The message that Eagles coach Doug Pederson delivered to quarterback Nick Foles this week was simple: "Let's go be Nick."
Eagles fans who watched Foles during the last two games of the season might wish Pederson had a different message.
But Foles understands exactly what Pederson means. It's easy this time of year to magnify the moment or crumble amid criticism. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich, sharing a similar sentiment as Pederson, said he doesn't want Foles to try to force anything and to "play his game, play his style." That's produced success in Foles' past and it's what Foles is taking as a directive for Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons. (Pederson said his full message was: "We have a great opportunity. Let's go be Nick. Let's go play. Let's go execute the offense.")
"It's just going out there and playing and staying in the zone and trusting my instincts," Foles said. "I've played this game a long time. There's a reason I've been able to do what I've been able to do. …When I play my best and I'm most comfortable, I just go out there and play. That's the big message."
Foles had all of last week to reflect. He has this week to prepare.
Text messages and phone calls are going unreturned. He's aware of the pessimism about how he's played and the skepticism about the Eagles' chances of reaching the Super Bowl with Foles at quarterback. He's trying to remain unaffected by both.
Foles doesn't want to overanalyze. He's not trying to make the game bigger than it is or his need to rebound any more crucial. But there's no downplaying Foles' importance. He went 23 of 49 for 202 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions during the last two games, which included a win over Oakland and one scoreless quarter against Dallas.
"I haven't executed as well as I wanted to the past couple of weeks, but I go out there and play and having this time to self-scout, go through practice, you realize just go out there and play," Foles said. "Maybe I wasn't doing that as much those last couple of games. It's as simple as that. Sometimes, the hardest things are the simplest things. Basically, get out of your own head and go play the game you know how to play."
Reich said the "length and breadth" of Foles' career should give him unwavering confidence, and noted that the "the best quarterbacks in the world have a bad game or two in a row." Also, Reich said Foles can look to the players around him. One major emphasis from the Eagles is that this game and the team's situation is not about Foles. It's about "we," as Reich said.
Psychoanalyzing Foles has become a cottage industry in Philadelphia. He's become confident in answering questions about his confidence. For Tuesday's obligatory confidence question: Yes, Foles said he feels confident, "feels great," and had a good practice session. That won't necessarily send Eagles fans booking travel to Minnesota for the first time in February, but it got Foles through Tuesday.
"You're always going to have criticism. I know that," Foles said. "And I think the big thing is I feel good and I'm in the moment."
In the moment on Saturday, the Eagles need a better Foles. They don't need him to win them the game – it sounds as if the running game and the defense will be the desired formula – but they need him to make plays when called upon and move the offense. He also must avoid the critical errors that can swing a game; Foles has long been aware of the importance of avoiding turnovers.
But against the Falcons' speedy defense that plays a Cover-3 scheme and mixes in man coverage, Foles will have a chance to make plays. It will be important that he connects with top receiver Alshon Jeffery, who didn't have a catch in Week 16 and will be covered by top cornerback Desmond Trufant. Jeffery is the Eagles' No. 1 wide receiver and opens up the passing game for the rest of offense. The Eagles average 34.4 points in games Jeffery catches a touchdown; they average 22.8 points when he doesn't reach the end zone.
"I just got to throw it," Foles said. "I do trust him. I've seen him play enough. …It's really just me giving him opportunities to make plays, because he will make them. He's a super talented receiver. And that's on me to give him opportunities to do so."
Foles could stretch the defense with more shots downfield, which he would invite. Pederson wants him to do so when the opportunity is there. Reich noted that from his early conversations with Foles during the spring, he saw Foles' eyes light up at the thought of playing aggressively. And being aggressive does not necessarily mean looking deep on every play or Pederson calling 40-plus passing plays, but rather Foles not playing passively because of the last two weeks of the season.
"Let's not let the most recent outings, five quarters of play, let's not let that slow us down in our confidence," Reich said. "Maintain your confidence and aggressiveness."
It's easy to forget amid the cacophony of criticism that Foles entered the Rams game on the road with a deficit and led the Eagles to a win; that he was 2-0 in the next two games; and that he's won 16 of the last 22 games he's started for the Eagles.
Foles won't make Eagles fans forget Carson Wentz and he probably won't make them remember 2013. But he just needs to give them another week of football, which Foles is capable of doing. He would consider that making good on the "go be Nick" directive.
"Doesn't matter how pretty it is, just want to get to the W," Foles said. "That's it. Doesn't matter how you get it. Just get the W and keep on going."