BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Tom Brady settled the big argument last year.
With his record 466 passing yards for a fifth title and the greatest comeback in the history of the Super Bowl, he elevated himself past Montana and Elway and Peyton and others and became the undisputed greatest quarterback in football history.
Nick Foles will probably never be that. Not even in the conversation.
In fact, Foles may never again start a game for the Eagles after Sunday’s Super Bowl against Brady and the Patriots. Carson Wentz will be back next year from a torn ACL and figures to slide right back into his role as franchise quarterback, pushing Foles either back to the bench or to another team.
But Foles does have a title he’s aiming for in this game, one that is a little less official than that of champion. And just like Brady last year, if he can pull out the victory he’ll catapult up in the bar stool rankings and Twitter debates that make sports so enjoyable.
A win on Sunday and Foles can lay claim to being the greatest (backup) quarterback of all time.
Is there even such a thing?
“I honestly don’t know the answer to that,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, befuddled by the proposition. “Certainly it would be a great accomplishment on his resume, but I don’t think as coaches or as players we’re thinking like that. You’re so involved in the moment of what it’s going to take to win this game, those kind of legacy things come down the road.”
Foles already has joined a rather prestigious group of backups who have stepped in late in a season and found success in the playoffs. He is only the fourth quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make three or fewer regular-season starts and then win two or more postseason games, and the first in over a quarter century. Reich, who did it with the Bills in 1992, is another, along with Doug Williams of Washington (1987) and Jeff Hostetler of the Giants (1990).
Foles may be among them on the Mt. Rushmore of backups with what he already has accomplished just by getting the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Who else is a candidate to be placed in the pantheon of second-stringers?
Earl Morrall not only came in and won Super Bowl V for the Colts after Johnny Unitas left the game, he was the starter for 11 games during the Dolphins’ undefeated season. He also started Super Bowl III. His 102 regular-season starts, though, may disqualify him as a true backup.
Jim Plunkett came off the bench to replace starter Dan Pastorini with the Raiders in 1980 and won a Super Bowl, and then stuck around to win a second. But he came into the NFL with a starter’s resume — the No. 1 overall pick and a Heisman Trophy — and remained a starter after resuscitating his career.
To be considered the supreme locum, to top the hierarchy of second-stringers, he has one more mountain to climb. Both Hostetler and Williams — the two who are now considered the utmost in substitutes — played in and won their Super Bowls (Reich ceded the starting job back to Jim Kelly and the Bills lost). Hostetler and Williams both beat teams that had never won a previous Super Bowl (albeit against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks). What would push Foles ahead of those others and make him the #GBOAT is winning against the #GOAT.
“I think he probably would go down as the greatest, especially how well he’s played throughout,” said Danny Kanell, a former backup quarterback in the NFL (24 starts in six seasons). “It wouldn’t be a one-game wonder, it would be a huge game in the conference championship and probably for them to win he has to have a big statistical game in the Super Bowl. So yeah, I think he would be. It would have to be him.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia paid Foles the highest compliment a backup can receive this week when he said that he was able to watch film of the Eagles with Wentz at quarterback and simply imagine the quarterback wearing number 9 instead of 11.
“Wentz is a great player, he really kind of sparked them and got them going,” Patricia said. “Nick has stepped in and kept them going. I think once they get that rhythm as an offense, they get in that mode that they’re in, they’ve just been clicking. It’s been pretty impressive to watch.”
Reich was glad to hear that.
“The thought that you have a backup and you have to make changes, that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that you don’t make subtle changes, but the offense isn’t just one person so everyone learns those plays. Everyone knows what our DNA is and what our core passing concepts and running concepts are. There’s five to 10 to 15 percent that can vary from week to week, but we’re gonna do what we do.”
It’s certainly notable that Foles has not one but two career backup quarterbacks coaching him. Besides Reich, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson spent most of his playing career watching from the sideline. Those two men played for a combined 23 NFL seasons and started a combined 37 regular-season games. They understand what it takes to sit and wait and wait and wait and then, all of a sudden, have to play.
“It takes a lot of confidence and a lot of humility,” Reich said. “You need to have the confidence that you can step in there and not only manage the game but play to win. But it also takes humility. You know your primary goal is to support the starting quarterback. Nick certainly exudes those qualities.”
That’s why the Eagles signed him this offseason, at considerable cost. About $12 million.
“Our priority, as you’ve seen, is to make sure we have the very best possible other starting quarterback,” Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. “I won’t even call [Foles] a backup, because we had him evaluated as a very strong quarterback . . . He’s a big-time, big-game player. That’s Nick.”
When Wentz tore his ACL on Dec. 10, most people figured Philadelphia was through. Not the Eagles, though. Not Reich.
“I talked to [Reich] right after Wentz went down and he said ‘Jim, I’m telling you, Nick is a heck of a quarterback, and even though we’ll miss Carson, I know he can do it,’” Kelly said. “And he’s proven it.”
Sometimes, backups go on to great things. To confirm that, the Eagles need look no further than across the field on Sunday.
In Week 2 of the 2001 season Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of the game. Brady took his place, won Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, and now, 16 years later, is still competing to win titles.
That’s unlikely to happen with Foles. At least not with the Eagles, who remain Wentz’s team even if Foles is currently at the helm. Foles is signed for next season, but could very well begin the 2018 season right back where he started 2017: On the pine.
Only he could be there as a Super Bowl champion. As a Super Bowl winner.
And as the greatest ever at what he is asked to do.