Tuesday 21 May 2019

Eagles swoop to conquer after fearless Foles rewrites the script on America's biggest stage

Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Nick Foles celebrates following victory over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Photo: Getty Images
Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Nick Foles celebrates following victory over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Photo: Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

If the proposition that fortune favours the brave is ever tried in court, Exhibit A for the defence should be the play run by the Philadelphia Eagles with 38 seconds left in the first half of last weekend's Super Bowl.

The Eagles were leading the New England Patriots 15-12 and had a fourth and goal on the opposition one-yard line. The percentage move, the apparently smart move, was to kick a field goal and take a six-point lead into the break. Most coaches would go for that, especially in the biggest game of their life.

Doug Pederson of the Eagles didn't. He didn't because quarterback Nick Foles persuaded him that now would be a great time to try out a play they called 'The Philly Special' and had never run before. Almost everyone in the US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis expected one of the Eagles running backs to try and barrel over the line.

Anyone who didn't expect that would have anticipated Foles trying to find one of his receivers in the end zone. Those seemed to be the only options available.

Think again suckers. Foles did not hand off to a running back and he did not throw the ball. He handed off to tight end Trey Burton and hared off to his right, moving in the ungainly manner of a six foot six man who doesn't normally do much sprinting on the pitch. Arriving in the end zone, Foles was utterly unmarked because who could have expected him to be there? And then Trey Burton, who'd never thrown a pass in the NFL, threw a pass to Nick Foles, who'd never caught a pass in the NFL, and Foles caught it. Touchdown.

The game ebbed and flowed in the second half before the Eagles prevailed 41-33. But long before that you had a sense that Foles' touchdown was a turning point, one of those moments which lets a team know it's going to be their day. Sometimes one play is a lot more than just one play.

Apparently, this particular play is one Foles used back when he was a high school student in Texas. You could see that. It had the unbuttoned feel of something you'd try out when football was a game rather than your job. There was an exhilarating nuttiness about it, it felt like something from one of the great black and white screwball comedies which are the purest expression of a specifically American combination of verve, optimism, improvisational genius and romantic lunacy.

Its very unlikeliness was fitting to the occasion because there have been few more unlikely Super Bowl finalists than the Eagles. Foles, an apparently busted flush of a back-up quarterback, shouldn't have been there. Pederson, one of the most inexperienced coaches ever to bring a team that far, didn't seem to belong on the biggest stage either. The pass-throwing Trey Burton went undrafted out of college four years ago and has spent his time at the Eagles as a sporadically-used Jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

The Eagles' top receiver in the game Corey Clement went undrafted last year and is actually a running back. The team itself went 7-9 the previous season and was ranked 25th out of 32 teams in the Sports Illustrated pre-season preview, which regarded quarterback Carson Wentz as their biggest weapon. That's the same Wentz whose injury propelled Nick Foles into a job few people thought he was up to. To top it all, having somehow reached the Super Bowl, the Eagles were up against the team regarded as American sport's ultimate winners.

That they prevailed illustrates perhaps sport's most alluring quality, its never-ending ability to deliver the unlikely. Sport remains one of the few venues in our society where some kind of transcendence is possible.

One of my favourite writers James Kelman once said that art is the only place where you can be truly free. I think there's also the possibility of freedom in sport. Even in a game as regimented as American Football a chance can come for a moment of pure self-expression, like that set in motion by Nick Foles when he suggested to Doug Pederson this might be a nice time to break out that play they used in Austin when Nick was a kid.

So they went for it and in doing so delivered a nice smack in the gob to everyone in every sport who believes in playing the percentages, taking the wise option, going by the book and not doing anything silly.

Because this play, the greatest Super Bowl play of all-time, was not a percentage play, did not look wise and wasn't found in any manual. On the face of it going for it right then was a very silly move indeed. If it didn't work, they'd never have heard the last of it.

It did work and they'll never hear the last of it. Sometimes you have to let it rip. Sometimes you need to try something that's so crazy it just might work.

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