Carson Wentz to face biggest challenge yet; Eagles QB has come so far already
Wentz will play in his first do-or-die game Sunday against Dallas after enduring a set of circumstances unlike any in the NFL.
On the eve before a game, after the final team gathering, after the final walkthrough, after a week of practices, meetings and game planning, Carson Wentz will hang back with Eagles teammates Jason Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Josh McCown for a weekly bull session.
There may be an additional player or two, but the foursome makes up the core of a Saturday night ritual. The discussion may start off as game-related but will often veer into other non-football topics.
For each individual, it is a time for unwinding and fellowship, but more so for Wentz. The hectic NFL work week and all it entails effects no player more than the starting quarterback. But the same holds true in the eye of the hurricane, the hour or so of calm when the group can forget their place and bond.
“As a quarterback, preparations are so intense because you’re saddled with so much that to be able sit and kind of really connect with teammates is hard,” said McCown, Wentz’s backup. “You’re just so busy. It’s kind of like the game plan’s in, you’ve done every walkthrough, let’s just sit and talk and hang out.
“It’s a way to kind of become human again, and I think part and parcel to going out and playing well is remembering we’re in this thing together.”
The confab is just one of the many informal exchanges Wentz will have with teammates over the course of a week. He’s always made the effort to socialize off the field, but this year has felt different, several Eagles said.
Wentz has spoken openly about wanting to improve relationships since last season. There were myriad examples of him extending himself this offseason. Much of the focus was placed on his rapport with the Eagles’ top three receivers – Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor.
But injuries and other circumstances had, in some ways, prevented the intended result. All three receivers fell well short of expectations. All three won’t be on the field Sunday when the Eagles host the Cowboys.
Wentz has soldiered on, but turmoil at the position has clearly affected his performance. Somehow, he has willed the Eagles to dramatic comeback victories the last two weeks. A cynic might suggest that having receivers with low expectations – both externally and in terms of targets – might have liberated the quarterback.
But Wentz hasn’t neglected bottom roster players in his dealings. If the objective of strengthening acquaintances is true, then the successes Wentz has had with younger skill positions players, particularly receiver Greg Ward, can be attributed to their camaraderie.
“You could say … the fruits of that labor are coming to fruition here,” Wentz said Wednesday. “At the same time, that’s how it should be. I should never change and that should always be my mindset to just really get to know both sides of the ball, get to know your teammates.”
The Eagles have rallied behind similar underdog themes before. For the two previous seasons, a December injury to Wentz would force backup Nick Foles into the lineup. But while the 2017 team needed time to adjust to the change, the 2018 one was rejuvenated by the switch.
All three teams are different, and thus apples to oranges in some respects, but the comparisons between the quarterbacks are apt with Wentz set to face the first win-or-die game of his career. Few would argue the right decision was made in keeping him over Foles.
And Wentz’s heroics the last two weeks suggest that he is making inroads with those who still cling to Foles’ Super Bowl victory. But a win over the Cowboys that would vault the Eagles into the NFC East lead would take that premise one step further. In the locker room, at least according to some, Wentz has proven enough.
“To go through so much, so young, to be the face of the franchise, to get the franchise QB money, but then on the other side, people saying, ‘Well, Foles really won the Super Bowl, maybe this guy gets hurt a lot,” Eagles guard Brandon Brooks said, “I’m happy to see him prove everybody [bleeping] wrong. Have a healthy season. Go out there and ball out.
“People want to say X, Y, Z. What about this? What about that? Man, look at what he’s doing with what he has out there [at receiver], and he’s doing that [bleep] every [bleeping] Sunday.”
Truth and chemistry
But some of that criticism has seemingly come from inside. Anonymously sourced reports late last season and early in the offseason had Eagles questioning Wentz on the field and off. And then in October, an ESPN report with anonymous quotes that again criticized Wentz, along with the offensive play-calling and the front office, surfaced.
“You got all these [bull] reports coming from within the locker room about him not doing this, that, or the other,” Brooks said, “yet we’re still sitting in the same room as these [jerks] who have nothing to say when it’s [bleeping] brought up.”
The Eagles addressed the report in a team meeting that occurred just after a 37-10 loss at the Cowboys on Oct. 20.
“We talked one time and just said, ‘Look, we don’t do anonymous stuff. If you’re going to say something, be a man and say it. We can disagree, whatever, but if you’re not going to stand behind what you’re saying, then just be quiet,’” safety and captain Malcolm Jenkins said. “And we haven’t had any issues since.”
Jeffery has since been cited by a WIP-94.1 reporter, who also happens to be the Eagles’ sideline reporter, as the source behind the anonymous quotes. He had previously denied any connection to the comments. But some players remain dubious about his involvement.
Wentz downplayed the distraction at the time, and consecutive wins over the Bills and the Bears the following two weeks seemed to quell any internal turmoil. The quarterback has never been the most vocal of leaders, but he gave an impassioned speech in the visitors’ locker room after the Cowboys loss and has adopted the role of mentor to the young skill position replacements.
“He’s definitely starting to get out of his skin,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “He needs to right now. He’s got to instill some confidence in these young guys. When you’re younger you need somebody to build you up, be like, ‘Hey, you can do this. See this play, this is you, this is what you can do in this league.’”
This past week, the Eagles released video of a mic’d-up Wentz during Sunday’s win over the Redskins. Before kickoff, he walked up to receiver Rob Davis, who had just been promoted off the practice squad and said, “Remember to breathe. You’re made for this moment. You’re here for a reason.”
Wentz is a fountain of positivity, according to rookie receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. When they fail to hook up on a pass, they have dialogue on the sideline. In the Seahawks game last month, for instance, Arcega-Whiteside said that he caught a late 30-yard grab because Wentz had told him to be ready in the Cover 2 “honey hole" downfield.
“It’s not him telling me what to do,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “It’s, ‘Hey, what were you thinking there?’ or ‘Sorry, I could have done this.’ or ‘I thought you could have done that. What do you think?’”
Ward has been around since 2017. He’s been on or off the roster or practice squad 16 times. But Wentz has often treated the former undrafted quarterback like he would any starter. He included Ward in the group of skill position players he flew down to Houston for summer workouts. And just recently invited him, along with others, to a 76ers game.
“You’re building that trust and chemistry,” Ward said. “I’ll pick his brain to see what he’s thinking, and he’ll do the same with me, but we’re not just talking ball.”
Did their game-winning hook-up in Washington have any correlation to their relationship off the field? It’s impossible to say for certain. But both said it did.
Wentz is now more experienced than most of the Eagles’ skill position players. Only Ertz has played more. While experience may not always factor into being an effective leader, Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said it can matter at the quarterback position.
“I feel like he’s been letting it come to him when it’s his time,” Graham said. “Nick was a little more seasoned because he had been in the league longer. We trusted both quarterbacks, but they were both different. It came to Nick a lot better because he had more experience.
“But then he was able to do certain things [in the playoffs] that Carson wasn’t at that point. But [Wentz] definitely got us to the point where we were. Who knows what might have happened if he don’t get hurt?”
All on himself
Circumstance prevented Wentz from playing deep into the last two seasons. He called his season-ending injuries “fluky for the most part,” but he understood that there were steps he could take to lower the odds of further injury.
He changed his diet and training regimen in the offseason and has done a better job of protecting himself in the open field. The “wow” plays are still there – like the on-the-run dart he tossed to running back Miles Sanders in Washington – but he’s sliding and running out of bounds more often.
“It’s toeing the fine line of being aggressive,” Wentz said, “and counting your losses sometimes.”
If anything, Wentz’s aggressiveness has caused him to either hold the ball longer in the pocket, or hold it carelessly. He has lost 7 of 14 fumbles, not all of which were on the quarterback, but a turnover late against the Redskins was primarily his fault.
“Hey, that’s on me,” the mic’d-up Wentz said as the Eagles defense took the field. “I got you, boys. My bad.”
Jenkins said quarterback accountability goes a long way on both sides of the ball.
“Bad body language, guys sulking or pointing fingers, when you go on as a defense and you see that from your offense, it’s a little frustrating,” Jenkins said. “But when you know they got good body language, they’re poised, it feels better to have their back knowing that you think they’re going to get it corrected, and vice versa.”
The Eagles defense held and forced a field goal, and Wentz and the offense responded with the game-winning drive. The quarterback’s poise in the last two games, according to Jenkins, says as much about his growth as a leader as anything.
“I think at this point in the year he’s trusting guys more to make plays. I don’t think he’s trying to take it all on himself,” Jenkins said. “And I think he’s doing a better job of trying to keep the team confident and calm in these clutch situations, which I think has helped the team, especially with the young guys he’s playing with.”
For the Type-A Wentz, ceding control has never been easy. He tends to overthink, which is why he’s among the group that gathers in the cafeteria at the NovaCare Complex for home games or in the meal room on the road after “Saturday night snack.”
“All us are cerebral by nature,” Kelce said. “We tend to analyze things and overthink things and discuss things like that. It could literally have nothing to do with the game. It can just be about life in general ... politics, religion.”
Kelce’s the most boisterous, per Ertz. McCown’s the wise old sage. Ertz will interject here and there. And Wentz, while not passive, will often just listen. His time will come. He’s got games to win first, the most important of his young career Sunday.
“I’m excited about it,” Wentz said. “The last couple years didn’t end the way I wanted to personally, obviously being hurt and everything. So I’m excited to just be playing here in December with what’s at stake.”