The flashbacks were inevitable, and major reasons why Frank Reich refused to panic the way so many Philadelphia Eagles fans did after quarterback Carson Wentz suffered that season-ending knee injury in early December.
Yes, backup Nick Foles would face a daunting task trying to replace Wentz, who, in the span of two autumns, had gone from perceived first-round bust to National Football League Most Valuable Player contender. And, yes, Philly phanatics would immediately dismiss Foles, just as Buffalo Bills fans had dismissed Reich 25 years earlier when Jim Kelly was sidelined with an injury just before the playoffs.
As he prepared to prep Foles, Reich found solace in the past. The Eagles second-year offensive coordinator is a student of history. Not just his history, but also others.
Backpedaling in time, Reich remembered quarterbacking the biggest comeback in National Football League annals in that Jan. 3, 1993 wildcard playoff game vs. the Houston Oilers, and then following that up with a 24-3 win on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, before turning the keys back over to Kelly for the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.
Reich also recalled how Jeff Hostetler replaced an injured Phil Simms late in the 1990 season and managed the New York Giants to a 20-19 victory against Reich and his teammates in Super Bowl XXV. And he’ll never forget the way Kurt Warner stepped in for an injured Trent Green in 1999 and led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory.
But those examples weren’t the only reasons Reich felt confident. He also was well aware of Foles’ history. Despite spending recent seasons as a backup with several teams, Foles had plenty of experience as a starter. In fact, he had started 36 games, and, in 2013, he strung together the greatest statistical season ever by an Eagles quarterback, throwing 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. He capped that year by winning MVP honors in the Pro Bowl.
So, unlike Reich, Hostetler and Warner, Foles came out of the bullpen better prepared. And, now, after his sterling 352-yard, three-touchdown performance in Sunday’s 38-7 NFC Championship Game victory against Minnesota, he has an opportunity to become Philly’s real-life Rocky Balboa.
And he owes Reich a debt of gratitude for helping him join Ron Jaworski and Donovan McNabb as the only quarterbacks to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Because Foles isn’t as talented as Wentz, some clamored for Reich to overhaul the offense. But the coach remembered being in a similar situation in Buffalo, and how he fought to maintain the status quo.
“Everybody thought, ‘Well, hey, you had Jim Kelly and the no-huddle offense and now the offense is going to have to change because the franchise quarterback was out and this backup was coming in who didn’t have the same skill set,’ ’’ Reich recalled. “I remember as a backup going in and talking to our coaches and saying, ‘Don’t change anything. This is the offense I know. This is the offense that I want to run. This is the offense that our players are used to. Let’s just keep this thing rolling. We’ve got the guys in this room to get it done. This is our DNA. This is what we’ve built this upon. Let’s just go out there and play ball.’ ”
Head coach Marv Levy and coordinator Ted Marchibroda concurred, and their faith was rewarded, as Reich threw seven touchdown passes and only two interceptions in the two playoff games he started in place of Kelly. As Reich showed, sometimes you move forward by standing pat.
This is not to say that it’s been a smooth ride for Foles. Since becoming a starter again, he’s had his down times, too—moments when angry Philly fans have wanted to throw their popular underdog masks at him. There was Foles’ less-than inspiring Christmas performance, when he threw for just 163 yards and had a paltry 59.4 passer rating. And on New Year’s Eve, he completed only four of 11 passes before head coach Doug Pederson pulled him from a game that really didn’t matter much.
But Foles has been old St. Nick in the playoffs, and now the Eagles find themselves ready to meet the big, bad New England Patriots a week from Sunday in Minneapolis. Coach Bill Belichick is a master at flummoxing opposing quarterbacks. He has two weeks to draw up schemes to make Foles look like a guy who’d be better off holding a clipboard. Reich will have his hands full, not only trying to match chess pieces with Belichick, but also keeping Foles calm.
Reich’s work with Wentz was extraordinary. Despite having his season cut short, Wentz threw a team-record 33 touchdown passes and has the makings of a star for years to come. Watching Wentz develop, Reich felt the kind of pride a teacher does with a prodigy. He would have loved to have seen Wentz duel Tom Brady for the Lombardi Trophy.
But the 56-year-old Reich knows as well as anyone about how the show must go on even without the star. If he were able to help Foles pull off a dramatic upset, NFL owners will be beating a path to his door with head coaching offers. I had hoped Reich would become Buffalo’s head coach, but it’s hard to quibble with the job done by Sean McDermott, who became just the third head coach to take the Bills to the playoffs in his rookie year.
The Tennessee Titans also were interested in Reich, but couldn’t interview him until this week and instead decided on Mike Vrabel. Reich, though, will get his shot. And he deserves it, regardless of the Super Bowl outcome. This understudy is ready for a leading role.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.