How the Eagles can earn a playoff berth
Foremost, there is no current Foles film to betray his habits and tendencies; at least, not with this grouping of offensive personnel. Since Foles last started -- Game 2, while Wentz’s knee healed -- the Eagles have two new primary receivers and two new primary running backs.
And, while this might sound heretical, Foles does things well that Wentz does not. He recognizes defenses and trusts the scheme. He passes the ball to the first open receiver instead of waiting for something bigger to develop, so the ball comes out on time more frequently. He flees the pocket sooner and gets rid of the ball quicker; he took no sacks Sunday night.
Sunday night doesn’t make Foles better than Wentz overall, and certainly not better long-term. He’s just better in this moment; better than the broken-back, worn-out, 80 percent Carson Wentz. And certainly not better statistically, or even empirically.
Foles finished with an 89.4 passer rating, which isn’t much better that the 87.0 rating he has in his 52 career games. He made several plays to win the game, but he almost lost it, too.
He threw a horrible red-zone interception early in the fourth quarter that cost the Eagles a likely field goal which would have given them a 20-point lead. Instead, it led to a Rams field goal. He almost threw another interception with just under 4 minutes to play in the game: high and behind Zach Ertz. In the best case, the interception would have given the Rams the ball at the Eagles' 27-yard line. In the worst case, the interception would have been returned for a touchdown and tied game. In that case, the conversation is different this week.
It’s not. Foles will start Sunday. Despite Pederson’s posturing Monday, another win surely will earn Foles the start in the finale at Washington. If the Eagles get the requisite help from the rest of the league, those wins will make Foles the Eagles' playoff QB again.
If recent history is an indicator, then Foles will just be hitting his stride, and he’ll shine, and the team will have a chance to win.
Then, appropriately, Foles will return to the bench, wherever he is. Because we also know this about the Nick Foles effect: When teams have a few weeks to adjust to Foles, the effect diminishes. That happened in Philadelphia in 2014, after his Pro Bowl season in 2013. It happened in 2015, when he started for the Rams, then still in St. Louis.
It also happened when Foles started the first two games of the 2018 season for the Eagles.
Like the Christmas spirit, the magic eventually fades.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
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