In November 2013, before Nick Foles had to be talked out of retiring from football, before Super Bowl LII and “Philly Special” and 41-33 and the folk heroism that will forever be attached to him, I stopped him in a hallway of the NovaCare Complex to ask him about Tom Brady. The Eagles were in the midst of a five-game winning streak, and over his previous three starts, Foles had thrown 10 touchdown passes, including seven in one game against the Oakland Raiders, without an interception. No one knew what to make of him and the way he was playing. Was he really this good? Was he merely a product of the innovation and genius of Chip Kelly? We took different things for granted back then.
Of course, the standard, then and now, for out-of-nowhere quarterback greatness was Brady, the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft. Foles had turned 13 just two weeks before Brady and the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. He didn’t remember much of the game, he said in the hallway, and he wasn’t drawing any parallels between him and Brady.
“A very wise coach once told me, ‘Clear the clutter,’” Foles said then. “Just thinking about all that stuff, all it does is cause anxiety. My faith has always been the most important thing, my family. So I’ve always approached the game that as long as my faith is strong and my family is good, I’m good no matter what. I speak the truth: If today is my last day, I’ll be very thankful for it.”
In the seven years since, nothing about the manner in which Foles would answer such a question has changed. Only everything else has. On Thursday night, he and Brady will play against each other, in a game whose outcome matters, for the first time since February 2018. That night at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, when Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns and it wasn’t enough because Foles threw for 373 and three himself and caught another one, will be an easy reference point, an obvious but still interesting storyline. The two of them will always be linked. But the setting and scene for this game will be so strange: an empty Soldier Field, Foles starting for the Chicago Bears, Brady starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Already this season, each quarterback has reaffirmed the narrative that has long been characteristic of his career. Brady joined the Buccaneers in the hope that, away from Bill Belichick and united with Bruce Arians and better skill-position talent, he might achieve his goal of remaining an elite quarterback up to and beyond his 45th birthday. Through four games, Tampa Bay is 3-1, and Brady has a 99.4 passer rating, has thrown 11 touchdowns, and is averaging more yards per attempt (7.1) than he has in any season in a decade.
Foles, meanwhile, was supposed to be the Bears' backup quarterback this season, if all went according to plan for them. But then, in Week 3, he replaced the starter -- a starter who had been the No. 2 overall pick in the draft -- and led his team to a remarkable come-from-behind victory. You know, the usual, at least when he was with the Eagles. He won 25 of the 38 games he started for them, including four of six in the playoffs. It is the standard by which he has always defined himself.
“Just win. That’s it,” he said. “You can do all the stats you want or do everything, but the most important thing is winning the games and putting your team in the position to win games. That’s why quarterbacks play the position. That’s why I play the position. You want the ball in your hand each and every play, and you’re the one making the decision. So if you lose, a lot of that is on you.”
It is the standard that defines him here, too. No matter what else Foles does or has done in the NFL, that incredible four-week stretch in the winter of 2018 will be enough for people here to regard him as a superstar, even if the full breadth of his career reveals his performance as more inconsistent and polarized than some might want to admit. When he is good, he is very good indeed, and when he is bad, he is horrid.
That is true now, and it was true before Super Bowl LII, and it was perhaps never truer than in 2013, when he had 13 1/2 times more touchdown passes than interceptions. By any statistical measure, he was better that season than Brady, better than Aaron Rodgers, and close to par with Peyton Manning. “I’m 24 years old,” he said at the time. “Brady, Manning, Rodgers -- those guys have done it. They have such a bulk of work. You can’t really compare that. I’m a younger guy. I haven’t played enough.”