When he was the star quarterback at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, Foles’ team lived in the shadow of Brees’ 1996 state championship team. The Chaparrals had gotten back to the state title game in 2000 and '01, but the ’96 team remains the school’s only champion.
While Foles was breaking Brees’ school records in 2006, Brees was establishing himself as the franchise quarterback in New Orleans. When Foles was a backup quarterback at the University of Arizona in 2009, Brees was leading the Saints to their first and only Super Bowl championship. When Foles was an NFL rookie standing helplessly on the sideline at the Superdome last year, Brees was beating his Eagles 28-13.
“When he's out there he's a warrior," Foles said. "The throws he makes -- there are not very many guys who can make the throws he makes. You can just tell with his intensity when he plays the game. You can just see his leadership. That's something I've always looked up to him for. He's a leader. He's a great guy; a great quarterback both on and off the field he's a great guy, and I respect that about him."
Saturday night, Foles will finally get the chance to face off with Brees in person. It is only the second time in history two graduates of the same high school have played quarterback against each other in an NFL playoff game. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson of Woodlawn High in Shreveport, La., did it in 1974.
“Here we are,” Brees said. “I know we’re not facing each other. He’s playing against our defense, I’m playing against their defense. It’s kind of interesting how this all comes together. I think it’s kind of cool.”
“I’ve always watched him from afar,” Foles said. “We’re from the same area, same high school. He’s a great player, one of the best to ever play the game at the position. He’s a guy I’ve watched and learned from.”
Brees has accomplished all the things Foles hopes to achieve. He has a ring. He has proved himself in the postseason, in the big games that define quarterbacks. This game represents Foles’ first chance to do that.
“The playoffs are where legacies are made,” Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said. “Because it’s on the line. I think the regular season, you do what you do, but the postseason, to really get it going, it means a lot.”
If that’s true for all players, it is especially true for quarterbacks. No one talks about how many big games the left guard or the free safety won in his career. It is the quarterback.
In a very real sense, Foles has a tougher challenge than Brees ever did. Brees came into the league in San Diego, where the NFL team is somewhere below the beach on the citizenry’s list of concerns. Then he went to New Orleans while it was reeling from Hurricane Katrina and where the Saints had one of the saddest histories in the sport. The only pressure on Brees was the pressure he placed on himself.
In Philadelphia, the pressure is constant. The recent legacy of near-misses authored by Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb have fans hopeful that Foles and Chip Kelly can deliver -- but hesitant to give their hearts completely.
This playoff appearance feels like an unexpected gift in Kelly’s first season. It may be the last playoff game for Foles and Kelly that has that feel. It is a rare opportunity for Foles to establish a reputation as a big-game quarterback.
For Foles, this postseason is also another important hurdle on the track to being the kind of franchise quarterback Brees has been. Thanks to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, the Eagles are in an enviable position with Foles. The CBA prohibits teams from negotiating new contracts until after a player’s third season. Foles is just completing his second season.
That means he will make $635,000 for the 2014 season whether he throws five interceptions Saturday night or leads the Eagles to a Super Bowl championship. It also protects the Eagles from themselves. They can’t overreact to Foles’ stellar 2013 season the way they did a few years ago when Kevin Kolb was going to be their starter. Kolb got $12.25 million for the 2010 season and was replaced by Michael Vick by late September.
Two weeks ago, Foles and the Eagles beat Jay Cutler and the Bears 54-11. On Thursday, Cutler signed a new nine-figure contract.
That’s the kind of payday Foles can earn by continuing to play like he has for the past eight weeks. His 27 touchdowns, two interceptions and 119.2 passer rating are off the charts.
“It’s extremely impressive,” Brees said. “Those are pretty unprecedented numbers, especially for a guy who’s in his first year as a starter. I’m very happy for his success.”
It will mean that much more for Foles to perform at that level in the postseason. And if that means finally catching up to Brees, the man he has chased for a decade, so much the better.