JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Three years ago, few saw Nick Foles as a potential franchise quarterback.
He was a former starter on his third team, trying to decide whether he even wanted to continue playing.
This season, Foles is embracing a rare opportunity: a second chance to be the unquestioned team leader.
After filling in for an injured Carson Wentz over the past two seasons -- winning MVP while leading the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over New England to cap the 2017 season -- Foles' job now is to take a Jacksonville Jaguars franchise that has floundered for much of the past decade and make it an annual playoff contender. Owner Shad Khan, executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone made signing Foles their top priority in free agency.
“For a franchise to give you a chance ... you just realize this game is not about one person,” Foles said. "I’ve been blessed to play with so many great people in my life, and an example the other day, seeing my ex-teammates in Philly and getting to embrace them -- that’s what the game is about. Coming here, that’s what I’m working to build -- the relationships to where you know it’s more than X’s and O’s, it’s more than football.
“Obviously we have to go out there and win games, but the tighter you are in the locker room, the greater the opportunity is to win those games because adversity can’t break you apart. That’s really what I’m instilling right now with this opportunity.”
Foles wasn’t sure if he’d ever get another chance to be a franchise quarterback. Not after what happened in 2014 and 2015. After replacing an injured Mike Vick in Philadelphia in 2013, Foles threw 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions in 13 starts. He led the Eagles to the playoffs, went to the Pro Bowl and won the game’s Offensive MVP award.
Foles was the unquestioned starter in 2014, but suffered a broken collarbone in a Week 9 victory over Houston and finished the season on injured reserve. Coach Chip Kelly surprisingly traded him in the offseason to St. Louis for quarterback Sam Bradford, who ran a similar up-tempo offense in college at Oklahoma. Foles struggled with the Rams, throwing seven TD passes and 10 interceptions before being benched in favor of Case Keenum.
Foles has said he considered retiring after the 2015 season because he had lost his love of the game. He agreed to sign with Kansas City in 2016 as the backup to Alex Smith, mainly because he would be reunited with coach Andy Reid, who was in Philadelphia and drafted Foles in the third round in 2012.
During his season with the Chiefs, Foles regained his love of the game. He ended up back in Philly as a backup QB a year later, worked his off-the-bench magic, and now has his own team to lead after signing a four-year, $88 million contract.
The Jaguars hope he can do what players like Smith, Drew Brees and Steve Young did when they were given second chances to be a franchise quarterback.
Smith was the No. 1 overall pick by San Francisco in 2005 but struggled as the team kept changing head coaches and offensive coordinators (five in Smith’s first five seasons). He also battled injuries, including a concussion during the 2012 season that led to his benching for Colin Kaepernick.
Smith, who was 19-5-1 as a starter under coach Jim Harbaugh, was traded to Kansas City in 2013. He led the Chiefs to 50 regular-season victories and four playoff appearances in five seasons. He also made three Pro Bowls and threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2017 -- yet the Chiefs traded him to Washington after the 2017 season because they wanted to go with Patrick Mahomes, selected 10th overall in the 2018 draft. Mahomes was the NFL MVP last season.
The San Diego Chargers drafted Brees in the second round in 2001 and named him the starter over Doug Flutie in 2002. Brees threw 28 TD passes and 31 interceptions in 2002-03 and the Chargers acquired Philip Rivers in a trade with the New York Giants after the 2004 draft.
Brees kept the starting job that season, threw 27 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, and led the Chargers to the playoffs. He started every game in 2005, too, but suffered a serious shoulder injury in the regular-season finale. Brees rejected a contract offer from the Chargers and met with other teams.
Miami, concerned about his shoulder injury, withdrew its offer for Brees. New Orleans took a chance and has reaped the benefits. Brees has won 125 games and a Super Bowl for the Saints while becoming the NFL’s all-time leading passer.
Smith and Brees are more recent examples of quarterbacks getting a second chance to lead a franchise. Others include Young, Vick, Kurt Warner and Jim Plunkett.
Expecting Super Bowl success from Foles in Jacksonville is likely unrealistic. While the Jaguars' defense is regarded as one of the league’s best, the offense doesn’t have the firepower that Foles enjoyed with the Eagles. Multiple playoff appearances isn’t asking too much, though.
The Jaguars are trying to give him as much help as they can. They added receiver Chris Conley in free agency and drafted tight end Josh Oliver in the third round. The offensive coordinator is John DeFilippo, who was Foles’ quarterback coach in Philadelphia the season the Eagles won the Super Bowl.
They’re building around Foles, which is what every quarterback wants.
“For him it’s an exciting thing, because truly now it’s like he’s the guy,” Brees said. “And, ‘We’re building it around you.’ Whereas in the other situations, maybe he was inheriting what was already there. ... It’s kind of a new chapter for him, new chapter for the organization.”
Conley played with Foles in Kansas City and they reunited in Jacksonville this spring.
“I see a man who’s seen both sides of the game,” Conley said. “The side where everyone’s singing your praises and the side where everything, every little thing, is your fault. He’s been there and back. He has a renewed sense of purpose, and it’s not necessarily about coming in and throwing five touchdowns and having 800 yards. It’s about having this locker room grow into a brotherhood and you play to a certain level beyond your capability because you care about the guy next to you. That’s what he wants to see happen here.”
Just three years after contemplating retirement, Foles finds himself thrust into the role of a franchise’s savior, though he certainly doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not changing who I am based on anything,” Foles said. “They brought me here to be me and I’m going to do everything I can to glorify God in every action I do and impact and love my teammates. That’s how I play the game.
"Jacksonville has given me the opportunity, and I’m just trying to stay in the moment each day and do it to the best of my ability.”