KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nick Foles isn’t certain what he might be doing today if not for his one season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback, one of the marquee free-agent signings this offseason, spent a largely undistinguished year with the Chiefs on the field in 2016 — but it was monumental in his mind.
Foles is certain about this: He wouldn’t be the quarterback of the Jaguars, preparing to face the Chiefs on Sunday in Jacksonville, without that year. He would never have taken the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl after the 2017 season or been named the game’s MVP.
In fact, Foles said, “I wouldn’t still be playing football without that season with the Chiefs. Going there and being with people that actually cared about me as a person more so than as a football player … it provided me the love and the joy of the game again.”
Look at the arc of Foles’ career. Before he arrived in Kansas City he was cut by the Rams after a seven-touchdown, 10-interception, four-win season. Since leaving the Chiefs? He was 9-3 as an Eagles starter, including the playoffs, the past two seasons. He threw for 725 yards and six touchdowns during NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl wins in 2017.
It’s hard to disagree with Foles that his season in Kansas City revived his career.
The season before with the Rams, in which they scored 176 points during his 11 starts, was so bad for Foles he was prepared to get out of football.
“I was about to step away from the game and retire, just take a break and pursue other things in life,” Foles said.
Before he did, though, Foles sent a long text message to Chiefs coach Andy Reid, informing him of his plans. Reid and Matt Nagy, then the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, had coached Foles as a rookie with the Eagles in 2012.
“I told him I wasn’t going to play football anymore and how grateful I was that he drafted me and made a kid’s dream come true,” Foles said. “I told him that I would always remember him for providing me that opportunity and for always believing in me.”
Foles then left for several days on a camping trip in California, where he was out of cellphone range. Foles was done with football, he thought.
In the meantime, Reid spoke several times with his Foles’ father, Larry. The two had gotten to know one another during Foles’ season playing for Reid. Larry indicated that if his son was to change his mind and play again, Kansas City would be a good landing spot.
Reid finally spoke with Foles upon his return from the camping trip and told him if he changed his mind and wanted to play again, there would be a place for him with the Chiefs.
After a day or two to think about it, Foles accepted Reid’s offer, if only reluctantly.
“When I decided to play, the ultimate goal was to find the joy of football again,” Foles said. “It wasn’t to win a starting job. I simply wanted to have joy again when I played the game of football. I told my wife that it didn’t matter [about] all the teams that called and were interested. The only team I would play for was the Chiefs, just because I wanted to play for Coach Reid one more time and Coach Nagy and those guys. I felt like being in that environment would give me the greatest opportunity to enjoy the game of football.”
Foles arrived with little confidence a few days after training camp started. He was about as beaten down emotionally as a quarterback could be. Nagy described Foles as being “lost” in a football sense.
Nagy had gone to the Kansas City airport to greet Foles. After a brief stop at Nagy’s home in Kansas City, where Foles renewed acquaintances with Nagy’s wife and family, the two drove to Chiefs camp in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“We talked about our families,” said Nagy, now the head coach of the Chicago Bears. “We talked about funny stuff that happened when we were together in Philadelphia. Then he filled me in on some things he went through with some other teams. Right, wrong or indifferent, he just ended up not loving football. He was not going to play. He was going to get out of football. We talked about some of the players on the team in Kansas City. He asked about Coach Reid and how he was doing.
“That time was great. It was like riding a bike. We were right back at it. That trust level was so high between him and Coach, him and myself. He was around good people. That just got him back on track. It was more than about the X’s and O’s, that year he came back to Kansas City. It was about being around a healthy environment.”
The healing process for Foles had begun, even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time.
“The whole time in the car I’m nervous,” Foles recalled. “I was taking a step of faith I could find joy in football again. When I decided to play again I wasn’t joyful. I was hoping to conquer the fear of playing again, really. It hadn’t been conquered at that point.
“Even after I got to camp, the first couple days I still questioned myself going through stretching, going through warm-up, going through practice. I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ It wasn’t clicking.”
Foles recalled in exact detail his fourth morning in camp. He arrived for practice after his usual routine of film review and Bible study.
“At that moment, I realized I was really excited for the day,” Foles said. “I was excited for a training camp practice and getting to play football and to step into the huddle. It was all because of the environment. It was the people I was around. It was the type of people they are. It wasn’t about X’s and O’s and winning a game. It was about being around great people and having fun in the huddle and having great teammates.
“Coach Reid had a lot to do with that. He pushed me and he expected a lot from me. But at the end of the day, he cared for me. He had this way of smiling kind of out of the side of his mouth. He would do that when he knew you were fighting and you were doing your best. It was his way of giving approval, like a father figure. It was just a joy to be around him.”
Reid was experienced in reviving the careers of quarterbacks looking for a second chance. He had worked with Michael Vick in Philadelphia and then-Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, though their circumstances when they worked with Reid were different than Foles’.
“Once he got here, I thought he was in a good place,” Reid said. “It was almost ‘I’m around family’ for him. I thought that was healthy for him. It was just a positive atmosphere all the way around. After a couple of days, it was just like he took off and went.”
Smith was a factor in Foles’ revival as well. He and Foles would break from meetings to shoot baskets and play H-O-R-S-E. They met early in the mornings for coffee before they would head to the Chiefs’ training complex for meetings and practice.
“Alex just welcomed him in and said, ‘Let’s have some fun and let’s go play,'” Reid said. “Alex read the coverage on that. He’s been through the highs and lows and the demands on that position. I’m sure somewhere deep in his mind he went through all these emotions, similar to what Nick was going through. He showed Nick some love when he came in. I didn’t go to Alex and tell him to do these things. He just did them.”
Nagy said, “There are really, really good quarterback rooms in this league and there are some really bad ones. Everything in that quarterback room was good and constructive. Alex and Nick were great teammates. Nick felt that. He needed that. All those little things add up to success on the football field.”
Foles showed he was all the way back the first time he had a chance to play for the Chiefs, in a midseason game against the Colts in Indianapolis. Smith left the game with a suspected concussion and was replaced by Foles.
“Coaches always tell you ‘next man up,’ and it’s one thing to say that about another position,” guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said. “But for a quarterback, that’s tough to do. He didn’t get the reps in practice and he just showed up and said, ‘Let’s go.’ I just remember him in the huddle: He showed up super calm and was like, ‘All right, guys, we’re ready to roll. We’ve got this.'”
Foles had a big game, completing 16 of 22 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns. Nagy recalled a play the Chiefs had put in only that week:
“All week long we practiced it against a one-high safety look because that’s what we thought we were going to get. If we got two high safeties, we’d check down and throw it out in the flat. Nick gets into the game without any practice reps that week and we call that play. Well, the Colts give us two high safeties. What does Nick do? He lasers one up the left sideline right between the corner and the safety to Tyreek Hill for a touchdown.
“We just looked at each other and said, ‘Nick is back.’ He gripped and ripped and went downtown.”
Foles said what he felt that day in leading the Chiefs to a 30-14 victory meant more than the stats.
“It was emotional being back out there and playing after everything that had gone on,” Foles said. “It was an unbelievable feeling knowing I had stepped on a football field again and enjoyed it. I had fun. My senses were heightened. It was what it should be and it hadn’t been for me in St. Louis.”
Foles started the next week in a win over the Jaguars. Smith then returned and Foles got in only one more game for the Chiefs. He took a few snaps at the end of a lopsided win over the Chargers.
The Chiefs’ season ended with a divisional round playoff loss to the Steelers. The Chiefs had an expensive option for the final year of Foles’ contract but declined for two reasons. One, they didn’t have much salary-cap space. Two, they had their eye on another quarterback, Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech, in the draft.
Foles moved on to the Eagles, where his career again took off. He signed with the Jaguars this year as a free agent.
But his season in Kansas City was so satisfying he would have settled for another one.
“I wanted to stay in Kansas City after that season,” Foles said. “They didn’t have much [salary cap] room. I was sad to leave. It worked out in Philly, but that year in Kansas City will always be a special year for me. It was one of the favorite seasons of football I’ve ever had and I was a backup quarterback. I’ll always be grateful for it.”