Professional Football

Intrigue Surrounds NFC Conference Championship Game

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One of the great things about sports championship runs are the story lines that are often presented leading into key games.

In 2015 we had the story of Eric Berry, the All-Pro safety for the Kansas City Chiefs who was sidelined on December 8, 2014 after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and placed on the non-football illness list. Nine months after his initial diagnosis, he was declared cancer free and returned to the team, helping lead them to an 11-5 record and an AFC Wildcard spot while being named to the Pro Bowl and the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. Though the Chiefs did not make it to the championship game that year, Berry’s inspirational story was one for the ages.

The backstory for this year’s NFC conference championship game is filled with intrigue, trades, injuries and perhaps, some retribution.

It starts with the St. Louis Rams selecting quarterback Sam Bradford with the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams head coach, hired Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur as his offensive coordinator and, with the first pick in the 2010 draft, they selected and developed Bradford who set NFL records for most consecutive passes without an interception (169) and most completions (354) in his rookie year. The performance earned Bradford Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

His success with developing Bradford gave Shurmur a promotion to head coach of the Cleveland Browns for 2011, a position he held for two seasons. Bradford, meanwhile, dealt with a high ankle sprain in 2011 but put up career numbers in 2012 in St. Louis.

Two new quarterbacks entered the picture in 2012 – Nick Foles, selected in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles, and Case Keenum, who was signed as an undrafted free agent with the Houston Texans and spent the entire season on their practice squad.

Foles started off his career as a backup to Michael Vick and was tutored by Doug Pederson, the Eagles quarterbacks coach. When Vick went down with a concussion in the second quarter of a Week 10 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Foles finished the game and then Eagles head coach Andy Reid gave him the starting nod for the remainder of the season, though the rookie quarterback was injured in the last game of the 2012 season.

When the Eagles parted ways with Andy Reid after the 2012 season, Reid became head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs while the Philadelphia brought in Chip Kelly to take the helm. Kelly brought in Pat Shurmur as his offensive coordinator.

In the 2013 season, Shurmur was able to develop Foles, who threw for 27 touchdowns and two interceptions while posting a 119.2 rating and the third-lowest interception percentage in league history. Foles also became the second player to throw for seven touchdowns in a single game, a feat he accomplished on the road against the Oakland Raiders that season.

Bradford only played half of a season with the Rams, having torn his ACL during a Week 7 game, which sidelined him throughout the second half of 2013 and all of the 2014 season.

Keenum, originally the third string quarterback when placed on the active roster in 2013, ended up starting half of the Texans games but finished with an 0-8 record and a 78.2 passer rating.

In 2014, Keenum continued to have a rocky career as he was waived by the Texans prior to the season’s start, picked up off of waivers by the St. Louis Rams and assigned to their practice squad, but then signed again by the Texans after quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick went down with a season-ending injury. Keenum went 2-0 in the final two games of the season.

Foles started the first eight games of the 2014 season for the Eagles and was on pace to throw for over 4,000 yards. However, he was sidelined with a broken collarbone sustained in a Week 9 game against the Texans and placed on injured reserve ending his season.

Trades in the 2015 season began to merge the careers of all three quarterbacks. On March 10, 2015, the Eagles traded Foles and a fifth round draft pick to the Rams in exchange for Bradford. The season would be a tough one for Bradford as he played in 14 games and passed for 3,725 yards, but missed two games after a left shoulder injury and concussion in a game against the Miami Dolphins.

The day after the Bradford trade, the Rams traded a seventh round pick for Keenum, who was supposed to back up Foles. Keenum took over the starting role from Foles on November 16, the day after Bradford’s injury. However, Foles would return as starter two weeks later after Keenum sustained a concussion, and then lose it again when Keenum passed the concussion protocol.

Foles reunited with Andy Reid in Kansas City, signing a one-year $1.75 million contract on August 3, 2016 to back up Alex Smith. He appeared in three games and started one when Smith went down with a concussion. The Chiefs declined to pick up their option making Foles a free agent following the season.

Keenum was named the starter for the now relocated Los Angeles Rams on August 6, 2016. He played in 10 games and started nine, but a 4-5 win-loss record and 76.4 passer rating got him benched in favor of the Rams first overall draft pick Jared Goff.

The Eagles, under first year head coach Doug Pederson, traded Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings on September 3, 2016 for a first round draft pick in the 2017 draft after Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater sustained a season-ending ACL tear during practice.

The move reunited Bradford and Shurmur, who was then serving as tight ends coach for the Vikings, after losing out to Pederson for the Eagles head coaching position. Two months after the trade, Shurmur became the interim offensive coordinator and then became the permanent top offensive coach prior to the 2017 season.

In 2016, Bradford set Vikings team records for most passing yards as a quarterback’s first game as a Viking (286), single-season completion percentage (71.6) and most pass completions (395).

With the absence of Bradford from the Eagles lineup, Pederson elected to start rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who the team drafted with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. He started all 16 games, passing for 3,782 yards and a 79.3 passer rating, but the Eagles missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

On March 13, 2017, Foles reunited with Pederson in Philadelphia after signing a two-year contract to serve as Wentz’s backup. Two weeks later, Keenum signed a one-year contract with the Vikings to serve as Bradford’s backup, reuniting with Shurmur in the process.

Bradford sustained a knee injury following the 2017 season opener against the New Orleans Saints, forcing Keenum to take over the starting role for the Vikings for the remainder of the season, except Week 5 when Bradford started against the Chicago Bears.

Keenum led the Vikings to an 11-3 record in his 14 games, passed for 3,547 yards and held a 98.3 passer rating during the 2017 campaign. Now his backup is Sam Bradford, who was activated on January 13, 2018 prior to the divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.

Foles, meanwhile, became the Eagles starter after Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14, and completed 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards in a divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on the same day the Vikings activated Bradford.

Sunday’s NFC conference championship will have a lot riding on it for five men – three quarterbacks and two coaches.

Will Pat Shurmur get even with Doug Pederson for losing the head coaching position in Philadelphia? Will Foles get back at Keenum for losing out as the starting quarterback with the Rams? What will happen with Bradford?

These questions will begin to get answered when the NFC conference championship game kicks off at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia at 5:40 p.m. CT on Sunday to determine which of these men will represent the conference against the Jacksonville Jaguars or the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

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