Here's the real reason Eagles backup quarterbacks like Nick Foles are so popular in Philadelphia

Almost exactly a year after relieving an injured Carson Wentz against the Los Angeles Rams and kicking off one of the most improbable Super Bowl runs in recent memory, Nick Foles is back in the saddle for the Philadelphia Eagles, starting with Sunday's rematch with the Rams.

As Wentz recovers from a stress fracture in his back, once again the NFL's most infamously intense fan bases is forced to rally behind the backup quarterback.

The Eagles' situation is unlike most others in that the team's clear-cut second-stringer is also the same guy who brought Philadelphia its first Lombardi Trophy just 10 months ago. But in Philadelphia, the situation couldn't be more familiar. Influenced by 1990s QB turmoil, 2000s debates over "clutch" QBs and an underlying underdog culture, local fans and pundits have joked for years that the most popular person in the city is the Eagles quarterback waiting on the bench.

Yet as Foles prepares to take the field for an encore, it's clearer than ever why that's the case. And it has nothing to do with those rowdy Eagles fans being too harsh.

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If you're an Eagles backup, chances are you're playing

There's a reason the Eagles gave Foles a $2-million bonus this year, and it's not entirely because he won them a Super Bowl. It's the same reason the team paid him $11 million entering 2017 even though Wentz had already been declared the face of the franchise -- because quarterback insurance is the most valuable kind of insurance in the NFL.

History also indicates, however, that it's even more valuable in Philadelphia.

Before Sunday, when Foles will make his first start since buying time for Wentz's ACL recovery in September, the Eagles will already have had a backup quarterback start at least two games in 12 of their last 15 seasons.

Going back to 2004, the year the team advanced to Super Bowl XXXIX, we tallied up every time a No. 2 or 3 Eagles QB made a start, discounting starts that occurred a.) because the team rested most of its starters, or b.) after the backup had publicly been declared the team's new starter -- a la Foles in 2013.

Season

Backup QB starts

QBs

2018

2

Nick Foles (2)

2017

3 (+3 playoffs)

Nick Foles (3 + 3 playoffs)

2016

0

N/A

2015

2

Mark Sanchez (2)

2014

8

Mark Sanchez (8)

2013

6

Nick Foles (6)

2012

3

Nick Foles (3)

2011

3

Vince Young (3)

2010

4

Kevin Kolb (4)

2009

2

Kevin Kolb (2)

2008

0

N/A

2007

2

A.J. Feeley (2)

2006

6 (+2 playoffs)

Jeff Garcia (6 + 2 playoffs)

2005

7

Mike McMahon (7)

2004

0

N/A

Add them up, and you get 48 total regular-season starts by Eagles backup QBs since 2004. (Throw in the playoff starts, and you've got 53 in 15 seasons.) That means, just working with the regular-season marks, that Eagles fans have seen an average of 3.2 backup starts per season over the last 15 years.

And it means that exactly 20 percent -- or one in every five -- of the Eagles' 240 regular-season games from 2004-2018 will have been started by backups. If we include Foles' projected Week 15-17 starts this year, the percentage jumps slightly to 21.25.

So Philly fans may be brutally honest, and they may boo their team's star players on their off days. But that's not necessarily what's driving this so-called love for the backup.

It's probably the fact that the Eagles' "backups" are throwing passes every season.

Few contenders play backup QBs like the Eagles

Having 20 percent of 15 years of games started by backups should be enough to raise eyebrows. But when you compare the rate of backup starts in Philadelphia to other successful NFL cities, it's even more apparent the Eagles are in exclusive company.

Here's a list of the NFL's top teams since the 2010s, ranked in order of 2010-2017 winning percentage, and how many total starts each team had by anyone other than the Opening Day starting QB since 2004:

  1. New England Patriots: 19 starts
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers: 26 starts
  3. Green Bay Packers: 18 starts
  4. Seattle Seahawks: 21 starts
  5. Atlanta Falcons: 10 starts
  6. Baltimore Ravens: 26 starts
  7. Denver Broncos: 29 starts
  8. New Orleans Saints: 5 starts
  9. Kansas City Chiefs: 50 starts
  10. Cincinnati Bengals: 19 starts
  11. Philadelphia Eagles: 48 starts

The top 10 teams in the NFL since 2010 have averaged 22.3 backup QB starts in the last 15 years. The Eagles have that total more than doubled. Only the Chiefs, with 50 non-Week 1 QBs making starts, rival Philadelphia as the exception to this group. Ironic, isn't it, that they are led by none other than longtime Eagles coach Andy Reid?

The Eagles' number is closer to, say, the Buffalo Bills -- a team that's long been in a perennial QB hunt -- than it is similarly productive clubs like the Patriots, the Seahawks and the Steelers. Like Kansas City, Philly has simply been a stomping ground for backup quarterbacks.


What does this mean for Eagles fans? The takeaways are bittersweet, depending on how much you read into numbers.

On one hand, recent history suggests that if you're the anointed starting quarterback in Philly, you're either prone to injury or a victim of ominous coincidence. Since 2004, here are the team's most notable starters and how many regular-season games they missed due to injury:

  • Donovan McNabb (17)
  • Michael Vick (16)
  • Nick Foles (8)
  • Carson Wentz (5)
  • Sam Bradford (2)

Is there a pattern? Is this an organizational flaw in identifying "safe" QBs? Or is it happenstance? A natural result of far too many circumstances to analyze -- offensive line play, QB tendencies, etc.? McNabb and Vick were both dual-threat passers who absorbed big hits outside the pocket -- something Wentz has mirrored. Foles and Bradford suffered injuries far different ways.

On the other hand, with or without injury-prone starters, the Eagles have maintained their place among the NFL's elite over the last decade or two. With the exception of the lull between Reid and current coach Doug Pederson, Philly has consistently challenged for playoff attention, even winning it all in 2017. And that's often been done in spite of -- or, in the case of Super Bowl LII, because of -- their backup quarterbacks.

For every Nick Foles and Jeff Garcia (2006), there are probably twice as many Mike McMahons (2005) and Mark Sanchezes (2014-15). But the Eagles have weathered the largely unprecedented role of their backups to come away with seven playoff trips, three NFC Championship Games and a Lombardi since 2004. So either their No. 2s are uniquely qualified or they're experts at identifying them.

Or -- what the heck -- maybe it's just 'cause they're playing in Philly.

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