Jeff Fisher has enjoyed watching success of his former QBs, the Vikings’ Keenum and the Eagles’ Foles
The viewing location has yet to be determined, but Jeff Fisher plans to be in front of a television for Sunday’s NFC championship game.
Case Keenum is the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, Nick Foles for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Both played for Fisher with the St. Louis Rams in 2015, and Keenum came west with the team in 2016.
Now the two friends are squaring off for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl.
“Couldn’t be happier for both of them,” Fisher said during a phone interview.
Foles was released by the Rams before the 2016 season, a few months after the relocated-to-Los Angeles franchise selected quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Foles played for the Kansas City Chiefs last season and then signed with the Eagles to be Carson Wentz’s backup.
After Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Rams last month at the Coliseum, Foles stepped in and led the Eagles to victory. He also directed two more wins, and last weekend’s divisional-round playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Keenum, supplanted by Goff as the starter in Week 11 of the 2016 season, signed with the Vikings to back up Sam Bradford while Teddy Bridgewater recovered from a knee injury.
Bradford suffered a knee injury in the season opener, and Keenum went 1-2 the next three games. He came in for Bradford in Week 5 against the Chicago Bears, the first of eight consecutive wins en route to a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seeding in the NFC playoffs behind the Eagles.
“Just shows you how important experience is at the position,” Fisher said of the quarterbacks’ success.
Foles, 28, and Keenum, 29, both started for the Rams during their final season in St. Louis. The Rams featured the NFL’s least productive offense, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season.
Foles, who enjoyed a Pro Bowl season with the Eagles in 2013 before struggling in 2014, was acquired in a trade for Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 who had suffered two major knee injuries.
“When Sam was hurt in consecutive years in ’13 and ’14 … we just couldn’t as an organization run the risk of relying on somebody, even as talented as Sam was, with the injury,” Fisher said. “At that time we decided that we would probably have to go a different direction.”
Keenum, an undrafted free agent, was on the Rams’ practice squad in 2014 before the Houston Texans signed him near the end of the season. He rejoined the Rams via a trade on the same day the team traded for Foles.
“[Texans general manager] Rick Smith calls and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to sign Case off your practice squad,’” Fisher said. “Well good. Good for Case.
“But they said at the time they would get him back to us. You just don’t get to give a guy on the active roster back to you, so we knew there was going to be a trade involved. So we actually traded for Case [for a future seventh-round draft pick] prior to agreeing to terms with Nick.”
The quarterbacks bonded as teammates on and off the field.
“Nick’s a great guy, one of my best friends,” Keenum told reporters this week, adding, “Prepares well, extremely talented, big arm. He’s really, really athletic too.
“So I know he’s got a lot of confidence, and I’m looking forward to playing against him.”
Foles said it was “pretty wild” that he and Keenum are meeting in the NFC title game.
“Case’s success and the way he plays doesn’t surprise me because him and I were together, and we prepared together, we were around each other every day,” Foles told reporters. “But I think the big message there is no matter what happens, you’ve just got to keep believing in yourself, keep working hard and just never give up.”
Fisher said the two quarterbacks share a strong work ethic. Both also “fit” the personality coaches want at the position.
“They’re legitimate leaders, they’re enthusiastic, they’re passionate about practice and they’re both great in the huddle,” he said.
But the 6-foot-1 Keenum and the 6-6 Foles are different.
“Case is a little short, probably less than ideal from a height standpoint for the position, but he makes up for it with instincts and his ability to just slide in the pocket,” Fisher said. “His pre-snap — the information he gathers prior to the snap — is extraordinary, so he knows where to move to get the ball out on time and when things break down he can make those throws.
“Nick, on the other hand, can see very well. And he’s going to cut the ball loose. Nick’s going to throw fewer contested balls, where Case is going to just put the ball up where he thinks the receiver, and no one else, can get it.”
Both quarterbacks are unflappable, Fisher said.
“That’s the one thing about both of them: you can’t rattle either one of them,” he said. “They understand that mistakes are going to get made. They both understand the position is very, very hard to play.
“But they have short memories and I think that’s a great quality for a quarterback.”
Fisher has been criticized on social media and elsewhere because of the success that Keenum and Foles are enjoying now that they are no longer under his watch — and out of an offensive system that ranked as the NFL’s worst in 2015 and 2016.
Before the 2015 season, Fisher promoted quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti to offensive coordinator. Cignetti was fired after 12 games and replaced by tight ends coach Rob Boras, who also had never been an NFL offensive coordinator. Boras was promoted to the full-time job for the 2016 season.
“Everybody has their opinions,” Fisher said of the criticism, noting that Foles was 3-0 against NFC West opponents in the first half of the season and Keenum was a combined 6-2 at the end of the 2015 season and beginning of 2016. “We didn’t have the talent around us that both of those guys have now.
“That’s fact, that’s not opinion, that’s fact. Look at the numbers and see who they were throwing to back then compared to their targets now. I mean did we have an [Eagles receiver] Alshon Jeffery? That’s no disrespect to the players that we had, but that makes a difference.
“We lacked experience at the coordinator position, which I take responsibility for. People are entitled to their opinion but look at the facts. They won some games.”
Keenum and Foles aren’t the only personalities involved in Sunday’s game who can claim a connection to Fisher.
Fisher hired Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz when he coached the Tennessee Titans, and Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long and safety Rodney McLeod played four seasons in St. Louis under Fisher.
“It’s fun to watch those guys have success,” Fisher said.
When the Rams played the Titans last month at Nashville, Fisher told The Times that he wanted to return to coaching in the NFL. Several coaches have been replaced since the end of the season and several openings are still to be filled.
Asked if he has received any interest from teams, Fisher said, “There’s been some interest, and I’ve had some conversations.”
Fisher reiterated that he has “no regrets” about his five seasons with the Rams and that he was happy for their success under first-year coach Sean McVay, who guided the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 2004.
“I enjoyed my time and enjoyed the experience,” he said. “I was just really, really happy for the new coaching staff and the players that were there when I was there, and happy for their success.”
On Sunday, Fisher will see whether Keenum or Foles will continue their season.
“I’m really looking forward to watching this game,” he said, “the challenge that both of them face.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
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