PHILADELPHIA – It's easy to quantify the best quarterbacks of all time.
There are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Montana or Dan Marino, among others. They have the mind-boggling stats, the Super Bowl trophies (except Marino), the multiple Pro Bowl selections and their places in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But how do you judge the greatest backup quarterbacks of all time? The ones who are good enough to help their teams keep winning when the starter is out, but who are not quite good enough to be the starter.
That brings us to Nick Foles, who is one of possibly only two backup quarterbacks in NFL history to lead his team to more than one playoff appearance.
The other is Earl Morrall, who took over for an injured Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts in 1968 and led them to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Jets. Morrall did it again in 1972, when he took over for an injured Bob Griese and led the Miami Dolphins to the only undefeated season in the Super Bowl era.
Foles took over for Carson Wentz on Dec. 10, 2017, when Wentz tore two ligaments in his knee, and ended up leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl. He was named the game's MVP in the win over the New England Patriots.
Foles also did it in 2013 with the Eagles, replacing Michael Vick midway through the season when Vick suffered a hamstring injury. The Eagles went 8-2 under Foles, who had one of the best seasons in NFL history with 27 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. The Eagles lost in the first round of the playoffs that season.
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The Eagles are hoping Foles can do it a third time now that he's starting his second consecutive game in place of Wentz, who has a stress fracture in his back, when the Eagles face the Houston Texans on Sunday.
"It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all," Foles said. "That’s where, through past experiences in my career, leaning on those, thinking about them. You deal with a lot of emotions in this game, especially when you haven’t played for quite awhile, and then you play when it’s not really expected, and you have to pick up the speed in a night game (against the Rams), and doing all those things against one of the best teams in the NFL."
Perhaps one of the reasons that so few backups have led their teams to the postseason more than once is because after they do it the first time, they often become starters.
That was the case with Brady, who took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2000 and has been the Patriots' quarterback ever since. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger took over as a rookie in 2004 for the injured Tommy Maddox.
Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw are also among those who have led their teams to the Super Bowl as backups, then became full-time starters.
That is true for other well-known backups, such as Doug Williams with Washington, Jeff Hostetler with the Giants and Jim Plunkett with the Raiders in the 1980s. Even the Eagles have had a few examples of this, such as Jeff Garcia replacing an injured Donovan McNabb in 2006 (the Eagles didn't re-sign Garcia afterward), and Michael Vick in 2010, when he replaced Kevin Kolb, and then kept the job until Foles replaced him.
That happened to Foles, too. After the 2013 season, he was named the starter for 2014. He was 6-2 that season before he broke his collarbone and missed the rest of the season. The next spring, the Eagles traded him to the Rams, then based in St. Louis. Foles was ineffective and lost his starting job after 11 games.
He has been a backup ever since, with Kansas City in 2016 and the Eagles the next two seasons. It's both the starting and backup experience that give the Eagles confidence that he can lead them back to the playoffs.
The Eagles need two wins and a loss by the Vikings (or one win and two Vikings losses) to make the playoffs as a wild card; or two wins and two losses by the Cowboys to repeat as NFC East division champs. They are also one game behind the Seahawks, who hold the other wild-card spot right now.
As safety Malcolm Jenkins put it: "Nick’s a Super Bowl MVP; he’ll be all right."
Foles showed that last Sunday against the Rams, when he led the Eagles to a 30-23 upset win. The game against the Rams was the first time Foles took a snap in a game in exactly three months. Foles said he learned how to deal with the emotions when he took over against the Rams last year in the game Wentz tore the two knee ligaments.
"You’re trying to run the plays, trying to be perfect, trying to do everything I was taught, all my notes, but it slowed me down and it caused a little bit of stress because you’re trying to do everything right," he said. "Then, whenever we took a step back, we were able to talk about certain plays we liked … to where I could read and react, and just play the game."
Foles certainly got in the zone, passing for 373 yards in the win over Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
To show how difficult this is, at least in recent history, a backup has led his team to the playoffs 16 times out of 192 playoff spots since 2002. In other words, teams with backup QBs have comprised 8.3 percent of the playoff spots.
Both Foles and Case Keenum, then with Minnesota, did it last season. Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens could do it this season. Washington's Josh Johnson has an outside chance to do it. Incredibly, he's the fourth quarterback Washington has used this season.
More often, the expected result is what happened to the Green Bay Packers when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last year. Brett Hundley took over and the Packers fell apart, missing the playoffs. The same thing happened to the Cincinnati Bengals this season when Andy Dalton got injured.
"Nick has a real unique ability to really kind of calm the storm, kind of get through the first series or two of the game," coach Doug Pederson said. "He can see how the defense is playing, and then he can begin to attack as the game progresses."
So far, no backup has done it better.
Contact Martin Frank at [email protected] Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.com.
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