Before "Philly Special," there was "Sidewinder."
To be exact, "Q-A Solid Sidewinder."
The play call doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, or have the indigenous charm of "Philly Special," but there might not have been the latter without the former. Nick Foles has a way of calling his own shot, particularly when the stakes are highest.
Six years ago, the Eagles had lost eight straight and coach Andy Reid was a lame duck. His team was decimated by injury, including to quarterback Michael Vick, and Foles was making his fourth start on Dec. 9, 2012, at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By some chance, the rookie quarterback had the Eagles one yard from victory with two seconds left.
But they needed a touchdown. As the Eagles' brain trust gathered and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg went through possible plays, a voice chimed in with a suggestion.
"I looked up and said, 'Who said that?' There were three or four guys," Mornhinweg said. "And then Nick said, 'I did.' And I'm going, 'Shoot, go do it.' "
He did it, of course.
Foles hit receiver Jeremy Maclin on a sprint-out and the Eagles ended their longest losing streak in 42 years. If "Sidewinder" lacked the flair and importance of "Philly Special," it marked the first triumph in a winding career in which Foles has won many more than he's lost – including a Super Bowl – for the Eagles.
"Something hit my brain, hit my gut, that happens to me at times," Foles said. He added: "I knew, once again, 'I called this play. It better work.' "
The Eagles quarterback, in his second stint as the backup, returns to the scene of his first NFL win Sunday. Foles, substituting this time for injured Carson Wentz, will make his third career start at the Bucs. He's 2-0 at Raymond James Stadium, having also won there in 2013 under Chip Kelly.
But the initial victory confirmed the Eagles' evaluation when they had drafted Foles in the third round seven months prior.
"Everything we sort of thought about him, he sort of has proved. And that game was sort of the start of it," Mornhinweg said earlier this week during a phone interview. "He's talented. He's tough. He's smart. He's an extremely hard worker. He's reasonably consistent."
Foles' performance in that 2012 game was about more than just one play. He threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns and didn't have a turnover. He's had better games statistically and in terms of consequence. But he was never as shorthanded. The Eagles had only three starters in the lineup, and on the first play from scrimmage, tight end Brent Celek left with a concussion. With left guard Evan Mathis as the only starter on the line, Foles was sacked six times and hit 13 times. But the quarterback kept getting back up, and even surprised many by rushing three times for 27 yards and a touchdown.
"I had no idea he had the legs," Mathis said this week, "but playing under that kind of defensive pressure will teach anyone to run for their life."
Maclin's sliding, sideline grab set off a wild celebration – "like we won the Super Bowl," Foles said. Perhaps it was excessive for a 4-9 team, but it showed that Reid had never lost the locker room. While Reid's fate was sealed, Foles' guile had Maclin and others such as defensive end Brandon Graham – one of several current Eagles who played in that game – predicting greatness.
"I thought he was the future," Graham said. "At that moment, I was, like, 'That boy can play.' "
Foles, though, wasn't looking that far ahead.
"At that point, I didn't know how it was going to be for me in the NFL because I hadn't won," Foles said. "I had lost several and I was, like, 'Man, am I ever going to get a win in this league?'
"But I remember just sitting in my locker after the game and said, 'Man, this is a tough league, but I'm going to enjoy this one.' "
A tough cookie
Foles had shown improvement in each of his previous three starts filling in for Vick. But it was difficult to make an assessment with so many starters out. Left tackle Jason Peters, center Jason Kelce, running back LeSean McCoy, and receiver DeSean Jackson were just the most prominent names to miss all or part of that stretch.
Even Celek, the following Thursday after the Bucs game, would miss the only game of his 11-year career. He said he didn't even watch Foles' comeback in the locker room because of his head injury.
But if he had, he would have seen a quarterback with little time in the pocket. Defensive end Michael Bennett, now an Eagle, sacked Foles twice and hit him another two times.
"He just kept coming back. It was amazing," Bennett said. "I thought, 'This guy's got some courage.' … I'm sure I'm going to bring it up to him now: 'Remember that time I almost knocked your lights out?' "
The Eagles knew about his toughness. Foles' coaches and teammates in college had raved about his grit, but Mornhinweg said he knew he was the real deal when Mike Stoops, the fired Arizona coach and a former Arena League foe, raved about the quarterback. Foles had also played behind a tattered line his senior season.
"We knew he was a tough cookie," Mornhinweg, now the Ravens' offensive coordinator, said. "They didn't win many games, but the ones they did, he carried them."
It took awhile for the Eagles to get cooking. They couldn't score on their first five possessions, but the defense held the Bucs scoreless before the break. A ridiculous, one-handed grab by receiver Jason Avant on third-and-17 kick-started the offense, and the Eagles took a 3-0 lead.
On the next series, the wispy-haired Foles made the first of several off-script throws when he had to escape a collapsing pocket. He stepped up and found Avant, who had broken off his route, for 39 yards.
A play later, the Bucs anticipated a screen pass, but they failed to set the edge and Foles waltzed into the end zone from 10 yards out. The scramble appeared to happen in slow motion – and Foles would later take some ribbing – but he would later run for 14 yards and convert a fourth down on the final drive with a three-yard keeper.
"He was a real good athlete for such a big guy," Mornhinweg said. "I thought he had good feet."
The Eagles held a 10-0 lead late in the first half, but they went into the meltdown mode that had cost them so many other games that season. Kicker Alex Henery saw a 53-yard field goal before the break negated by a penalty and his ensuing 58-yard try clank off the left upright.
And then Damaris Johnson muffed a punt in the third quarter, setting up the Bucs' first touchdown. Henery also hooked a 31-yard attempt. The defense, meanwhile, went into a spell as Tampa strung together two long touchdown drives to take a 21-10 lead with a little more than seven minutes remaining.
Foles was excellent on the Eagles' next possession, twice converting third-and-long. He hit Maclin for 22 yards over the middle on third-and-10, and on third-and-7 at the Bucs' 11, scrambled to his right and threw across his body to tight end Clay Harbor in the back of the end zone. A failed two-point conversion left the Eagles down, 21-16.
The defense held the Bucs on their ensuing drive, thanks in part to a Fletcher Cox third-down run stop – "I don't even remember the play," the defensive tackle said. And with 2:44 left, and no timeouts, Foles and the offense got the ball.
A Bennett sack had the Eagles working from behind early, but Foles found Maclin for 23 yards with another improvised third-down pass. He converted fourth-and-1 with his legs, and three plays later, the Eagles faced another third down at the Tampa 23.
Foles went to receiver Marvin McNutt, but the throw was errant and right into the arms of Bucs cornerback Danny Gorrer. But he dropped the would-be game-clinching interception.
"That happens on occasion," Mornhinweg said.
Foles rebounded on fourth down. He ripped a BB to Avant on a post route down to the 1-yard line.
"Avant ran a beautiful route," Mornhinweg said. "He gave every indication he was going corner and went post."
The clock ticked down. Foles rushed to the line and spiked the ball with two ticks on the clock.
"If there was any hesitation from him," Mathis said, "we would have lost the game."
The Eagles lined up with triple receivers left and Maclin in the slot, but the Bucs called timeout. On Reid's play card, there were columns for each scenario and various plays under each column. Foles mentioned "Q-A Solid Sidewinder" — "I probably said, 'Let's do 'Sidewinder,' " he recalled – because there would be no passing lanes and a lower probability of the pass getting tipped.
"Don't know, didn't matter, don't care," Mornhinweg said. "He wanted it. Boom."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson had the same reaction when Foles ran over to the sideline during the Super Bowl and mentioned "Philly Special," and again last week against the Falcons when he called for "Philly Philly," an alternate version of the trick play.
"If a quarterback says he wants a play," Mornhinweg said, "the odds are he's going to make it work."
Avant and Maclin were to the right with the former in the slot and the latter at flanker. Foles rolled to that side at the snap and threw just after Maclin broke on a short out. The pass was on target, but the receiver went to his knees.
"I remember Maclin making an amazing catch," Foles said, "barely getting his feet or knees in."
When Foles played for the Chiefs, offensive coordinator and former Eagles assistant Matt Nagy ran the film of the final drive in the quarterback room before another emergency start.
"I think he was messing with me a little bit," Foles said.
Foles has gone 21-8 as a starter for the Eagles since. He's had some down moments during that span, and surely a few plays he suggested that failed.
"I don't always suggest them right," Foles said. "Sometimes I miss."
But history is written by winners.