LOS ANGELES — Jeff Fisher has somehow emerged as a central figure in the buildup to the NFC Championship Game. Three of the quarterbacks who will be in uniform at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday have previously played for him. The two starters, Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings and Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles, were employed by the same Fisher-led Los Angeles Rams as recently as 18 months ago.
Fair or not, the success of Keenum and Foles — much like the triumph of first-year Rams head coach Sean McVay — is yet another crushing indictment on Fisher, who during his tenure with the Rams could never do much with the two quarterbacks who now sit one win away from the Super Bowl.
Keenum went 7-7 with 13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 37 Total QBR under Fisher, but has gone 14-11 with 34 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 61 Total QBR without him.
Foles went 4-7 with seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 29 Total QBR under Fisher, but has gone 19-11 with 56 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and a 57 Total QBR without him.
Keenum began this season as essentially the Vikings’ third-string quarterback, but he took over as the starter in Week 2, posted a 101.0 passer rating over the final 14 regular-season games and orchestrated the exhilarating, unforgettable play that defeated the New Orleans Saints with no time remaining in last Sunday’s divisional round. Foles replaced an injured Carson Wentz in Week 14 and has effectively managed games while helping the Eagles win three out of four, even while generally unspectacular.
Fisher, speaking on NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk on Wednesday, said he is “not surprised” by their success.
“Credit goes to both the organizations from the standpoint of realizing how important it is to have a quality backup quarterback,” Fisher told host Mike Florio. “Both Nick and Case entered the same scenario — at the start of the season, they were backups. They both are experienced, they’ve won games, they’ve played tough opponents, they’ve won games against good opponents. I’m not surprised at all.”
On March 10, 2015, Fisher’s then-St. Louis Rams added both of them. Keenum was reacquired from the Houston Texans, while Foles came over from Philadephia in the trade that sent Sam Bradford — the former Vikings starter who now is serving as Keenum’s backup — to the Eagles.
Together, Keenum and Foles struggled through a 30.6 Total QBR for a 2015 Rams team that finished 7-9. They were two of nine quarterbacks to start games during a seven-year stretch between the end of Marc Bulger’s tenure and the start of Jared Goff‘s, mere footnotes in a dark time through Rams history.
Fisher complimented the work ethic of Keenum and Foles on Pro Football Talk, saying: “Both of these guys park at the parking lot at the facility and run into the building because they’re so excited to come to work. There’s energy, and they bring it. And that’s why they’re both playing in the championship game right now.”
Some would say they’re also playing in it because they’re no longer shackled by the unimaginative offenses that Fisher had long overseen.
Below is a closer look at each of their brief careers with the Rams.
The numbers: He started 11 games in his only season with the Rams, completing 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,052 yards, seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 69.0 passer rating, still the lowest of his career. The Rams went 4-7 under Foles.
The circumstances: The Bradford-for-Foles trade, which also gave the Rams a future second-round pick, was a quintessential change-of-scenery swap. Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, had missed the entirety of the prior season because of a torn ACL. Foles had gone from a breakout star in 2013 to a major concern in 2014 after breaking his collarbone midway through the season. The Rams were nonetheless hopeful that Foles could lock down the position for the immediate future, so much so that they gave him a two-year, $24.5 million extension before he even played a game. It soon looked like a mistake. Nine games in, Foles was benched in favor of Keenum. The following spring, the Rams moved up 14 spots to draft Goff No. 1 overall. Foles asked for his release and got it on July 27, 2016.
The blame: In a video for a spiritual series on YouVersion in September, Foles made a revelation. “After my time with a certain NFL team,” he said, “I wanted to retire. This was a year ago. I wanted to retire from the NFL, and I really struggled. I couldn’t pick up a football for about eight months. I had no love for the game.” It’s easy to see this came after his lone season with the Rams, while in an offense reliant on gadget plays with Tavon Austin, long runs by Todd Gurley and nothing else. Fisher’s downfall was in not empowering innovative offensive minds, and this season was a prime example. He employed two rookie offensive coordinators who never figured it out — former quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti Jr. and, after his firing, former tight ends coach Rob Boras.
The numbers: In 16 games (14 starts), Keenum completed 60.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,029 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He absorbed 27 sacks in that stretch, but somehow went 7-7 as a starter.
The circumstances: Keenum went back-and-forth with the Texans and Rams before finally settling in as Foles’ backup heading into the 2015 season. He took over as the starter in Week 11, missed a couple of games because of a concussion, then led the Rams to three wins in the final quarter of 2015 and three wins in the first quarter of 2016. Yes, for an eight-game stretch, Keenum was 6-2 as the Rams’ starting quarterback. Amazing. That, however, was as good as it got. Keenum followed a 3-1 start in 2016 with four consecutive losses, all by a total of 24 points. He guided the Rams to a monotonous 9-6 win against the New York Jets on Nov. 13, but Fisher had made up his mind before the game that Goff would finally start the following week. Keenum’s time was finished. He remained a captain for the rest of the season, but both sides quickly realized it was time to move on.
The blame: Goff’s struggles through seven rookie starts — 54.6 completion percentage, 4.3 yards per attempt, 18.3 Total QBR — are proof that no quarterback stood a chance for the 2016 Rams, who finished dead last in every major offensive category. The offensive line was bad, the playcalling was suspect and the receiving corps was underwhelming. Even Gurley looked lost. Keenum didn’t thrive, but to his credit, he actually gave the Rams a chance to win many of the games they lost. Now he is in a Pat Shurmur-led Vikings offense that does a far better job of utilizing his athleticism. “We have what we do well, but we can pick and pull and draw from a lot of different things and mix it up,” Keenum told Rams reporters earlier this season. Throwing to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen doesn’t hurt, either.