HAYES: Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles is playing for his future as an NFL quarterback

Philly.com (TNS)
  • The Philadelphia Eagles face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in the NFC title game.
  • Nick Foles' future as an NFL quarterback may hinge on his performance in that game.
  • Foles will start for the Eagles in the place of injured starter Carson Wentz.

With a franchise quarterback and stars up and down their offensive and defensive lines, the Philadelphia Eagles are set for the future.

Nick Foles is not.

Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles speaks during a news conference at the team's NFL football facility, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, in Philadelphia. The Eagles host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday for the NFC Championship.

What happens Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game will likely tell the tale of the rest of his career.

This might not be fair, but it’s true.

Foles arrived in Philadelphia this offseason as Carson Wentz’s mentor and understudy, with few real prospects of being anything more, maybe ever. That changed when Wentz tore his ACL in Game 13 and left Foles with the keys to the NFL’s best team.

Just like that, this became Nicky Six’s last big chance.

When next season begins he’ll be 29. He’ll have entered four of his six seasons as a backup. There won’t be any talk about what his ceiling is. Everybody knows your ceiling when you’re seven years in.

He’s not young, and he’s not fast, and he’s not particularly accurate. He was drafted only six years ago, and he was taken in the third round, but the league has moved on from the Foles 5.0 model; as in, the 5.0 seconds it took him to run the 40-yard dash as a much younger man.

These days, everyone is looking for the next Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, or Marcus Mariota. Nobody’s looking for the next Nick Foles. If you’re 6-foot-6 and slow, you had better be strong-armed, or precise, or both. Foles isn’t remarkably strong-armed or precise, but he is 17-4 as an Eagles starter. If he goes 18-4, or 19-4, foot speed and arm strength won’t matter.

It matters now, though. Since he was drafted and had his moment in the sun — 2013, 27 touchdown passes, two interceptions — Wilson has won a Super Bowl, Newton has been the MVP, and Carson Wentz has become the template. There’s little chance these days that Foles would be drafted in the third round. Nate Sudfeld, his doppleganger and current backup, went in the sixth.

Then again, so did Tom Brady. Nothing validates a career like winning.

Needing to win: Foles needs to win some more.

Last Saturday, Foles kept from getting cut. If Wentz has not recovered from his torn ACL by the beginning of the season, then the team will fall to Foles, if only because the Eagles cannot afford to absorb mistakes and losses from Sudfeld, who has never started an NFL game. Wentz injured himself in early December. There is no guarantee that he will be whole by September.

Which is why what Foles did last Saturday means so much to them, and to him.

If he’d flopped, he’d drop. The Sudfeld Era would have begun, because what good is a quarterback who can’t outscore a 10-point team? Foles would still have a job — he would cost $5.4 million against the cap to cut,  $7.6 million to keep — but teams have had $2.2 million third-string quarterbacks before. If he’d followed his ghastly win over the Raiders and his short, bad performance against the Cowboys in the finale with a  collapse in the playoffs, how could the Eagles have trusted him next season? Foles would hold a clipboard until he was traded.

He didn’t flop. He played well. He went 23 for 30 for 246 yards. His two field goal drives in the second half beat the Falcons. His 20-yard play to Torrey Smith caromed off the knee of a defensive back and should have been intercepted. His first pass of the game might have been intercepted, too, but it was so badly thrown that not even the defense could get to it, and the Eagles drew a pass interference call.

Foles didn’t need luck in the second half. Look, there’s nothing wrong with luck, as long as it’s balanced by efficiency and talent. Foles has displayed the efficiency and talent of a backup. Nothing more. Fortunately, nothing less.

A chance to earn starting role: Poor play Sunday won’t necessarily affect that profile. Foles will face the NFL’s top defense, a shape-shifting scheme run by pedigreed head coach Mike Zimmer, who worked for Bill Parcells and Marv Lewis. Misplays will be graded on that steep and vicious curve. There will be good reason if Foles spits the bit.

But what if he doesn’t?

What if Foles throws two touchdown passes and no interceptions and gives the Eagles a chance to win? He’s the reason they were 3.5-point underdogs at midweek. What if they’re leading in the fourth quarter?

Here’s what. Foles will get another chance at a starting job, somewhere; a real shot at redemption.

Fall from relevance: Like most Pro Bowl quarterbacks who get unmasked as ordinary, Foles had a fall from relevance that was so gradual he seemed to just fade away. In his magical 2013 he was protected by a superior offensive line and worked with lethal weaponry: DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy. By the time he was injured in the middle of 2014, with Jackson cut out of spite, Foles had played poorly enough that the Eagles traded him to St. Louis in the offseason.

There, unfortified and badly coached, Foles was so diminished in 2015 that when the Rams cut him in 2016  he considered quitting. Instead, he ran to Kansas City and the comfort of Andy Reid, who had drafted him in Philadelphia in 2012. Reid then sent Foles to Doug Pederson. In Philadelphia, Foles lowered his head and punched the clock until Game 13, when he saved the season from imploding when Wentz got hurt against against those same Rams.

But that’s all Foles has done. Finishing a win and then winning three more ugly games won’t buy you long-term security.

Chance to get back on top: Getting your underdog team to the Super Bowl could, especially when you’re the reason they’re the underdog. Winning it all puts you back on top of a very flooded but specious market. Would teams rather pay Kirk Cousins or Alex Smith a boatload of money, or trade a draft pick for $4 million Nick Foles?

Who’s to say the Eagles don’t get a trade offer they can’t refuse for Foles this winter? Wentz is their future, and if they’re convinced he’ll be ready to start the season, they simply couldn’t decline the chance to recoup some of the draft picks it cost to trade up and draft him in 2016. This is especially true if they like Sudfeld as much as they say they do. Because they certainly don’t seem sold on Foles.

Not after Pederson admitted he would be willing to bench Foles against the Falcons if things started poorly. Not after Pederson spent two weeks modifying the game plan to maximize Foles’ strengths  —  which, by definition, minimized the weaknesses the Eagles perceive.

Against this superb Vikings defense, that surely will be the strategy again this week. For some team desperate for affordable competence, that could be the strategy every week.

With his future laid before him, that’s all Nick Foles needs to be.

Just be competent. Just two more times.