JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It was high noon after a three-hour practice that required three water breaks, two of them indoors. The heat index was 102 degrees. Nick Foles was running sprints: 50-yard gassers, 10 times, full speed, full pads. Alone.
Calais Campbell, the four-time Pro Bowl defensive end, was the only Jaguar not in the locker room, and that’s only because he’d stayed on the field for a TV interview. He shook his head as Foles finally walked toward shelter, and said just one word:
Big Game Nick has oozed leadership in word and deed since he signed a four-year, $88 million contract to leave Philadelphia. It is a void unfilled since Mark Brunell played quarterback here 17 years ago. Foles’ new team will host the Eagles this week in a preseason game, but he might be too valuable to play Thursday night, or at all in the preseason, for that matter. The Jags guaranteed him more than $50 million.
He’s going to be a bargain. Because, to Foles, the money is coincidental.
On the ride to his hotel during his free-agency visit to Jacksonville in March, he didn’t ask about good neighborhoods, or restaurants, or personnel. He asked, “What’s the culture like here?” The answer: developing.
“It intrigued me to have an opportunity to come to a place and help impact a culture,” he explained Monday.
When Foles met his teammates in mid-April, as the offseason program began, he instructed them to ignore his credentials: the former Pro Bowl MVP and Super Bowl MVP who, as a backup the past two seasons, led the Eagles to a 4-1 record in the playoffs.
“Don’t look at me like I’m ‘that guy,' " he told them. "We’ve got to be able to tear each other down and build each other back up.”
Of course, with Foles, it’s always about building the other guy back up. The way he built up Carson Wentz when Wentz returned as the starter last season. The way he built up Alshon Jeffery after Jeffrey dropped that pass in the playoffs in New Orleans last season. This will be Nick Foles’ team, and Nick Foles’ culture.
“We’re building it. The culture’s very young. It’s starting. We’re getting there. We’re not there; we want to grow closer every day," Foles said. "I focus on loving each other, and not working out of fear.”
That will be a culture change. Tom Coughlin, crusty and credentialed, is the Jaguars’ executive vice president of football operations. Doug Marrone, grizzled and pragmatic, is the head coach. Nick Foles, devout Christian and chronic optimist, is the face of the franchise after only five months. Thankfully.
“I told the guys: We’re competing, but we can’t be fearful,” Foles said. “That’s what I’ve been preaching: We have to love each other. That might sound silly, but that’s what conquers all.”
Love conquered in Philadelphia. A Christian brotherhood that included quarterbacks Foles, Wentz, and Nate Sudfeld and tight ends Zach Ertz and Trey “Philly Special” Burton, among others, created an atmosphere of unity and acceptance that, in 2017, fueled a roster of injury-decimated underdogs to the team’s first Super Bowl championship. The brotherhood stays connected mostly through a chat group that lets them share scriptures when times get rough, like when Sudfeld broke his left wrist last week, or when Foles’ wife had a miscarriage in May.
“It’ll mean a lot to see those guys pregame and catch up with a lot of those guys,” Foles said. “They’re family to me, always will be.”
He’s just working on another family now -- a family that seemed fine this time last year.
The Jaguars had lost the AFC championship game that would have sent them to Super Bowl LII to face Foles and the Eagles. Then they went 5-11. That finally spelled the end for Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick in 2014 and the latest of a specious lineage that, over the past 16 years, included Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Chad Henne, and Blaine Gabbert. It also included just four winning seasons, three playoff appearances, and three playoff wins.
Foles was signed to fix all of that. The Jags are injury-riddled and a playoff bubble team at best, but, given time, Foles -- with his strong, fluid delivery, his experience and his grit -- can make them a winner again.
He proved in 2013 as a second-year Eagle that, given protection and weapons, he could produce: 27 touchdowns vs. two interceptions, a league-best 119.2 passer rating, the Pro Bowl start. Injured the next season, then traded to the clown-show Rams in 2015, Foles nearly quit the game before Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who’d drafted him in Philadelphia, signed him as a backup and rekindled his desire. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie insisted on adding Foles as a backup in 2017, and, after Foles’ historic performance as an understudy, Lurie gave him a raise in 2018. But the Birds couldn’t afford both Foles and Wentz, so Foles reunited with former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, now the Jags’ offensive coordinator.
It should be a productive marriage. DeFilippo knows the plays that best suit Foles’ strengths and preferences. Foles, playing for a head coach and a coordinator who seldom hide their exasperation, knows how to defuse such situations, as he did early in Monday’s session.
Foles threw one of his high, soft, lovely deep passes down the left sideline to Chris Conley, who was open but had run the wrong route and so never saw it coming. DeFilippo had blown up during a raggedy practice Sunday, and he stormed toward Conley as Conley ran back toward the huddle. Flip never made it. Foles had jogged downfield and intercepted Conley and was explaining to Conley that he should have veered toward the goal post instead of toward the sideline. Explosion averted.
A few sessions later, Foles hit Conley with a laser down the left sideline; then, near the end of practice, he nailed him with the 50-yard bomb they’d failed to connect on earlier.
“That’s huge,” DeFilippo said. “There’s times when hearing it from the quarterback resonates more than hearing it from the coach.”
This is the essence of Nick Foles: Find a man’s flaws, find a man’s weaknesses, find a man’s vulnerabilities, and make that man better. And always be honest, always be yourself, no matter how much it hurts.
Foles’ wife Tori suffered a miscarriage in the 15th week of her second pregnancy, just before the third session of OTAs. Foles missed just three days of work. Upon his return, he insisted on talking publicly and candidly about his absence.
“That’s just who he is,” Campbell said. "Authentic. Real. He doesn’t do it for applause, or for people to see. When you see your quarterback do that, as a player you think, ‘Maybe I need to do a little bit extra, too.’ "
It isn’t extra. Not for Foles. He ran extra with the Eagles, too. He threw extra after practice. When he was the acting starter -- when it was his place to lead -- he always had time for a word with his receivers, and that hasn’t changed, either. Monday, after every first-team drill, Foles went to each wide receiver and offered a word or a fist dap. Later, he crashed the receivers’ post-practice huddle to listen to what receivers coach Keenan McCardell had to say.
And, of course, Foles knelt and led the post-practice prayer. They finished: “Jesus on Three.”
Then Foles walked away and ran, alone, in the heat.