Jeff Fisher already took credit for the Rams’ 2017 NFC West championship despite being on the sideline for zero games this season. After Sunday, he might be taking credit for an NFC Championship as well.
That’s because both starting quarterbacks in the showdown between the Eagles and Vikings — Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Minnesota’s Case Keenum — are players Fisher handpicked to lead the Rams at different points. Vikings backup Sam Bradford, recently reinstated to the active roster after sitting out most of 2017 with a knee injury, also has ties to Fisher; he’s the player Fisher exiled from St. Louis in exchange for Foles back in 2015.
Both players have seen their fortunes rise since parting ways with the coach who made “7-and-9 bullsh*t” a meme. Keenum defied the odds in 2017. He went from mentoring a quarterback (Jared Goff) who’d go 0-7 as a rookie last year to becoming an MVP candidate on one of the league’s hottest teams this year.
Foles hasn’t been a full-time starter since that 2015 season, but he’s had the fortune to land on solid teams who can make the most of his limitations behind center. In the last six games in which he’s thrown 10 passes or more, his teams are 5-1. The lone defeat came in a meaningless Week 17 game where he played just one quarter — albeit a pretty awful one — before ceding snaps to backup Nate Sudfeld.
Each passer is in a better place than where Fisher had left him. Here’s how they got there.
Case Keenum flourished with an OC who builds to his QBs, not the other way around
The 2017 Vikings were supposed to rely on 2016 addition Bradford and a hopefully healthy Teddy Bridgewater, but the latter’s injury status led Keenum to the great white north on a one-year, $2 million deal. That investment has paid off tenfold.
Keenum quickly earned the confidence of Vikings fans after taking the offensive reins following Bradford’s knee injury in Week 2. His second start of the season was a 369-yard, three-touchdown smashing of the Buccaneers. While he wouldn’t reach those lofty yardage heights again, his consistent and efficient passing was all a well-balanced team needed in a quarterback; the Vikings are 13-3 in the games he’s played this season, including the playoffs.
There were several major differences between Los Angeles and Minnesota for Keenum. His receiving corps, led by Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph, was now buoyed by a trio of Pro Bowl-caliber players. He upgraded from the league’s 29th-ranked pass blocking unit to one that ranked eighth in 2017. And most importantly, he linked up with the offensive coordinator who’d revived Bradford’s career the year before.
Pat Shurmur’s ability to create a cohesive game plan despite the loss of pieces like Bradford and rookie tailback Dalvin Cook — who tore his ACL in Week 4 after a hot start to his career — has carved out his place as one of the game’s most dynamic offensive minds. Shurmur’s role in Minnesota’s resurgence has made him a popular head coach candidate once again, and he’s likely to be hired by the Giants.
With Keenum, his adjustments have relied on the young veteran’s ability to escape pressure and his receiving corps’ ability to create several different looks, keeping opposing defenses on their toes. Shurmur uses a smattering of personnel packages, shifting from throwback I-formation packages to empty-backfield lineups to two-TE sets with regularity. That confusion, mixed with the crisp routes of players like Thielen and Diggs, the growing improvisational skills of Keenum, and a healthy dose of play-action shots downfield have paid off in a big way.
As a result, Keenum has posted career highs in passing yards per game, touchdown rate, passer rating, and just about every other meaningful statistic a quarterback can have. Now he’s one win away from the Super Bowl.
Nick Foles gives teams with powerful defenses just enough to win
Foles wasn’t the primary reason Philadelphia overcame its ignominious history as the first No. 1 seed to be an underdog against a No. 6 seed, but he did enough to lead his Eagles to a victory over the Falcons in the Divisional Round. The former Pro Bowler, back in the city where he rose to greatness then crashed back to earth like an errant signal flare, made significant second-half improvements to complete more than 76 percent of his passes on a windy day and earn his spot in the NFC title game.
Philly will need more from him to earn a spot in its first Super Bowl in 13 years. While the team is 3-1 in his starts this season, he hasn’t been especially impressive on the field. Statistically, there’s a lot in Foles’ 2017 to remind him of that 2015 season with Fisher.
His regular season completion rate was identical (56.4 percent). His adjusted yards per pass was similar — and bad — at 5.2 yards in 2015 and 5.4 this fall. His QBR has even fallen from 32.4 to 31.4.
But unlike 2015, Foles has proven he can be the caretaker quarterback for a winning team. The Chiefs and Eagles each surrounded him (as a backup) with high-level skill players on offense and a punishing defense. Those Rams under Fisher gave up 20.6 points per game — a good number for sure, but more than the 2016 Kansas City (19.4) or 2017 Philadelphia (17.9).
In the same span, Foles has regressed back to the mean in terms of making big plays. He’s found the end zone with more than 5 percent of his passes the past two seasons, rebounding from a 2015 bottoming-out at 2.2 percent. He’s been steadier in the red zone and less turnover averse, two improvements that, like mentioned with Keenum above, can be attributed to stronger offensive line play.
He hasn’t been perfect — or even close to Keenum’s level this season — but Foles’ career has been moving in the right direction since parting ways with Fisher. On Sunday, these two former Rams will have the chance to prove their former coach was just the wrong guy making the right call when it came to finding a bargain Super Bowl QB.