It is impossible to see Nick Foles in the NovaCare Center, his locker next to Carson Wentz's, his status and stature clear as the Eagles' backup quarterback, and not think back to the 2013 season, to its aftermath, to the juxtaposition of the player the Eagles hoped they might have and the player Foles turned out to be.
Those were confusing times. Foles couldn't beat out Michael Vick for the starting quarterback job in training camp, and then he was throwing 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in Chip Kelly's first season, and the reasons for that success were always so mysterious and cloudy. How much of it was because of the NFL-wide unfamiliarity with Kelly's system? How much of it was Foles? Had the Eagles somehow stumbled upon a franchise quarterback in a third-round draft pick who had all the pizzazz and personality of a damp paper towel?
For a while, they appeared to believe they had. At the 2014 NFL combine, Howie Roseman spoke of Foles not as a one-season wonder but as an ascendant star. The Eagles, for instance, had decided against re-signing Vick, Roseman said, because they were so excited about Foles' future, particularly since he would have more time to master and grow within Kelly's system. Foles had "tremendous support within the building," Roseman added, and was a perfect fit for the team's "culture and chemistry." Ten months later, Kelly pulled off that infamous power play to sway Jeffrey Lurie into giving him player-personnel control. Two months after that, the Eagles traded Foles for Sam Bradford. Nine months after that, Lurie fired Kelly and restored Roseman atop the football-ops department. Now Wentz is presumably the present and the future, and Foles is regarded as just another name filling the six-year gap between Donovan McNabb's departure and Wentz's arrival.
Over those half-dozen seasons, the Eagles tried a few different methods to acquire a franchise quarterback. They drafted two relative long shots in Kevin Kolb (a second-round pick) and Foles. They signed Vick once he'd finished an 18-month prison stint and, after trading McNabb and watching concussions and Kolb's own limitations stunt his progress, tried to refine his still-considerable athletic skills. They traded for Bradford once Kelly had concluded (correctly, as it turned out) that Foles was not the answer, then hoped a change of scenery would allow Bradford to flourish. That Vick started the most games, 41, of any of those quarterbacks over that span speaks to the groping that the Eagles did in their search for a savior under center—and to the nature of their search.
"It all goes to initial investment," said former NFL agent and executive Andrew Brandt, who analyzes the league for Sports Illustrated. "With an investment like Wentz, you're going to see that through as far as it can go. When you acquire a player and take him low in the draft, there's more opportunity to move on. Those guys don't have the luxury of being part of your team organically because of where they're drafted or the investment.
"The other part of this is when you have change of regimes. Then you don't have that attachment. New regimes will make decisions that, at one time, you're all in on."
Kelly made exactly that sort of decision with Foles, and Roseman made exactly that sort of decision with Bradford. Thought experiment: If Wentz were to unfurl a sophomore season equal to or better than Foles'—the gobsmacking statistics, the Eagles with 10 wins or more and in the postseason—would anyone doubt that the Eagles would offer him a long-term contract as soon as they were able? The differences in the two scenarios go beyond the fact that Wentz is the more talented quarterback. Foles was not the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The Eagles did not surrender valuable resources in a trade to select him. And he was not "Kelly's guy"; Roseman and Andy Reid had drafted him. The Eagles entered 2014 facing the choice of whether to sign Foles to a contract extension once the season ended or cut bait, and once he failed to replicate, or even approach, the success he'd had in 2013, Kelly's choice became clearer and easier to justify.
"With something like that, it becomes an organizational decision: This is who we're making our bed with," Brandt said. "Because quarterbacks cost so much, when you pay market value, you're kind of making your bed. Now, you can debate whether it's two, three, four years, but it certainly is a window of your team."
So the question becomes, how long is a team really going to ride with a player of higher risk and lower investment? It's no coincidence that those quarterbacks who took more modest routes to stardom—Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Russell Wilson are three of the most obvious examples—didn't just play reasonably well once they had the opportunity. They also were on teams that won Super Bowls, so their teams really couldn't just walk away from them, even if they wanted to. No such lightning bolt ever struck the Eagles with any of those quarterbacks between McNabb and Wentz, but it's funny to look back and wonder how close they really were to sending Nick Foles into the storm with a metal rod in his hand, and how different things might be for them now if they had.