SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Carson Wentz could relax. Alex Singleton had just expanded the Eagles lead with a 30-yard pick six, and the quarterback raised his arms in a triumphant “V.”
He had already led his team from behind. And while the Eagles needed to cross some final “T”s and dot some final “I”s to hold on for a 25-20 win at the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night, they wouldn’t need late-game heroics from their quarterback. Wentz could pace the sideline in the final seconds as if an anvil had been lifted from his shoulders.
It was by no means a victory to write home about, but if the Eagles are to turn their season around, this trip to fiery California could be the impetus. They’re still with a losing 1-2-1 record, but they are alone atop the woeful NFC East and will likely have months to fully right the ship — if they can.
Wentz, of course, will be the key to such a reversal of fortune. Sunday was a positive start. He wasn’t great. He wasn’t even good. But he was good enough and considering how poorly he played in the first three games, and all the Eagles’ injuries, it was much needed.
“You can’t really make it up, the injuries and the situations we’ve been put in,” Wentz said of the Eagles' eight missing offensive starters and their replacements. “But that’s the hand we’re dealt, and guys have been ready. They’ve been working their tail off for their moment when it comes."
Wentz made the best of Sunday’s prime time moment. He completed 18-of-28 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown, his only significant blemish an early tipped interception. He also rushed seven times for 37 yards and a score. But the numbers tell only a small fraction of Wentz’s night.
“He played inspired,” Pederson said. “He led the football team tonight for the win. Quite frankly, it might not have been perfect, [but] he gutted out several plays tonight.”
That he did so with four-fifths of his starting line out for much of the game, along with five skill position players only added to Wentz’s performance. It hearkened back to late last season when a rash of injuries forced Doug Pederson to simplify the offense and for Wentz to stop trying to carry the team.
What he ended up doing, in fact, was strap the team on his back and will it into the postseason. It felt natural and it was only a short while ago, which made this season’s early regression all the more surprising.
“As far as my preparation, I didn’t overthink anything,” Wentz said about his mentality heading into Sunday’s game without key starters. “Guys are there and they’re going to make the play. Trust them. Guys did a good job all week of coming together and building this thing together.”
Accuracy was still at times an issue Sunday. Wentz missed open wide receiver Greg Ward when he threw off-platform on the Eagles' go-ahead drive. But a few plays later, he tossed a fourth-and-four dart to receiver John Hightower on a slant. And after a couple of ill-advised play calls in the backfield that led to losses, Wentz dropped a tear into recently-promoted-off-the-practice-squad receiver Travis Fulgham’s bucket for a 42-yard touchdown.
“We rep’d that play once [in practice]," Wentz said. “It’s just cool. We broke the huddle and I told him to be ready. I’ve seen him with this team for awhile going up against our defense on scout team, what he does to our defense.”
The Eagles, somehow, retook the lead, 18-14, and Wentz was leading the way again with a cast of unknowns.
He still holds the ball too long, and it may eventually lead to another injury. But that’s just who he is, and to try and change him at this point just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. If he wants to play into his late 30s, he will need to adjust.
But he’s only 27 and still athletic enough to create positive plays with his agility and mobility. Wentz was at his best in 2017 with so many highlight reel moments coming when he threw caution to the wind.
Is it sustainable? Probably not. The Eagles know as much. They likely wouldn’t have drafted Jalen Hurts had Wentz not ended his last three seasons with injuries. But Wentz isn’t going anywhere, at least for the next two seasons, and Pederson and company need to find some way to get him back on track.
They did a better job Sunday with a game plan that emphasized long, clock-churning drives, and that allowed Wentz to flash his mobility.
Wentz had a few loose throws in the early going. He got a bit unlucky on the interception. The Eagles were in 49ers' territory on their second possession. Wentz was under pressure and evaded a rusher, but his throw was tipped by defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair made a diving catch for the pick.
Maybe the quarterback could be faulted for trying to extend a play on first down, but Wentz is often at his best when he is scrambling. He’s been less reluctant to run the last two weeks, and considering his passing struggles, it’s been necessary.
On the Eagles' first score, Wentz kept on a zone read and converted third and two. And three plays later, he again made the correct read and darted into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.
“I don’t go into a game thinking it’s time to scramble,” Wentz said. “The pocket sometimes breaks down. [The 49ers] do a good job in coverage and sometimes they cover us up. Got to make a play. So that’s something really the last two weeks [where] I’m feeling good.”
The Eagles failed to add more points before the half, but Wentz was hardly at fault. Midway through the second quarter, they faced third-and-one on the 49ers' 47. Wentz appeared to go heavy on the hard count, but there was no excuse for left tackle Jordan Mailata’s false start.
On the next play, defensive end Arik Armstead beat right tackle Jack Driscoll and Wentz, backtracking all the way to his own 30-yard line, had no choice but to toss the ball away.
His best moments continue to come when he’s on the move. Pederson did a better job of dialing up plays to take advantage of this ability, but it wasn’t enough considering the tumult on the offensive line.
And you never want a quarterback under a constant state of duress, but Wentz’s movements and throwing motions seemingly are more deliberate when he doesn’t have time to think as he often does when he’s standing upright and untouched in the pocket.
“I love being on the move, extending plays, making things happen,” Wentz said. “It puts a lot of stress on the defense. Obviously, I got to be smart and know when to take my chances or know when to throw the ball away. … But there’s a lot of big plays to be had when you escape the pocket.”
On one such play late in the first half, he sidestepped a defender, rolled to his right, and fired a strike to receiver John Hightower for 13 yards. It was vintage Wentz. But the drive essentially stalled when center Jason Kelce airmailed a shotgun snap over the quarterback’s head for a 17-yards loss.
Wentz didn’t exactly win the Eagles the game, but he didn’t lose it, and that’s what is most important. He played to his strengths and while the long-term implications are fraught with peril, the short term required any means necessary.