Nick Foles approached Doug Pederson with a question that could decide the Philadelphia Eagles’ season: “You want Philly Philly?” Pederson answered in the affirmative, and unlike with most NFL play calls, Foles only had two words to say in this offensive huddle: “Philly Special.”
Moments later, after shifting out from under center and looking irrelevant to the play, Foles sprinted toward the right side of the end zone as Trey Burton lofted the ball his way. Foles reeled it in for a 1-yard receiving touchdown, giving Philadelphia a 10-point halftime lead over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. The Eagles went on to beat Tom Brady and the Pats, 41-33, to claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Before Foles and Brady match up again, this time in Week 5 of the 2020 NFL season as quarterbacks of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s worth revisiting their last game against each other, when a backup quarterback like Foles upset a future Hall of Famer like Brady thanks in part to one magical, trick play.
Nick Foles the receiver
Foles, a backup for much of his career, had to take on Philly’s starting job in 2017 due to an injury to phenom Carson Wentz. He started the season’s final three games, winning two before the Eagles fell in a Week 17 contest that saw a lot of time for the reserves.
Entering the 2017 playoffs, Foles had never caught a pass in the NFL. He’d actually recorded one reception in his college years at Arizona, but it was a trick play gone wrong in which Foles lost nine yards. Somehow, in Super Bowl LII, Foles wasn’t even the first quarterback to be targeted.
That honor went to Brady. On third-and-five at the Eagles’ 35-yard line in the second quarter, the Patriots ran a double-reverse that left the ball in Danny Amendola’s hands. Brady broke out past the right side of the line of scrimmage, not dissimilar from the Philly Special besides the location on the field. Amendola lofted a pass over Brady’s head that Brady got his hands on five yards past the first-down marker. But the ball bounced off the legend’s hands, and the Patriots didn’t convert fourth down on the next play.
Foles would actually catch a 10-yard touchdown during the 2018 season, which remains his only regular-season catch in the NFL. To say he was an improbable touchdown catcher in the Super Bowl would be an understatement.
“A quarterback going out on a route?” Foles said after the Super Bowl. “I was pumped … That’s probably the best it has looked, so we hit it at the right time.”
Trey Burton the passer
Burton, a tight end, has played 86 regular-season games and counting in the NFL, along with the four he played during Philadelphia’s 2017 postseason run. He’s thrown exactly one pass in those 90 games.
When Burton was recruited to play for Urban Meyer at Florida, it was initially to play quarterback in the Gators’ spread offense. He only found time very sparingly as a passer at UF, although he did complete 11-of-17 passes. If the Eagles were going to attempt a trick play with a pass, Burton was a logical thrower.
“I still don’t believe it,” Burton said after the Super Bowl. “Guys said, ‘You just threw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.’ It’s something that I’ll never forget, and my kids will never forget. It’s special.”
After the Super Bowl, Burton moved on to Chicago as a highly touted free-agent signing who was hit-or-miss in his first year with the Bears, catching 54 passes and six touchdowns. After a 2019 beset by injuries, Burton was cut by the Bears and signed with the Indianapolis Colts, where he sits third on their 2020 depth chart at tight end.
Head coach Doug Pederson
By 2020, Pederson has begun to wear out his welcome in Philadelphia. But in 2017, he was in his second year as Eagles head coach and Philadelphia cruised to a 13-3 regular-season record. Pederson was the offensive genius who went for two-point conversions early in games and used a flea flicker to help win the NFC Championship.
It was Foles who suggested to Pederson, in the moment, to run the play. The Eagles had worked on it during practice in the playoffs, and they said it always worked. Most importantly, it worked on the biggest stage.
Thanks in part to the Philly Special, Pederson’s job security in Philadelphia is about as strong as it can be for a coach in a city with such emotional sports fans. Pederson brought the Eagles a ring, and that might keep him coaching as long as he wants in Philadelphia.
Tom Brady and the Philly Special
Before the Patriots played the Eagles in 2019, Brady spoke on the radio about how the Philly Special remained in his mind.
“You assume I’m over it? C’mon now,” Brady told WEEI. “That’s a lot of mental scar tissue from that year. That was a tough game. In a lot of ways, we learned from that year and we came back stronger the next year, and we won the Super Bowl in 2018.”
Brady’s last point could be just athlete-speak, but it’s also factual – the Patriots bounced back to win the Super Bowl very next year, with an even larger deficit (28-3) not daunting them against the Atlanta Falcons. Maybe Brady would have a seventh ring if not for the Philly Special, but his G.O.A.T. argument likely doesn’t need that.
“Tough play to stop. They executed it well,” Brady told WEEI in 2019. “That play will go down in history, just like a lot of those big plays in the Super Bowl have. Good for them.”