Carson Wentz has fought pain and time. He spent much of the past 14 months recovering from two injuries that halted his second and third NFL seasons. He watched Nick Foles lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl, then again lead them to the playoffs.
This has tested Wentz in a way that he couldn’t have imagined when he first arrived in Philadelphia as the franchise’s savior, and it has challenged his exacting personality in a way that left him conflicted while his team achieved such success without him. The Eagles are committed to Wentz as their franchise quarterback, but they need him to rebound after a year that challenged his health and mind.
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“It hasn’t been the easiest last year for me on the physical level, just battling the injuries, but then just personally going through it, sitting on the sideline and then playing and then sitting on the sideline again,” Wentz said in a wide-ranging interview. “So I realize I maybe wasn’t the greatest teammate at times because I was emotionally kind of all over the place. To the outside world, I probably didn’t show it much. But internally, you’re definitely fighting some sort of emotions. … So there’s things to learn just about how to handle myself in certain situations.”
How this could be interpreted has never been more relevant than in the past two weeks. Wentz finished eating breakfast with his wife on the morning of Jan. 21 and prepared for quiet time reading the Bible when he received a text message about a story that cast him as the problem with the Eagles’ 2018 campaign, labeling Wentz as “selfish” and “uncompromising.”
In his first public comments since that report, Wentz disputed specific examples that were cited by PhillyVoice.com and denied that he was the cause of friction on the team. However, Wentz did not refute certain characterizations from the story.
“I know who I am, first of all,” Wentz said. “I know how I carry myself, I know I’m not perfect, I know I have flaws. So I’m not going to sit here and say it was inaccurate and completely made up, I’m not going to do that. But at the end of the day, I will say our locker room is really close. If there were guys that had issues, in hindsight, I wish we could have just talked about them. ...
“It’s never fun to read, but to an extent, you look at it and be like, ‘Well, if someone did have this perception of me, why? What have I done wrong? What can I get better at?’ I realize I have my shortcomings. Yes, I can be selfish. I think we all have selfishness inside of us. There’s human elements to that, that I really look at and say, ‘Well, I can get better.’ I always say I can be better on the field, off the field, how I carry myself.”
When asked if there was friction on the Eagles or if he encountered any of the sentiments that emerged in the story, he said no. Wentz denied that he was involved in a verbal altercation. He said he never objected to running any play because it was designed for Foles. And he rejected the notion that he “bullied” offensive coordinator Mike Groh.
“Groh and I talked to each other that day when it came out, and I think we all know that never took place,” Wentz said. “I even go back to the year before with Frank [Reich]. I know Frank has gone and said that he and I used to have these competitive arguments, but they’re healthy. That stuff happens. … In my opinion, he is a very good football mind and in my opinion I feel like I have something to contribute, too, so I thought we had some really healthy dialogue. To say, ‘bullied him,’ I’d say that’s kind of disrespectful to Groh. I don’t think anyone bullies Coach Groh. And then, b) I think we have a great relationship and it’s just going to keep getting better. That line, I was kind of blown away with what that would have meant.”
The subtext to any discussion about Wentz at this point seems to regard comparisons to Foles. They are different players with different personalities. On the field, Wentz is the superior athlete who craves the keys to the offense. He likes having control at the line of scrimmage and to know where every answer is on the field. When his running production declined in 2018, quarterbacks coach Press Taylor argued that Wentz had such a command of the offense that he can go through his progressions sooner, then he would tuck the ball away. Foles has been at his best with quick decisions and reads, and, as he likes to say, “Let it rip.”
Both are deeply faithful, but Wentz’s Type-A demeanor counters Foles’ laid-back nature. Wentz willed himself to become the No. 2 pick as a lightly recruited high school prospect from Bismarck, N.D., and as a two-year starter at North Dakota State. Just about every description of Wentz before the draft noted that Wentz never received a grade as low as a B as a student. Even when he came close in a psychology class as a freshman in college, Wentz ensured that confusion about time missed due to football was resolved so he could recover to keep his A.
At age 26, Wentz realizes he’s not going to take on the persona of a California surfer. His personality is comparable to those of other elite quarterbacks. It was described as driven in 2017 before it was painted as uncompromising in 2018.
Even with Wentz as the unquestioned starting quarterback, Foles’ legacy in Philadelphia will remain, and there will likely be a Foles shadow chasing Wentz until he’s the one honored at the Super Bowl. Wentz is aware enough to know the Foles comparisons exist, but he said there is nothing that is going to cause him any stress.
“For one, I love Nick,” Wentz said. “Nick and I are great friends and strong believers and we have the same values and everything. We’ll be the first to say that we are different. Like how we go about our days. I’ve learned some things from him. I know he’s learned some things from me. But we’d be the first to say our personalities are kind of different. But that’s why I think we were such good friends to some extent as well. … That so-called ‘shadow’ or whatever you want to call it, I can’t let that bother me. I know what I’m capable of on the field. I know what I’ve done in the past, and I know where I envision this team going.”
Wentz said that the unique nature of the past year affected how he might have acted in the locker room. After he tore his left ACL in December 2017, Wentz said his entire focus was on returning to full health. Throughout the offseason, Wentz needed to work out on separate fields while his teammate practiced.
When he reflected on the past year, he said he realized “things that maybe I neglected as a teammate and as a friend” because of his determination to play.
“There’s that element that I definitely kind of look back on like, ‘Were there moments or were there opportunities that I just kind of neglected because I put just wanting to be healthy first?’” Wentz said. “And so there’s things that you look back and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s something I can’t lose sight of,’ whether you’re going through an injury or you’re 100 percent healthy. Like just being the same person.”
However, Wentz said he did not think this affected him on the field. When he was in the game, he said he was “just playing ball.” He does not anticipate that changing.
That does not mean he was the same player as he was in 2017. Wentz admitted that he lacked the same explosiveness as before his knee injury. He felt confident that his knee had returned to form for injury prevention, but game film revealed that he “wasn’t quite there as far as mobility stuff.” Wentz has been told it takes 18-24 months for a complete recovery, which would coincide with the upcoming season. (In the same breath, Wentz said, “I’m not going to use it as an excuse by any means.”)
This was compounded by the back injury that first showed up on the injury report in October and evolved to the point that he was removed from the lineup in December. Wentz and the Eagles have remained cryptic about the evolution of the injury, but he was left in the same position as he was at the end of the 2017 season.
The difference was that Wentz exited the lineup in 2017 with the Eagles as the NFL’s best team. When he was sidelined this past season, the Eagles had a losing record before going on a playoff run without him.
“Obviously, it was frustrating watching,” Wentz said. “That’s the No. 1 thing I remember the last two years, was watching from the sidelines isn’t fun. … I thought the offense, I thought it was great. I was ecstatic to see the guys kind of rally. I think it was awesome for Nick to show there wasn’t a fluke. Nick’s a heck of a player. But at the same time, there’s the real emotions that … I want to be out there. Here we are again, and when I went down we were losing, and here we’re winning.”
Wentz would not pinpoint why it happened that way. He said there are plays throughout the season that affect each game, and it culminates in the overall record. The average margin of defeat in five of the six games the Eagles lost with Wentz at quarterback was 4.4 points. The average margin of victory in four of the five games the Eagles won without Wentz was four points. The games swung on a series of play – a key conversion, a made kick, a missed kick. It’s simple to look at the quarterbacks in those games and draw a conclusion, but there were other factors at play, too.
“We kind of rallied around each other and found a way to win, which we really weren’t doing early in the year,” Wentz said.
While the Eagles went on their late-season run, coach Doug Pederson emphasized that Wentz needed to focus on his health. Wentz said his back is “getting better” but he cannot rush the recovery because it’s a fracture. He must let the healing take place. He’s hopeful that he will participate in football activities this spring.
Wentz will enter his fourth season facing criticism and skepticism that he has not yet encountered since coming to Philadelphia. And after a turbulent 14 months, Wentz will ultimately be judged by how he responds.
“I’m excited to put all this behind me, the injuries, and then do everything I can to just be healthy, stay healthy, and get back on this driver’s seat,” Wentz said. “I’m excited for where this team’s heading.”