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Quantum leap: The improbable odyssey of Nick Foles

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Unweaving the long concatenation of events that led to one of NFL history’s most improbable Super Bowl performances

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rarely does a 15-minute descension down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia fail to turn up answers for life’s bewildering questions. In a desperate, inward grasp for comprehension of the events that transpired on Sunday evening in Minneapolis, this principle remained steadfast.

Presenting: the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. If that sounds a bit dense, that’s because it is — but it explains everything. Its general premise lies in the creation of a new universe at each moment where a diversion of events occurs. One simple example: you’re driving, and you approach a fork in the road. You turn left and head west, instead of turning right. In that moment, another universe is created in which you headed east. The two universes operate completely independent of each other, with each diversion creating an infinite amount of universes.

It just so happens that the universe we all currently inhabit is one where Nick Foles defeated Tom Brady in Super Bowl 52. And seeing as those were the cards we were dealt, we must also accept each of the unique events that transpired on the long road to Sunday’s point of culmination.

It’s the intrinsically fascinating aspect of sports— that they operate as diminutive petry dishes for concepts like quantum mechanics, chaos and string theories, and the often misinterpreted Butterfly Effect (of which any associated misconceptions can be blamed on Ashton Kutcher).

Tracing back through the lineage of each NFL coach and player brings forth a seemingly endless number of crisscrossed career paths and trajectory-altering decisions made. To unpack these deterministic events is to reveal the intriguing ripple effect that leads to the fizzling out of one player’s career, while at the same time allowing another’s to reach the pinnacle of the profession.


East Lansing,MI — early November, 2006

The firing of John L. Smith as Michigan State’s head coach on November 1st, 2006 came as no surprise to anyone in Big Ten football. Four days prior to the announcement by then-Athletic Director Ron Mason, the Spartans had received a 41-26 drubbing (a final score not reflective of how close the game truly was) in Bloomington,IN — the final shovel of earth in a hole Smith began digging for himself in seasons prior.

The former Louisville head coach was hired following the 2002 season to replace Bobby Williams — the Spartans’ internal replacement for Nick Saban, who jettisoned for LSU (and a doubled paycheck) at the conclusion of the 1999 season. Over his four-year stint in East Lansing, Smith compiled a meager 22-26 record, failed to win a bowl game, and earned precisely zero victories over Ohio State, or in-state rival Michigan in eight contests — the final two of which were decided by a combined 49 points.

As with any large-scale transition, the move would have a ripple effect. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, Keith Nichol, a talented local four-star quarterback from Lowell,MI —Michigan State’s prized possession of the 2006 class —began having second thoughts.


Cleveland,OH — December, 1994

After spending four seasons as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland, Nick Saban accepted an offer to overhaul the Michigan State Spartan football program. In the process of assembling his staff, he made a phone call to the University of Kansas.

A call from Saban wasn’t completely uncommon at the football department in Lawrence,KS. Always looking to utilize his vast network to gain insight on potential next-level players, Saban had kept periodic contact with Jayhawks head coach Glen Mason over the course of his tenure in Cleveland. The two were colleagues who had been on the same staff at Ohio State in the early eighties. But when Saban called for information on players in the secondary (his personal area of expertise), Mason referred him to an astute defensive backs coach that he was able to hire away from Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State program in 1991.

Coincidentally, as a linebackers coach for Kent State University in the mid-seventies, Saban had actually recruited the coach as a talented, 18-year-old prospect playing for Zanesville High School in Ohio. The prospect went on to a four-year playing career at the University of South Carolina before choosing to trudge the long, arduous road to coaching prominence. Many years and locales later, he would find himself having the occasional discussion with the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. His name was Mark Dantonio.

Dantonio’s knowledge and attention to detail left an impression on Nick Saban to the extent that when Saban called in December of 1994, it wasn’t to talk about technique or to grab another update on the progress of a prospect — it was to offer him an opportunity to join his staff in East Lansing.


East Lansing,MI — late November, 2006

After sticking with Bobby Williams’ staff (which came with a promotion to Associate Head Coach) in the wake of Saban’s departure in 1999, Mark Dantonio became the Ohio State Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator in 2001 under Jim Tressel. He would earn a National Championship ring in 2002, and eventually a head coaching offer from the University of Cincinnati. Less than three years later, on November 27, 2006, Dantonio was hired to replace John L. Smith, becoming the 24th head coach in the history of Michigan State’s football program.

Having grown up an hour from East Lansing and being raised a Spartan fan — a difficult, critical decision loomed for three-time Michigan All-State selection Keith Nichol. Ultimately — with his verbal commitment to the program having been given to a coach who no longer remained in the picture — the blue-chipper who many considered as the top quarterback prospect in the midwest decided to reopen his recruiting process. But, Dantonio would be the first to make his pitch.

“Keith was the guy that I called immediately when I got the job here at Michigan State,” Dantonio told the Big Ten Network in 2011, “Right after the press conference, he was the one I tried to get in touch with. That’s how important he was to our football program.”

Dantonio’s appeal would be the first in a flurry of intensely interested programs. In the end, the allure of Bob Stoops’ open quarterback competition at Oklahoma was too enticing for Nichol to pass on. Weeks later, after graduating high school a semester early, he was headed to Norman.


Norman,OK — Spring, 2007

Heading into the 2007 season, all eyes were on the young quarterbacks at the University of Oklahoma — none more so than those of Bob Stoops.

The year prior, Rhett Bomar — the Sooners’ sophomore starting signal caller — was dismissed from the team for receiving improper benefits. He was replaced by senior Paul Thompson, leaving no incumbent starter heading into the offseason.

The ensuing three-man competition came down to a dual-threat junior from California, a scrappy redshirt freshman from nearby Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City, and a talented true freshman from Lowell,MI.


East Lansing,MI — Spring, 2007

With the program’s biggest recruit heading to the Big 12, and an extremely thin quarterback depth chart behind starter Brian Hoyer, Mark Dantonio and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell combed over the scouting reports of players they had previously kept tabs on. As signing day approached, scholarship offers were extended to a pair of quarterbacks — each unheralded, three-star recruits.

One was an undersized, gritty kid from Holland Christian High School along Michigan’s western shore who was pondering modest offers from MAC schools like Toledo, Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan. The other was a 6’5’’, 220-pound Austin,TX native with a big arm, a basketball background, and who was originally a verbal commit to Arizona State after fielding offers from the likes of Duke, Rutgers, and Louisiana Tech.

Their names were Kirk Cousins, and Nick Foles.

Each impressed Dantonio in the summer of 2007, but neither was able to upend sophomore Conner Dixon for the backup spot behind Brian Hoyer. Eventually, Cousins would be redshirted, with Foles earning the third-string job.


Norman,OK — August, 2007

As the battle for the Sooners’ starting job raged on throughout the summer, a patient Bob Stoops refrained from declaring a winner until the last possible moment. It would come down to the best performer in the team’s final intra-squad scrimmage on the last Saturday of August. When the dust settled, Keith Nichol and Joey Halzle (the aforementioned Californian junior) had been out-dueled by the local redshirt freshman from nearby Oklahoma City. The following Monday, it was announced. Oklahoma’s new starting quarterback would be Sam Bradford.

The future first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft immediately grabbed the nation’s attention. He completed 69.5% of his passes for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns in his first season, and took the Sooners to the BCS National Championship with a 50-touchdown, Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2008.

For Keith Nichol — who fell to the third-string spot on the depth chart — the writing was on the wall.

Bradford was a budding superstar, and Halzle was locked in as his backup. To make matters worse, Oklahoma successfully recruited a four-star, big-armed New Mexican by the name of Landry Jones. It became abundantly clear that if he wanted a chance to start at quarterback for a power conference program, it wasn’t going to be in the Sooner State.

In May of 2008, he made his intentions known to the Oklahoma program and Bob Stoops would eventually grant the quarterback’s transfer without condition. With the change costing Nichol his 2008 season, he surveyed the collegiate landscape for opportunities where a starting gig was likely to open up in 2009.

According to the Lansing Journal, eight schools threw their hats in the ring. Included among them was the program he cheered for as a kid — the same school he had committed to almost two years prior. On May 21st, 2008, Keith Nichol announced he was coming home and transferring to Michigan State.


East Lansing,MI — May, 2008

Heading into his second season — a crucial one for any head coach with regard to recruiting and system indoctrination within a program — Dantonio, eager to make the most of a rare second chance to acquire a high-caliber player, jumped at the opportunity.

“When I sit across the table from somebody I have to ask myself, `Are they the type of people we want in the program as a person, and are they the type of people capable of winning a championship here?’” Dantonio would tell MLive.com’s Steve Grinczel. “If the answer is `yes,’ then I have an obligation to the program to recruit that person.”

Naturally, not everybody was thrilled about Keith Nichol’s delayed arrival to the Spartan program.

Michigan State’s quarterback competition in 2008 was duel between Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins. However, according to a conversation between Foles’ mother and the aforementioned Grinczel, an additional name being inserted into the mix, even though Nichol wasn’t eligible until 2009, frustrated her son and further compounded the homesickness he had developed during his time in East Lansing. Unsure of his new position in the pecking order, Nick Foles decided to seek a transfer.

With Foles gone, Kirk Cousins took the starting job and ran with it, eventually becoming Michigan State’s all-time passing yards leader until he was later surpassed by Connor Cook in 2015. Nichol went on to finish his collegiate career as a WR.


Tucson,AZ — Summer, 2008

The beneficiary of Nick Foles’ departure from East Lansing was Arizona head coach Mike Stoops — the younger brother of the man whose declaration of Sam Bradford as the victor of Oklahoma’s quarterback battle nearly nine months prior spurred the return of Keith Nichol to his home state.

Stoops — having recruited Foles at Westlake High School in Austin — coveted the opportunity to mold a raw prospect with exceptional athleticism for his size. Furthermore, Foles’ limited playing time as a freshman qualified him to be redshirted in 2008 — giving Stoops three full years to work with him after sitting out a full season following his transfer to Tucson. For a homesick Foles, being back in the American southwest was a logistical no-brainer.

In the third week of the 2009 season, in a road loss against Iowa, Foles took over for benched starter Matt Scott — a role he would not relinquish. 34 starts later, Foles had amassed over 10,000 career passing yards and 71 total touchdowns.

The NFL took notice.


Philadelphia — September, 2014

The Foles vs. Cousins quarterback battle of 2008 that never had the chance to materialize actually played out in week three of the 2014 season. Cousins — in the midst of another sporadic stretch of fill-in starts for Washington’s injured starter Robert Griffin III — led his team into Lincoln Financial Field to face first-year head coach Chip Kelly. His 427-yard, three-touchdown performance wouldn’t be enough, as Foles’ more efficient, timely 325-yard, three-touchdown game led Philadelphia to 37-34 victory.

Two days later, when asked by Mlive.com’s Mark Griffith who would’ve won that quarterback battle in 2008, Mark Dantonio remained noncommittal.

“You didn’t know which guy would be the guy,’’ Dantonio said. “You just knew that both guys were great individuals, great young men, had passion for the game, and they were going to compete.’’

On the heels of an impressive, but injury-shorted 2013 season in which he posted his 27-2 TD-INT ratio, Foles started eight games in 2014 before being placed on IR with a broken collarbone. The following March, he was traded to the Rams for Sam Bradford.

After Los Angeles drafted Jared Goff with the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, Foles was granted his requested release and eventually signed with the Chiefs. Kansas City declined his second-year option in March of 2017, and four days later he signed a two-year contract to become Carson Wentz’s backup in Philadelphia.

From there, well — you know the rest


How far back through the lineage must we go until the events that would ultimately shape a player’s career cease being considered deterministic?

Sam Bradford winning the Sooners’ quarterback job. The late commitment of Keith Nichol to Oklahoma. MSU’s hiring of a familiar face in Mark Dantonio. John L. Smith’s firing. Nick Saban’s hiring of a Kansas positional coach to his staff in East Lansing. Bill Belichick’s hiring of Saban in Cleveland in 1991.

Perhaps somewhere in the macrocosm lies an alternate universe where Nick Foles never quarterbacked the Eagles, and Tom Brady hoisted a sixth Lombardi trophy. Maybe this divergence was generated by a cannonball in the cosmic pool on the scale of a major football program’s hiring of a new coach, or the triumph of one young quarterback over another. Or, perhaps it was something impossibly small — like the turning of a car that found itself at a fork in the road, sending its passenger west instead of east.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter @BPhillips_PP