Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Foles threw three touchdown passes and caught a fourth on a trick play called the Philly Special on Feb. 4, 2018, leading the Eagles past the Patriots and earning MVP honors in Super Bowl LII. That performance turned him into an instant legend, with a statue outside of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia to prove it.
While the Eagles face the Patriots in a Super Bowl LII rematch this Sunday (minus Foles), the Philly hero will make his return on a different field with his new team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Under other circumstances, Foles’ first appearance since suffering a clavicle injury in the season opener would be a triumphant, much-anticipated event. Instead, nobody seems to care all that much. Foles is yesteryear’s news. In 2019, Minshew Mania rules.
Gardner Minshew II took over for the injured Foles 10 minutes into the season opener and was impressive over an eight-and-a-half game relief stint, throwing 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions while leading the Jaguars to a 4-5 record that has kept their playoff hopes on life support. Minshew also makes for outstanding copy, as he’s a sixth-round rookie who looks like a 1970s cigarettes-at-halftime gunslinger transported to 2019 via Hot Tub Time Machine.
Minshew has become part prospect, part meme, part draftnik heartthrob and part wish-fulfillment fantasy over the last two months. The synergy between his moderate success and his made-for-Twitter persona exploded into Minshew Mania, a kind of Tebowmania for the era of legal dispensaries.
Foles, who upstaged Carson Wentz in Super Bowl LII, was suddenly upstaged himself by a rookie with a come-from-nowhere story and a Dazed and Confused fashion sense. The Jaguars signed Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract this offseason to be a stabilizing veteran who could lead a defense-oriented team on a deep playoff run. But by mid-October, the Jaguars were handing out Minshew mustaches to fans, while Foles was being written off as expensive baggage to be shipped off to the Bears, or the Buccaneers, or heck, back to Philly.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press
It’s funny how fleeting the “Super Bowl MVP” mystique can be. But then again, football fans like nothing more than a spunky underdog delivering a clutch performance off the bench. That was Foles less than two years ago. Now it’s Minshew. It’s the NFL circle of life.
But while Minshew may be the people’s champion at the moment, one key group of individuals sounds excited about Foles’ return: his Jaguars teammates. Their recent remarks are more revealing than typical locker room “squelch the quarterback controversy” cliches.
“What are you asking me? He is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback,” wide receiver Keelan Cole said of Foles, per John Reid of the Florida Times-Union. “… His throws are on time. He knows the offense. He’s seen everything. You can’t make up defensive coverages against him.”
Cole’s remarks suggest there may have been less to Minshew’s magic than met the eye.
The rookie appeared to be flummoxed by the coverages that stronger defenses like the Saints and Texans used against him, and his performances against some other opponents (Bengals, Broncos) looked a lot better on paper than they did on the field. Minshew fumbled 11 times in his eight starts, and the Jaguars often sent Leonard Fournette plunging into the line on three or four straight plays, which suggested that the coaches were protecting their quarterback from what he didn’t know or couldn’t do.
Veteran defender Calais Campbell offered an even stronger Foles endorsement on ESPN’s First Take this week: “If he didn’t get hurt, he’d be competing for MVP of the league right now. I know that’s a big statement, but he is an incredible [player].”
Campbell also called Foles a “good guy,” which no one has ever disputed (seriously, how can you not like a guy who talks and thinks like this?), and an “ultimate leader,” which matters a lot to a roster full of defensive stars with little patience for rookie blunders. As for the MVP stuff, it sounds a little hyperbolic until we start to come down from the Minshew buzz and remember that Foles is hardly the one-game wonder he’s sometimes caricatured as.
Foles threw 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in 13 games for Chip Kelly’s Eagles in 2013, earning Pro Bowl recognition and leading the team to the playoffs. His performance (and Kelly’s) tailed off in 2014, so Kelly shipped Foles to the Rams, where he ran into the quarterback-killing buzzsaw known as Jeff Fisher. An awful season in an awful situation turned Foles from a young starter to a journeyman backup almost overnight.
Everyone remembers the special things that happened in Philly in 2017, of course. Foles also started and finished last season in place of Wentz, taking over a team that was 6-7 in December and leading it to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Foles has a 4-2 record, a 68.1 percent completion rate and a 98.8 passer rating in the playoffs and Super Bowl. Minshew is 4-4 as a starter with a career 61.2 percent completion rate and a 92.8 rating against a relatively soft schedule. Foles has often played well against the highest-caliber competition. Minshew looked good against the Jets and looks even better in jorts.
There’s a reason it’s called Minshew Mania, folks, not Minshew Logic or Minshew Carefully Considered Opinion. Foles may not be Aaron Rodgers, and Minshew may be two cuts above the typical late-round rookie, but benching Foles for Minshew would be management-by-wishful-thinking. The Jaguars aren’t facing a quarterback controversy, just a runaway narrative.
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Still, the Jaguars must be careful, because locker rooms and organizations can get run over by runaway narratives. It almost happened to the Eagles with Foles and Wentz. There are Foles supporters in Philadelphia who are sure to question the team’s decision to commit to Wentz if the Eagles lose Sunday’s Super Bowl rematch, just as Minshew Maniacs will begin broadcasting their opinions across social media after Foles’ second incomplete pass against the Colts on Sunday.
Foles can’t afford to just be OK over the next few weeks. He’ll have to play at the near-MVP level Campbell believes he is capable of. Otherwise, the whispers will grow louder each week. The team played harder for Minshew. He’s younger and cheaper. He’s more of a winner, somehow, than the guy who is famous for being a winner. Those whispers have a way of creeping from taprooms and message boards to the locker room and the halls of team headquarters if Foles has a rough game or two that would be shrugged off as “rookie lumps” for Minshew.
Foles is going to be under a lot of pressure. Luckily, he knows how to handle it, as he has repeatedly proved over the years.
Minshew may someday develop into a better quarterback than Foles. But Sunday will not be that day. And there’s a better-than-even chance that we look back on Minshew Mania 648 days from now and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.