By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — All across the nation, there are young boys – and probably some young ladies, too – dreaming of being an NFL quarterback.
Reality often squashes those dreams. If they are lucky, maybe they get to run the scout team in high school and parlay that skill into quarterbacking the flag football team for their frat in college.
End of the day, there are NFL-level jobs for 32 of the trillions to start, and another group to either back them up or hang on a practice squad with as much job security as seasonal help for a department store about to declare bankruptcy.
The opportunity to be under center for a playoff game only enhances the aforementioned dream.
All that said, when Nick Foles sits back in the shotgun for the first time in the Eagles’ Divisional Round Playoff game one week from Saturday, no one should want to be in his spikes.
Unless the Eagles win it all, it will be all his fault. And if he pulls a Jeff Hostetler and wins it all like “Hoss” did in Super Bowl XXV for the Giants, it will be portrayed as the Eagles doing it in spite of him.
It’s neither fair nor accurate.
In 2013, when Foles threw 27 touchdown passes against two interceptions while ringing up an outer-worldly 119.2 QB Rating and winning MVP of the Pro Bowl, he immediately became saddled with the label as “the guy who will never do that again” instead of “he may not do that again, but we’re OK if he comes close.”
Meanwhile, the league is full with quarterbacks getting multiple opportunities to play based upon the pipedream that they can “do that” just once.
As the postseason approaches, it is time for a serious reality check.
Even before wunderkind Carson Wentz was lost for the season with a knee injury, the realistic perspective from the “thinking” part of the media and fan base was that he gave them a chance – key word being “chance” – to bring the Eagles Nation its first championship since 1960 and the first in the Super Bowl era. The hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy was far from a foregone conclusion, with the nailing down of a first-round bye and the home field advantage being seen as a major step in the right direction.
It may not have been pretty, but Foles kept that train on the tracks.
If pretty is what you want from Foles, you are going to be disappointed. If you want a guy who finds a way to win, even if it is by virtue of avoiding finding a way to lose, Foles fits the bill.
By the numbers
In 2012, as a rookie on a hideous team in Andy Reid’s final season, Foles started the last six games and was 1-5. Throw that out the window – as you should, considering the implosion going on around him – and he is 21-12 for his career.
In 2015, after being sent to the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams, Foles was 4-7. He was replaced by Case Keenum, who went 3-2 but was still sent into exile after going 4-5 as a placeholder for Jared Goff last season.
Ironically, it is quite possible Foles and Keenum – now quarterbacking the Vikings after Sam Bradford (the guy traded here for Foles from the Rams before the Eagles traded Bradford to Minnesota for first-round pick that turned into promising defensive end Derek Barnett) – could match up in the NFC Championship Game at the Linc. That scenario is getting too far ahead of ourselves, but it would kick more dirt on the legacy of former Rams’ coach Jeff Fisher, who clearly stayed in the game well past his expiration date.
If you’d like to see the glass as half-full, we can throw out Foles’ 4-7 mark with the Rams, too. To be fair, we can subtract his 1-0 record starting last year for Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. And we won’t even subtract the loss after playing less than a half in the season-ending loss to Dallas. This leaves us with Foles’ record as a starter, not counting his stoic-under-fire rookie season, as 16-5 in an Eagles’ uniform.
And yet, with winning being all that matters, he has gone from St. Nick status to the Grinch status while still keeping the Eagles in position to do what has not been done in most our lifetimes.
He may not have left a highlight reel under the tree, but we unwrapped a crucial first-round bye to rejuvenate the team and then the chance to play two home games before likely meeting New England or Pittsburgh in the Big Dance in Minneapolis.
Home teams only win at a rate slightly above .500 in the wild card round, but that percentage goes up over .600 in the divisional and championship rounds, so we are talking about substantial steps toward the ultimate goal.
Did Foles do it alone? No, not all.
He’s not Carson Wentz. He won’t strap a team on his back and will it to victory. He won’t avoid three sacks on a third-and-12 and turn it into a 20-yard gain to spark a scoring drive. He doesn’t have the athleticism that makes the Eagles impossible to stop in the Red Zone.
But Wentz will be the first one to tell you he wasn’t doing it alone, either.
It will take a village
What would be your reaction if a crystal ball revealed Foles’ two-game playoff stats as follows: 26 completions in 67 attempts for 281 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions?
You would not be expecting the Eagles to be in the Super Bowl, but those are the exact numbers Ron Jaworski put up for the Eagles – with “Jaws” throwing three picks in the Eagles’ 27-10 loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.
They still got there, with others filling the void on what were tough days, weather-wise, to throw.
The feeling here is that you should be less worried about Nick Foles and more worried about left tackle Halapoulivaati Vatai and his ability to stave off what will likely being the opposition’s best defensive end and/or blitzes. He will be targeted, and it would be a shame to lose a possible safety valve receiver – tight end or running back – to help him block.
You should be more worried about cornerback Jalen Mills, who bites on double moves faster than a shark bites bloody chum.
Vatai and Mills are among many Eagles who will be playing in their first playoff game. Foles is not among them. Actually, he started at quarterback the last time the Birds were in the postseason and led a fourth-quarter comeback against the Saints that the special teams and defense could not hold.
The special teams and defense need to do their part this time around. While it is likely the offense will at least initially play more for first downs than touchdowns, punter Donnie Jones will need to avoid touchbacks. He’s a tenured veteran, and that’s what he is paid to do. If a game of field position means more field goals than touchdowns, rookie Jake Elliott can’t afford to miss. Every point counts.
And, to be honest, this team – even with Wentz – was not reaching the Promised Land without unforgiving defense. First against the run during the season needs to carry over to the postseason. In terms of sacks and turnovers, quality over quantity would be a fair trade.
And some secret weapons, in all three phases, could be the difference. How about dusting the moth balls off of Trey Burton, or trying to take a strategic deep shot with rookie Mack Hollins? This is the first season since Dave Fipp has run the special teams without a kick return for a touchdown and two since a punt return to the house.
That’s a direct challenge to Kenjon Barner, who has been flirting with disaster on some punts down the stretch. Or maybe Corey Clement fields a short kickoff and goes all the way?
And maybe this could be when Jay Ajayi breaks loose as the clear No. 1 back and turns 15-20 carries into more than 100 yards.
If most or all of this is there, the offense does not need to score 30 points in what will be cold conditions that should favor the Eagles.
The recipe for victory is right there. Repeat it again the following week, and we can talk about the third time being the charm for the Super Bowl.
Setting up to Succeed
The coaches have to put the players in position to win. In the NFL, especially when the stakes are raised, it is – as the kids say – “a thing.”
Nick Foles is what he is: a system quarterback. If the offense clicks, Nick clicks. If it doesn’t, he won’t. That’s not all on him.
While the Eagles have struggled on third down lately, head coach Doug Pederson accurately pointed out that the issue is really first and second down. That means establishing the run and setting up some nice screens and maybe going more the dink-and-dunk route to get Foles into a rhythm.
It’s also fair to submit that the game plan was purposefully vanilla against Dallas, and probably not too elaborate against Oakland, either, as the feeling may have been that the Raiders could be beaten without playing a full hand for future opponents to see.
If so, it was a risk that almost backfired.
But it didn’t.
We are right where we need to be.
This can still happen, and Foles will not be the reason it doesn’t.
What has to happen?
Cut down the penalties to nullify positive offensive plays, let alone extend drives for what will be good opponents who will capitalize.
There can’t be drops, like that of Torrey Smith on third down when Foles had the offense moving on the first possession against Dallas. It is highly likely that if that pass is held, Smith runs for a while. The Eagles come away with points – three or seven – and Foles likely exits with everyone feeling a whole lot better about him right now.
But when you are Nick Foles, the “guy who will never do that again,” that’s not the way it is.
Nobody really ever feels good about you. Even when you throw four touchdowns in your first start, it is quickly pointed out that it was against the Giants.
It’s a bad spot to be in, but that does not mean the outcome can’t still be good overall.
Even if the guy living out the American dream gets no credit.
This column initially appeared at phillyphanatics.com