Nick Foles vs. Tom Brady is Super Bowl battle of ghost vs. GOAT

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

PHILADELPHIA – As the NFL season whittled down to one last game, the league’s playoff attrition left us with the guy we all saw coming versus the guy whose career we all left for dead. The unlikeliest of matchups.

Tom Brady versus Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII. The GOAT versus the ghost.

In a game long defined (and longer remembered) by marquee quarterback matchups, the Philadelphia Eagles crushed the Minnesota Vikings 38-7 on Sunday night and delivered the quintessential mismatch. On one side, the New England Patriots’ Brady, whose career has been defined by Super Bowl hardware. On the other, Foles, whose NFL path has been defined by being … well … hard. One guy is headed for the Hall of Fame. The other is probably headed back to the Eagles’ bench next season. Not since NFL backup Jeff Hostetler guided the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXV against Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills has a quarterback duel seemed so lopsided.

It’s quite the surprise seeing Nick Foles as a Super Bowl quarterback. Not so much for New England’s Tom Brady. (Photos by AP)

This is why the Eagles have already been installed as solid underdogs in the Super Bowl. The same reason they were underdogs at home against the Matt Ryan-led Atlanta Falcons and Case Keenum’s Minnesota Vikings. Because there’s not a lot of respect going around for Foles, who disassembled Minnesota’s vaunted defense to the tune of 352 passing yards and three touchdowns – generally looking a lot like the guy who once looked like the future centerpiece of the franchise back in 2013.

“Are we underdogs again?” Eagles owner Jeff Lurie asked when the game ended and the Las Vegas oddsmakers had dispatched New England as a 5.5 point favorite. “Great. Great. Great. Somehow I’m not surprised.”

Really, Lurie shouldn’t be. He’s been in the NFL long enough to know how this works. Quarterback mismatches set betting lines. Especially when the guy on one side is heading into his eighth Super Bowl and already has five Lombardi Trophies to his name. Love him or hate him, Brady will once again be the draw in this game. If only because he’s got the opportunity to become the first player in NFL history with six Super Bowl rings, essentially ending the debate over who is the single greatest quarterback in NFL history.

And Foles? Well, his run has been amazing. Somewhere Hostetler is probably smiling. And if there’s an afterlife, Earl Morrall is looking on in great appreciation. It’s not often a player comes off the bench and replaces a franchise quarterback so ably that he may even be resurrecting his own opportunity to remain an NFL starter elsewhere. That’s what is at stake for Foles in this game. Not immortality, like Brady. More like viability and survivability – a chance to be considered the preeminent backup quarterback in the NFL (which is nothing to sneeze at nowadays) or possibly start in another city.

All of which is a win for the Philadelphia Eagles. The only thing that is as remarkable as what Foles is doing now is the fact that this franchise believed he could still be this kind of premium backup option. Here is the truth about Foles: He was done on his way out of the Los Angeles Rams franchise. The brain trust would have traded him for a used beverage cart in the spring of 2016. Instead, the Rams picked up the phone and got static.

And even with Foles showing admirably in limited opportunities with the Kansas City Chiefs last season, few believed he had much left in the tank. Few outside of the Chiefs and Eagles franchises, that is. Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson had been a part of both staffs. He knew Foles and had played a strong part in his being selected by the Eagles in the third round of the 2012 draft.

When it was clear Foles was headed toward free agency last March, Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman had a meeting with Lurie. The kind of get-together where an NFL owner knows he’s either going to be talked into something or out of something. And with Foles, it was going to be a little bit of both. Pederson wanted to move on from highly paid backup Chase Daniel, who was still owed $5 million of Lurie’s guaranteed money. And Pederson wanted to give Foles a two-year, $11 million deal with $7 million guaranteed. That is a lot for a player who was on the scrap heap essentially one year earlier.

“We made such a concerted effort to make sure we could get Nick back on the team,” Lurie said Sunday.

“Who knew it would come to this? But we prioritized probably more money for the second quarterback position than most any team in football. We even were willing to eat a lot of the contract we had [with Daniel] so that we could go out and get Nick.

“We’ve always had so much confidence in Nick. His Rams experience we thought was an outlier. … We knew he would be great with Carson [Wentz]. Who knew we would have to rely on him. But I’m honestly not surprised how terrifically he played.”

That latter statement is probably a little stretched and distorted. That happens in the wake of an NFC title that came earlier and in a far crazier fashion than anyone could have expected. It’s one thing to believe in Foles. It’s another to think he was capable of carving up the Vikings – with Pederson cracking open the playbook to the point where Foles was operating with significant belief from the staff.

“Trusting in his ability,” Pederson said. “[Him] trusting me as a head coach and putting him in ideal situations and situations to be successful on the field. …

“Listen, he’s not a rookie. He’s a veteran player who has played a lot of games in this league. He’s started a lot of games. He had a Pro Bowl year a couple years ago. So this is not a rookie we’re talking about.”

It’s not a rookie. But it’s also not Tom Brady. And that’s where this story is headed. Same as it was when Wentz went down for the season in December. Same as when the Eagles secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC but were largely treated like something less, something hollow.

As much as Foles has accomplished – and there’s no denying it is looking considerable at this point – it will take more for him to fight off the perception he’s not the weak link. No different than when Morrall took over for Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts and ultimately ran aground against Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Or when Hostetler was doubted, only to improbably strike down the Bills and Kelly.

Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie holds the George Halas Trophy after the NFL football NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings. (AP)

It’s worth noting that latter feat earned a 29-year-old Hostetler new life in his career. He’d go on to fight Phil Simms for the Giants’ starting job and eventually become a four-year start for the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders. Even now, years later, Kelly and the Bills are arguably more famous for failing in that game than Hostetler was for winning it.

That says a lot about where Foles is and what this shared Super Bowl stage will be like against Brady. One player will enter and exit as the GOAT, with all the respect that brings. The other will be the ghost – improbably resurrected and generally disbelieved. The unlikeliest of matchup that anyone could have imagined only two months ago.

From a perception standpoint, it won’t be kind. From a prediction standpoint, it won’t be fair. And that makes at least one thing about this predictable: Jeff Lurie and the Eagles will remain unsurprised under dogs.

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