Carson Wentz is a leader by virtue of the position he plays. Quarterbacks technically are in charge of the offense. They call the plays. They distribute the ball. They get the lion’s share of the credit for the wins and the lion’s share of the blame for the losses.
“That role kind of evolves over the course of your career,” Wentz said recently. “As a quarterback, you’re always thrust into leadership. But I think the vocal side of that leadership role comes with time.
“I’m going into my fifth year, which still seems crazy to say that I’ve been playing that long. So, I definitely feel like a veteran now. Those [leadership] things come with age and experience. Plus, you lose people like Malcolm [Jenkins], who was a big voice for our team.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are passionate and able to articulate. I look forward to being one of those guys as well.”
A couple of weeks ago, Wentz found himself faced with his most critical leadership test since the Eagles selected him with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. This test had nothing to do with football.
Yet another white cop had shot an unarmed Black man, putting seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
Anger and frustration boiled over in the Black community. Professional sports were no exception. Player boycotts prompted the cancellation of games in the NBA, WNBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer. Nearly a dozen NFL teams canceled practices.
In locker rooms around the league, including the one at One NovaCare Way, players met and had frank, often emotional discussions about systemic racism and the shooting of Blake and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and what it’s like to be a Black person in America.
Wentz, of course, has no idea what it’s like. He grew up in lily-white North Dakota, where, according to U.S. Census figures, just 3.4% of the population is Black.
But he now is the franchise quarterback for an NFL team that is 72% Black. If he is going to lead this team, it was important that he convince them that he feels their pain and is fully invested in the battle for social justice.
A lot of learning
Wentz didn’t pull a Drew Brees. He’s not tone deaf to the cries of the Black community. He has said and done all the right things.
“A lot of learning,” Wentz said. “And a lot of conviction in my heart. It’s something that’s kind of new. It’s something that [in the past] I chose to overlook and look past.”
Safety Rodney McLeod, who is Black, said he had a very positive conversation with Wentz and tight end Zach Ertz shortly after the Blake shooting about “understanding our side a lot better.” He believes they do.
“We’re creating dialogue within our own locker room and that’s what you want to see,” McLeod said. “A willingness to listen, then educating themselves so they can go out and try to help the next person change the mindset of a lot of [other] non-African American individuals that just don’t know. I think that’s what we’re seeing, and it’s important that we continue to see that type of dialogue with our peers.”
It was no coincidence that on the day the Eagles made three players available to speak with the media about the players’ reaction to the Blake shooting late last month, Wentz was one of them, along with McLeod and cornerback Jalen Mills. The organization clearly wanted to show that its quarterback, and by extension, the other white players on the team, were supportive of their Black teammates.
In discussing Wentz’s development as a team leader, head coach Doug Pederson made sure to mention that Wentz has “embraced this opportunity with social injustice, with bridging the gap between himself and his Black teammates.” Pederson said that is “part of being a leader, and he’s really done an outstanding job there.”
Wentz’s first four NFL seasons were not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.
There were injuries. The torn ACL late in the 2017 season that crushed his league MVP chances and forced him to be a spectator for the Eagles’ magic carpet ride to the Super Bowl. The broken bone in his back in 2018 that kept him out of the playoffs again. The damning PhillyVoice article about him in January 2019 that featured critical comments from anonymous teammates, including some who called him selfish. The report last October from ESPN in which another anonymous player, believed to be wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, criticized Wentz’s play and decision-making.
The Eagles locker room is no different from any other sports locker room. It’s rare to find a player who is universally loved.
Wentz is no exception. There no doubt are teammates who don’t care for the whole God Squad thing. There no doubt are teammates who think he sometimes favors Ertz, whose 291 targets over the last two seasons are the fifth-highest total in the league, a little too much.
Winning the room
But this much is clear. As he enters Year 5 with the Eagles, the 27-year-old quarterback has the respect of the room. They believe in him.
“I’ve been thoroughly impressed with Carson,” Pederson said. “He’s the leader of our football team. He’s coaching up the young players, which is great to see. He’s working well with DeSean [Jackson] and Greg Ward and J.J. [Arcega-Whiteside] and getting a really good rapport with them.
“Carson has really taken ownership in this pandemic and where we are as a football team. I’m really excited with where he is now as the leader of our team and excited for this upcoming season with him.”
Only six players on the team have been with the Eagles longer than Wentz — Ertz, center Jason Kelce, left tackle Jason Peters, right tackle Lane Johnson, defensive end Brandon Graham, and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Two others — Mills and McLeod — arrived the same year as Wentz.
He’s never been a shrinking violet, but with seniority comes more of a willingness to speak out.
“You definitely can see him speaking up a lot more,” Graham said. “Even though he spoke up [before], you can just tell he’s more confident. He’s coming off an offseason with no injuries or anything like that, which I think has helped.
“You see that vocally, he’s definitely somebody who’s just, I mean, you know he’s the head of the team. I mean, Doug and those guys [the coaches], they’re obviously the leaders. But as far as the people playing, you can see that Carson is embracing being the leader of this team.”
Pederson said he’s been impressed with the time Wentz has spent mentoring younger players like the three rookie wide receivers — Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins — and slot receiver Ward.
Wentz and Ward, a former college quarterback, quickly developed chemistry late last season after Ward was promoted from the practice squad. He caught 28 passes in the Eagles’ final six games.
“The way he leads, the way he has composure, I just think he has steadily grown,” said Ward. “He’s always helping me. We’re always talking about routes. He’s always trying to make sure we’re all on the same page. He’s just very impressive to me. The way he bounces back from good or bad plays, he’s always the same.”
Said Pederson: “I see him at practice wrapping his arm around some of the younger players and talking to them about football and probably other things. I’m not in those conversations, but I do see him talking to those young players, and that’s so encouraging to me, to have the leader of your football team going into his fifth year and embracing that.”
Wentz is in a better place this summer than he’s been in a while. He didn’t have to spend the offseason recovering from a major injury. He feels good about his body after adding weight — he’s up to 250 — and strength.
Most important, in late April, his wife, Madison, gave birth to their first child, a girl, Hadley Jayne.
The Eagles are hoping that Reagor, Hightower, and Watkins can grow and prosper alongside Wentz.
Mentoring young receivers
“He’s got another set of skill guys around him, a young group of guys,” Pederson said. “What I’ve seen, what we’ve talked about a lot, is his leadership with those guys. Kind of carrying over what he did last year with those young players and how he can kind of shape and mold [them].
“They are asking him questions when they’re in there with him, and that’s something that Carson has embraced. For Carson, it’s just a matter of running the show, running the offense, running the team.
“He’s going into his fifth year. He knows how to play this game. He plays it just like a professional. He’s learned a lot from the things he’s dealt with. He’s aggressive, and we have to maintain that aggressiveness.”
Kelce, who obviously spends a lot of time with Wentz, said he doesn’t really think the quarterback has changed all that much since he was a rookie in 2016.
“The energy he has every single day, the drive and the spirit to win each and every drill no matter what, that hasn’t changed,” he said. “Guys either have that drive or they don’t. It’s very hard to teach someone to want to be successful. Carson has it.
“Outside of that, obviously he has more experience, more years under his belt. And that only is going to make him more comfortable as a leader and give his voice more power in the huddle to the older guys.
“But Carson has been great in that regard for a while now. I think you saw it from the moment he stepped on the field against the Browns in the first game of his rookie year. You saw a different kind of energy, and he’s carried that through into today. He’s a guy that’s very driven, that only accepts the best from his teammates.”