Welcome to the Backup Bowl.
That’s what Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and Vikings might as well be called, given the quarterbacks both sides will deploy.
Neither Nick Foles of the Eagles nor Case Keenum of the Vikings began this season as the starter for his team. Each signed during the offseason with the knowledge that he would not be competing for the number one job. Then injuries changed their personal trajectories, if not those of their squads, so when they square off at Lincoln Financial Field, they’ll be an unlikely combination for such a prominent contest.
“I know this is what all you guys predicted back in the day, a Foles versus Keenum NFC championship,” Keenum said this past week. “So good job to all you guys that predicted that.”
In retrospect, perhaps there should have been more who did. Their careers have been so intertwined that it makes sense that they now will meet with a ticket to Super Bowl LII on the line.
The two first crossed NFL paths in 2015. The Rams traded Sam Bradford to the Eagles for Foles, then signed him to a two-year extension. The expectation was that Foles would be their quarterback moving forward. Foles’ backup was Keenum.
Midway through the season, though, their roles flip-flopped as Keenum became the starter. It’s where the two became close friends.
“One of my best friends” is how Keenum put it. “A really, really solid guy.” Their wives also are close.
Their tenure as teammates did not last long, though.
The spring of 2016 was a busy one for the two quarterbacks. That’s when the Rams moved up to the top spot in the draft to select Jared Goff. Foles was released and signed with the Chiefs; Keenum started nine games for the Rams before giving way to Goff.
Also in the spring of 2016, the Eagles traded up and selected Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the draft. Bradford, whom the Eagles had acquired for Foles, no longer was needed in Philadelphia, and when the Vikings lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury, they traded for Bradford.
So when the 2016 season ended just over a year ago, Foles and Keenum both were on teams with much heavier investments in other quarterbacks. They faced a future of holding clipboards and running scout teams, and they began 2017 in that fashion, too.
Keenum signed a one-year contract for 2017 with the Vikings to be the backup to Bradford, who in 2016 set the single-season record for completion percentage (.716). But Bradford suffered a knee injury in Week 1, so Keenum took over. He started 14 games in the regular season and guided the Vikings to the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Foles, meanwhile, had returned to the Eagles and was the backup to Wentz. The MVP candidate injured his knee in early December, though, and Foles stepped in as the starter for the top seed in the conference.
Both won playoff games last weekend, setting up Sunday’s showdown. Foles did it by passing for 246 yards against the Falcons and becoming the first NFL quarterback in 20 years to win a playoff game for a team after starting three or fewer games in the regular season (Randall Cunningham with the 1997 Vikings was the last to do so). Keenum, of course, accomplished his divisional- round win over the Saints on the back of a 61-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
“It’s pretty wild,” Foles said. “But like I’ve said, Case’s success doesn’t surprise me because we were together, we prepared together and we were around each other every day . . . The big message is, no matter what happens, you have to keep believing and never give up.”
One former career backup quarterback certainly appreciates that.
“They just seem to keep sort of defying the odds and stepping up to the challenges each week,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who during his 12 seasons as a player in the NFL started only 17 games. “That’s what’s exciting and fun to see about these two guys. They’ve just overcome everything and have really, really helped their teams get to this position, and that’s what you want.”
Now they’re at the pinnacle of the sport, clashing for a chance to become a starting quarterback in a Super Bowl and maybe even join the exclusive list of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
Keenum and Foles communicate regularly during the season. They compare notes on common opponents, go over similar schemes and discuss their families.
What they’ve never talked about, Keenum said, is the possibility of facing off on this penultimate postseason stage.
“Nah,” Keenum said. “We didn’t mention that.”
Who would have?