Eagles' Wentz at yet another crossroads in his career
PHILADELPHIA – It seems like every season Carson Wentz is faced with some sort of crossroads.
This season is no different, even though Wentz seems secure as the Eagles' franchise quarterback. He is one year removed from signing a contract extension worth as much as $128 million through the 2024 season, and he finally quieted critics who said he was injury prone by playing in every regular-season game last season.
That is, until Wentz suffered a concussion in the first quarter of the Eagles' playoff game last January, reigniting those criticisms.
There are so many more contradictions as Wentz begins his fifth season as the Eagles' quarterback on Sunday against Washington.
Eagles president and CEO Jeffrey Lurie, general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Doug Pederson have been steadfast in their commitment to Wentz as the franchise quarterback.
Yet the Eagles also drafted quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round in April, an unusual move with a franchise quarterback in Wentz, who's 27 and entering the prime of his career.
That hasn't stopped Wentz, who has been a leader on the field and off the field, especially in racial justice issues – a topic he had stayed away from in the past.
"You can definitely see that he's speaking up a lot more," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "You can tell that he's more confident ... You know who's the head of the team."
But it's also clear that the Eagles' patience with Wentz isn't interminable. They could move on to Hurts or someone else, as soon as the 2022 season based on salary cap implications, if Wentz can't stay healthy or his performance doesn't meet their expectations.
And really, Wentz's situation is a microcosm of the Eagles' fortunes overall. They are one of only four NFL teams to reach the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. But after winning the Super Bowl in 2017, the Eagles have gone 9-7 in each of the last two and have won just one playoff game.
Then again, Wentz put together perhaps his best four-game stretch since 2017 over the final four games last season, leading the Eagles to wins in each and a playoff berth.
And then he got hurt, again.
So, yes, Wentz has been through a lot since he was a wide-eyed rookie in 2016, finding out just eight days before the start of the season – while hunting, no less – that he was going from third string to starting when Sam Bradford was traded to Minnesota.
"It’s been a whirlwind; it’s been something new every year what you’re learning about yourself," Wentz said. "It’s been a lot of highs and lows for me both on the field but also injuries and all those things, a lot of life changes as well, getting married, having a daughter."
The Eagles have grown with Wentz, too.
'What's my voice?'
Josh McCown, who was Wentz's backup last season, saw Wentz emerge as a leader late last season, when the Eagles were 5-7 after a desultory 37-31 loss to Miami, their playoff hopes on life support.
Wentz led the Eagles to four straight wins, all without their top three receivers in DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, who were injured.
McCown, who's 41, was signed to the Eagles' practice squad on Sunday, in part to serve as a mentor for Wentz. McCown is staying in Texas, working out on his own in case an Eagles' quarterback gets hurt or is diagnosed with COVID-19.
"When you’re a young player, you’re trying to (figure out) ‘What’s my style? What’s my voice?'" McCown said. "Sometimes you don’t know. I guess, for me last year, my role was to affirm him in those areas.
"To his credit, he’s receptive, always wanting to learn and grow and get better. And I think his play down the stretch has reflected that."
After Floyd's slaying, Wentz issued a powerful statement that resonated with his Black teammates. And he was one of three players to speak two weeks ago when the Eagles met to discuss Blake's shooting.
"Guys like Carson and (tight end Zach Ertz) are now speaking up and trying to understand our side a lot better," safety Rodney McLeod said. "We're creating this dialog within our own locker room, and that's a good thing. That's what you want to see – a willingness to listen."
The Eagles are becoming Wentz's team, especially with the offseason departure of vocal leader Malcolm Jenkins. And the team has done everything to put him in a position to succeed.
They drafted three wide receivers, all known for their speed, including first-round pick Jalen Reagor and fifth-round pick John Hightower. They also have perhaps the most feared speed receiver in the NFL in DeSean Jackson, who's coming back healthy after playing in just one full game last season.
Wentz also has one of the top tight end tandems in the NFL in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, along with running back Miles Sanders, who led NFL rookies last season in scrimmage yards.
"(Wentz) is a Pro Bowl player, and he's not going anywhere," Roseman said.
But you might have noticed that the Eagles, after winning the Super Bowl in 2017, haven't come close to a return.
You also might have noticed that the Eagles are trying to turn over a veteran-laden roster that over the past two seasons was breaking down with injuries while straining the salary cap.
These moves can be seen one of two ways: That the Eagles firmly believe that Wentz will excel with a better cast around him; or that they'll have to make the best of Wentz's contract for the next two seasons, when he counts a combined $53 million against the salary cap, before turning the team over to Hurts.
Wentz said he welcomes the challenge of having Hurts on the team, just as much as he welcomed the additions at wide receiver.
"If I were to start questioning Howie and management now, I’d really be questioning myself," Wentz said during the spring. "When I signed the deal that I did, it was really my way of showing that I trust and believe in what we’re doing in Philly, and they trust and believe in me. I have nothing but confidence."
Still, there are more signs of potential turbulence for Wentz.
The Eagles revamped the offensive coaching staff, and, to some extent, the philosophy, to borrow more from the collegiate game. That could mean the desire for a quarterback more mobile than Wentz, although he is hardly statuesque.
Sure, it will take time for Hurts to learn the offense, and to get used to the NFL, a process that has been delayed due to the pandemic that canceled all four of the preseason games.
But Wentz has to adapt as well. Wide receiver Greg Ward, for one, has seen that.
"He’s a student of the game. He’s very athletic," Ward said. "The way he leads, the way he has composure ... We’re always talking about routes. He always tries to make sure we’re all on the same page. That’s very big. He’s just very impressive to me, the way he always comes back from good or bad plays."
Built for speed
The Eagles' goal was to get faster back in March 2019 when they traded for Jackson. And for one game, the season opener against Washington, the plan worked to perfection. Jackson caught touchdown passes of 53 and 51 yards from Wentz in the Eagles' 32-27 win over Washington.
But Jackson was injured in the first quarter the following week, and played just one more quarter the rest of the season.
The lack of speed after Jackson's injury was apparent. The Eagles never had another wide receiver catch a pass that long. And they were the only NFL team without a wide receiver gaining 500 receiving yards.
That made Wentz's accomplishments over the final four games all the more remarkable. During that span, Wentz completed 67.6 percent of his passes, with seven touchdown passes without an interception, and a passer rating of 100.8.
Wentz became the first quarterback in team history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. He did this with Ward as his leading wide receiver over those four games. Ward spent parts of three seasons on the Eagles' practice squad before finally getting his chance late last season.
The Eagles often had to drive the length of the field in time-consuming drives. That won't necessarily be the case this season.
"I’m excited for that potential," Wentz said about a quick strike. "Obviously, having DeSean back healthy, Hightower has done some great things, Reagor has had a great camp. We all know what Miles can bring to the game. So we do have the ability to be explosive. We have the guys to do it. I think we have the scheme to do it as well.
Then he added this: "Obviously, we have to go out and execute it."
And that's where the potential for turbulence comes in. Wentz is firmly entrenched as the franchise quarterback. But he knows that won't last forever.
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.