Nearly 11 months ago, when quarterback Nick Foles had improbably led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory, his long-term stature in the organization was simple. He’d get a salary bump in 2018, a tip of the cap on his way to free agency in 2019 and forever retain sentimental real estate in the hearts of fans.
One more incredible playoff-saving streak later – in which Foles unbelievably propelled the Eagles past the Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans and Washington Redskins – the Eagles are inching closer to a question they never realistically fathomed having to ask.
If Foles goes on another significant playoff run this postseason, can the franchise justify letting him leave in 2019?
There are logical answers to this question, of course. Arguments like: Carson Wentz is the chosen centerpiece; the financial gymnastics to retain Foles are too difficult; and there could be some solid trade offers for Foles if Philadelphia pursues that route. But setting the NFL’s typical front-office logic aside for a moment and simply weighing results, there should be some serious contemplation given to a question that goes beyond cap figures and best-laid-plans. And that question is this:
What if Carson Wentz is the better player, but Nick Foles is actually the better fit for the Philadelphia Eagles?
When that Wentz-vs.-Foles question came up around the Super Bowl 11 months ago, I thought it was preposterous. In fact, a few days before Foles won the Super Bowl MVP trophy by torching the New England Patriots for 373 passing yards and four total touchdowns, I wrote: “Whatever Foles does with this Super Bowl spotlight – no matter how great the feat – his spotlight is a rental. And the keys to the franchise will remain in the hands of Wentz.” I believed that. I was certain of it.
And now? Well … if Foles can repeat his 2017 run, there might be more of an argument here than I anticipated.
None of this is to imply that I don’t believe in Wentz. In fact, when he’s healthy and not getting hammered behind a leaky offensive line, Wentz is capable of the MVP-level play he displayed in the 2017 season. He’s still firmly entrenched as the center of the roster for the next decade, having just turned 26 on Sunday and flashing some brilliance in 11 starts this season.
But even in light of all this, it’s hard to ignore Foles has a special rhythm with Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. Just as it’s difficult to overlook the reality that he stepped in for Wentz in week 15 and not only commanded the respect of everyone around him, but delivered in a pressurized playoff-level win on the road against the Rams. Then he followed it by cutting up an 11-win Texans team, followed by a quick lead over the Redskins on Sunday before leaving with bruised ribs. Even when you factor in Foles’ first two starts of the season – which were legitimately poor – his overall 4-1 record this season and penchant for rising when it mattered most says a lot about how valuable he remains in the franchise.
Before the Eagles do anything with Foles, it’s fair to wonder what he might look like with a full season under his belt alongside Pederson. Clearly, he knows the playbook as well as anyone on the offensive staff. That’s the only logical reason to explain starting five games, spending the majority of the season getting minimum snaps in practice, but still producing some absurd efficiency in limited opportunities, including a 72.3 percent completion rate, 1,413 passing yards and a 7-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That’s elite backup production that could potentially become even better with Foles being a centerpiece from start to finish. Maybe even good enough to be considered a franchise quarterback, which Eagles general manager Howie Roseman once believed Foles represented back in 2013.
So what does all this mean in the Foles vs. Wentz conversation? Right now, nothing. At the moment, Foles is cutting the exact same figure he did last January: high-level veteran backup swooping in to help save the season and maybe spark something special in the playoffs. But that’s also where this gets interesting, too. While the Eagles are undeniably depleted from injuries, they’re heading into an NFC playoff field (and an entire NFL playoff picture) where seemingly every single team has some kind of Achilles’ heel. No team is perfect, including the No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints, who ended November looking vulnerable in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys and then squeaked out a pair of three-point victories over the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unless Foles’ ribs prevent him from playing, the Eagles aren’t a team you want to see in the postseason, because they’ve just been given new life and a clean slate after a horrendously difficult season from an injury standpoint. While the roster isn’t nearly as talented as it could be, last season’s improbable Super Bowl run makes the Eagles inarguably experienced and dangerous. And if anything, the commanding wins over the Rams and Texans show the Eagles have enough firepower to play under pressure with anyone in the league. Including the Saints.
If Foles can catch lightning in a bottle again, it presents a quandary for the Eagles. Particularly if he can manage a Super Bowl run. It’s not easy to look at a quarterback who leads two Super Bowl pushes and looks good in the process, and decide he’s flatly not worth keeping around. Especially when your chosen superstar quarterback has now suffered significant injuries in back-to-back seasons – as Wentz has.
So Philadelphia could be looking at a difficult situation. One in which Foles and the team have a dual option on his 2019 contract that would pay him $20 million for that season. As it stands, the Eagles could pick up that option and then force Foles to decline it by buying his way out of the deal. He can do that by simply returning $2 million of his signing bonus – which he absolutely plans to do, because it frees him for unrestricted free agency in 2019. The Eagles would still have one more option on the table, which would be a franchise tag that would then force any teams interested in Foles to offer trade assets for him.
At the moment, that kind of drawn-out scenario is unlikely because it would put the Eagles more than $12 million over the 2019 cap. It isn’t sustainable and it doesn’t make sense to keep Foles at that price when Wentz is expected to be healthy for the start of the offseason passing program. Other NFL teams know that, too. Which means they’ll likely balk at offering anything of value for Foles if he’s tagged, because it would still be unlikely the Eagles could keep him. The tag would likely be viewed as a ploy for trade control at best, and teams would simply choose to wait out the Eagles and sign Foles in free agency at some point.
That’s a lot of complication to a scenario that is designed to be simple. As it stands, Foles will do whatever he can do in the playoffs to improve his value in free agency. And when the time comes the Eagles will likely decline his 2019 contract option, freeing him to pursue his next team in free agency in March. Both sides will walk away from each other having achieved some nice memories and ready to step into the next phase of their future.
Still, there is absolutely some room for something wild to happen here. This is space for an argument. Foles proved he was capable of unexpected things one year ago and he could very well do it again. And if that happens, an unfathomable question will have to be asked by the Eagles. If Foles lights another fire under this team, it’s no longer about retaining a streaking quarterback as an insurance policy behind the presumed star. It’s about whether Foles may actually be the right quarterback for the coaching staff that is already in place. And if he is, what does that mean for a future plan that seemed unalterable one year ago?
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