The Common Ground of Tony Romo and Nick Foles
Drew Bledsoe could have tied that game, damn it.
After a pass interference penalty drove his Cowboys to the Eagles' six-yard line, down 31-24 with under a minute to go, Bledsoe was less than a stone's throw away from potentially forcing overtime. This was in spite of the fact that the aging quarterback had taken more hits than a puff-puff-pass circle.
By the time darkness fell over Philadelphia, on the evening of October 8, 2006, the man drafted No. 1 overall by the New England Patriots in 1993 had been sacked seven times. The likes of Darwin Walker and a young Trent Cole had shell-shocked the 34-year-old relic. Lito Sheppard and Brian Dawkins piled on with an interception each.
None of that was relevant in this moment. Eighteen feet away from Bledsoe stood redemption. On a day where maligned villain Terrell Owens returned to Philly after an acrimonious exit, he still had the chance to silence the vociferous Iggle-fan faithful.
With 35 seconds remaining, Bledsoe threw incomplete over the middle to Owens. Shock would have reigned over boos had "TO" hauled it in.
Still seeking atonement, Bledsoe took another shot, this one toward sure-handed Jason Witten.
The pass never made it there.
Instead, Sheppard made his second pick of the day, endlessly eyeing Bledsoe. Two yards deep in the end zone, the fifth-year corner snatched the errant pass and gunned it 102 yards, soundtracked by an exultant roar from the Philly phaithful.
The Terrell Owens homecoming was squandered. Bledsoe's chance to emerge from the muck a hero, crushed. Gleeful callers to WYSP (now WIP) on Monday not only heralded the Eagles mostly-dominant play, but whooped it up at how slow Bledsoe looked in the pocket.
Never an RG3 or a Randall Cunningham, or even a Steve Young or Andrew Luck, in his prime, Bledsoe looked 34-going-on-54 when trying to sidestep the rush. From 2002 to 2005, Bledsoe was sacked an average of 47 times a year. He may as well have been a park statue.
A week later, Dallas handled the Houston Texans with relative ease. The week after that, on the humid Monday night of October 23, 2006, against the New York Giants, Bledsoe would throw his final pass.
A mixed bag, the veteran QB ran for a touchdown after earlier being sacked by Lavar Arrington for a safety. For his final throw, Bledsoe would be picked off near the Giants endzone by Sam Madison.
At halftime, down 12-7 to their division rival, coach Bill Parcells, the man who drafted Bledsoe thirteen years and a few cities earlier, sat him down, unknowingly for good.
Replacing him, a total unproven that has not only been the face of the Cowboys for seven years since, but also a polarizing figure, with sports media not wanting it any other way.
He's infuriated Cowboy haters by dating unattainable blonde bombshells, as well as winning hard-fought regular season contests. Beyond that, he's earned a 'choker' label for a series of playoff foul-ups, winning just one postseason contest since his indoctrination as starter.
In 2001, Drew Bledsoe's star fell so that Tom Brady's could shine. Five years later, the same chain of events was happening again, this time to the benefit of Tony Romo.
Undrafted in 2003, Romo was as much a star in his first three seasons as Scott Tolzien and Matthew McGloin are in 2013. Love Romo or hate him, the fact that he was unable to leapfrog the likes of Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter is an incredulous piece of cocktail trivia today.
After a lengthy respite, Romo finally got to throw his first of two NFL passes against the Texans the week before, 51 games into his career (think about that when you remember that Mike Glennon debuted after just four weeks on the bench).
Romo's second pass went for a two-yard touchdown to Owens.
There'd be no such momumental feeling of accomplishment in this battle with the Giants. Romo's very first pass, and his first play from scrimmage, was picked off by Antonio Pierce. The 26-year-old would throw two more picks, only mildly offset by two touchdown passes, in a 36-22 loss that dropped the Cowboys to 3-3, and 1-2 in the NFC East.
In spite of the loss, Romo was anointed the full-time starting job, and he repaid Parcells' faith by winning five of the next six games. That streak included a payback 23-20 win over the Giants in the Meadowlands.
Dallas would finish the year 9-7, after losing an opportunity to try and stake the NFC East on Christmas night, a 23-7 loss to a surging, Jeff Garcia-helmed Eagles team.
An inexplicable defeat the following week to Detroit secured the crown for Philly.
Regardless, the winning record, a Wild Card berth, and the joy of mining this once-reticent diamond would be enough to satiate Cowboys fans, and renew a sense of pride that'd dimmed with Troy Aikman's concussions and Emmitt Smith's bittersweet exit.
In fashion typical of the whiplash-inducing roller coaster that is NFL football, Romo nearly led a first-round playoff victory over the Seahawks. Down 21-20 with 1:19 remaining, the Cowboys were about to kick a 19-yard gimme field goal.
A bitter fate would intervene in a way that Dallas deriders could enjoy, and conjure up as a punchline for years to come: Romo, serving as holder, botched the set-up and was forced to try and run for the touchdown.
Tackled short of the first down on his desperation scramble, the image of Romo clutching his face mask in anguish became an enduring portrait, a trump card of glee whenever a Cowboys fan needed silencing.
Since that cruel ending, Romo's gone 53-39 as Dallas' starter, although the team has sat on a playoff drought three years running. Nonetheless, anyone that doubted Romo's capability as a starter has been proven wrong.
With a career rating of 96.4 and 191 touchdown passes, he's every bit as good a quarterback as Sean Payton (once a Cowboys assistant, and Romo's mentor) believed he could be a decade ago. He wasn't drafted, but neither was Kurt Warner, and we know how that story goes.
From the depths of obscurity to replacing a one-time elite quarterback, it's a story that happens from time to time, rarely being successful.
That tale, as of this moment, is playing out in the city of Philadelphia.
Nick Foles wasn't an undrafted afterthought like Romo. The lanky Texan was selected with the 88th pick overall, in the third round of the 2012 Draft by Philadelphia, and a bit of an alarming one.
After the selection of three defensive players, the Eagles took Foles just eight months after giving incumbent starter Michael Vick a six year, $100M contract, with $40M guaranteed. The deal came after Vick assembled one of the most unlikely comeback stories in all of sports.
After his release from Leavenworth Prison in the summer of 2009, Vick was signed to the Eagles as a backup for Donovan McNabb. The No. 1 pick of the 2001 Draft was then relegated to backing up Kevin Kolb the following season, after the aging McNabb was traded to the Redskins.
Expected to be little more than a Wildcat option, Vick was suddenly pressed into action on opening day 2010, when Kolb suffered a concussion at the hands of Clay Matthews. Vick couldn't fell Green Bay, but his flashes of brilliance demonstrated in the comeback effort left viewers wondering how two years in prison weren't deterring his football instincts any.
After beating the Lions in a close game a week later, Vick was named full-time starter by Andy Reid (the first of several times Kolb would lose a job due to injury). Vick rewarded Reid, and Eagles fans, by going 8-3 the rest of the way, en route to 21 touchdown passes, nine rushing scores, only six interceptions, the Comeback Player of the Year Award, and the NFC East title.
For that effort, the once-bankrupt Vick watched Jeff Lurie and the Eagles open the pocketbook wider than they have for any player before or since.
The renaissance was short-lived, as the Eagles took a nose dive in 2011-12, with Vick going 10-13 as starter, throwing 24 interceptions during that stretch. The 2011 campaign had Philadelphia go 8-8 despite high expectations (the "Dream Team" misnomer year). At one point, the Eagles went on a four-game losing streak in September and October, which created a hole they never freed themselves from.
Vick also missed three games in 2011. His relatively lithe frame, mixed with his scramble-equipped style, only made it easier for him to sustain injuries. To date, Vick's only played a full 16-game season once (2006), and he's not getting any more pristine with age.
The downfalls of 2011-12 cannot be entirely placed on Vick, however. The overhyped free agent class of 2011 (headed by Nnamdi Asomugha) yielded only one player that made it to a third year: Evan Mathis. Confusion would abound in play-calling and execution, spurred by Juan Castillo's ill-advised turn as defensive coordinator.
Poor draft classes in 2010 and 2011 yielded a few decent players, but many duds (only eight of the 24 players drafted those years remain). 2012 saw the offensive line whittled down after injuries to Jason Peters and others, leaving an already injury-prone Vick in grave danger behind the underrated Mathis, and little else.
As expected, Vick would languish in these circumstances, through both his own errors, and the breakdown of the system as a whole.
Through said languishing would turn a key of change.
Foles need only wait nine games of the 2012 season before Andy Reid called his number.
With the Eagles riding the SEPTA bus to hell via a five-game losing streak, Vick sustained a concussion midway through the second quarter while hosting the Cowboys. Foles was inserted, and began inauspiciously enough, going three for five, for 18 yards, going into halftime down 10-7.
After Dallas went three and out to begin the third quarter, Foles finished a three-play drive with a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin, rejuvenating the lulling Eagles crowd.
Philly would go up as much as 17-10 before the game unraveled, as a Dwayne Harris punt return for a score, a Brandon Carr pick-six, and a Jason Hatcher fumble-return stuck like shivs in the Eagles' spine. Dallas would win 38-23.
Foles would nearly finish out the season before a broken hand meant Vick played the finale against the Giants. The rookie ended up going 1-5 behind the fragmented offensive line, while forced to catch up behind his defense's clueless play.
In the lone win, Foles gunned the ball to Maclin as time expired to beat the Buccaneers in December. That touchdown capped off a comeback from down 21-10 in the fourth quarter to win 23-21.
When Reid was relieved on New Year's Eve, the Chip Kelly speculation culminated with the hiring of Oregon's purported mastermind two weeks later. After Vick agreed to a restructured one-year deal in February, it seemed that the comeback story was entering its final chapter, and that Kelly would either go with Foles, or a youngster of his own choosing.
Instead, Kelly announced an open competition between the two, as he unloaded his unconventional 'up-tempo' playbook onto them. While early word was that Foles looked sharper in practice, Vick caught up, and had two excellent showings in preseason.
With the veteran playing as confident and sharp as he ever had been, Kelly named him the starter, while Foles dutifully took second chair.
The season began with a bang, as Kelly's relentless offense, led by Vick, carved up the Redskins in the opening game. Afterward, a three-game losing streak commenced, in which Philip Rivers eked out a shootout, followed by Vick getting steamrolled by Andy Reid's new defense in Kansas City, and Vick looking even less effective against juggernautic Denver.
Foles would finally see action again, because of yet another injury.
After Vick pulled up lame while running out of bounds against the Giants, the veteran gutted it out as long as he could before getting pulled just before the half. Foles led a long field-goal drive, stayed in the game, and ended up notching the victory with two fourth-quarter touchdown throws.
A week later, Foles would get his first start under Kelly, and it couldn't have gone any better. Tasked with cooling the Buccaneers' filterless defense, Foles played confidently with three touchdown passes and a rushing score en route to a 31-20 victory. For his efforts, Foles was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week, his first NFL merit badge of any sort.
On October 17, after practicing with the third stringers, Vick, it was announced, would miss another game while his leg mended. Thus, Foles will receive his biggest test to date: take over sole possession of the NFC East, and get the Eagles their first winning record after six games since the 2010 season.
To do so, he must outduel Tony Romo.
Hard to believe it's been seven years since Romo traded in the clipboard for the keys. Because of much of the natural aversion to the Cowboys and their boosters, it's hard for some to put Romo on the same pedestal as Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Arian Foster, and any other undrafted player that would go on to well-earned stardom. Yes, it's easier to point at his clutchless errors and root for his failure, but he is, nonetheless, a fascinating success story.
Like Romo, Foles is also working to replace a former No. 1 draft choice once and for all, with a share of skeptics wondering how far he can go. Thus far, the third-round sophomore has beaten two winless teams, but the second defeated foe provided a roughneck defense with good statistics. That didn't stop the kid from lighting them up, becoming the first quarterback to lead his team to 30 or more points on Tampa this season (not Tom Brady, not Drew Brees....).
One man's sunset is another man's sunrise. Bledsoe had to fade away for Romo to begin his remarkable run.
Interestingly enough, if Romo loses Sunday, that makes it easier for Foles to try and erase Vick's viability once and for all.