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Inside Carson Wentz’s turbulent season and the forces behind his regression

For many in the Eagles organization, Wentz loomed too large, and the consequence was a young man given far too much rein before he had earned hallowed space on team facility walls.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz stands in the tunnel before taking on the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. Wentz did not play in the game. The Eagles lost, 33-26.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz stands in the tunnel before taking on the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. Wentz did not play in the game. The Eagles lost, 33-26.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Howie Roseman had a life-size poster of Carson Wentz in his office at the NovaCare Complex. It still might be there, but before COVID-19 placed restrictions on Eagles staffers’ movements, when anyone walked into the general manager’s office, there up on the wall was Wentz in action.

The decal — like a Fathead a fan might plaster in his or her bedroom — became an inside joke among some staff about Roseman’s overt affection for the Eagles’ franchise quarterback. But it also became a symbol for his misdirected handling of an employee.

Wentz had once been the centerpiece of Roseman’s return to personnel power, his most audacious acquisition. And when the quarterback initially proved the GM right, he loomed large — figuratively and literally — over nearly every decision he made for the next four years.

But for many in the Eagles organization, Wentz loomed too large, and the consequence was a young man given far too much rein before he had earned hallowed space on team facility walls.

The die had been cast the day the Eagles drafted the North Dakota State product in 2016, after they forfeited a ransom to move up to the No. 2 spot. But when they doubled down with a contract extension three years later, the deification of Wentz increased, and it would sometimes play to his worst impulses.

When you believe you’ve found the Great White Whale of team sports — an elite quarterback — you hold on for dear life and you feed the beast. For the first two years, the Eagles on the surface appeared to do everything right with Wentz. But a knee injury in 2017, and Nick Foles taking over and winning the Super Bowl altered the dynamic.

Roseman, owner Jeffrey Lurie, and other Eagles leaders, however, treated Wentz as if he had won that championship. They allowed him too much influence in the draft, free agency, and coaching decisions. And while he played a large role in getting to the title game, and to the postseason the next two years, he has only six playoff snaps in five years to his name.

For three straight years, injuries would end Wentz’s season. The Eagles still believed in him last offseason after a concussion knocked him out of the playoff loss to the Seahawks, but drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round was, if anything, insurance for an oft-injured quarterback.

It was the first time the franchise had shown an inkling of doubt, and Wentz would subsequently have the worst season of his career, and based on passer rating, the worst decline for an under-30 starting NFL quarterback in 70 years.

But Hurts was just one piece to the puzzle. The forces behind Wentz’s regression were manifold and in many ways there for years. He didn’t always take to hard coaching. He struggled with accountability. He could shrink back into a tight-knit group of teammates he trusted or become isolated.

Wentz’s Type-A personality could be credited just as much for his past success. Many top quarterbacks share the same trait. But the 28-year-old had increasingly rebuffed advice, defied criticism, and clashed with former coach Doug Pederson last season, Eagles sources said.

“Every great quarterback wants to be coached and they want to be coached hard and by the best, and it doesn’t seem like [Wentz] wants that,” one source said. “It’s kind of like whoever’s coaching him is working for him. But it can’t be that way.”

While Wentz, at times, could be his own worst enemy, many of the reasons for his decline were outside his control. The Eagles endured a rash of injuries, particularly on the offensive line, and used 14 different combinations in 16 games. The receivers and tight ends were often either hurt or inexperienced.

Pederson’s offense also had become predictable. And Press Taylor, who had been given the keys to Wentz and the passing game, had been considered by many on the team to be the wrong coach for the job.

When Pederson suggested to Lurie after the season that he planned to promote Taylor to offensive coordinator, it was a fait accompli. The owner was already questioning whether the coach could still be paired with Wentz. But there was no way he would allow all three to return.

Wentz alone also factored into Pederson’s exit, despite Lurie’s claim otherwise. The Eagles essentially remained “married” to the quarterback, as Roseman had put it at the time of the Hurts pick, but not because of his play this time, but because of his expanding contract.

And Pederson’s relationship with his quarterback had become splintered, if not “fractured,” the term an ESPN report used last month after Wentz had been benched for Hurts. And what might have sealed his fate was the answer he gave Lurie on his plans for the position.

It’s unclear what Pederson said. He asked colleagues for their opinions on what to do after his initial meeting with Lurie, and seemed surprised when it was suggested he keep both quarterbacks, a source said.

Wentz, meanwhile, hasn’t spoken publicly since he was removed from the Packers game on Dec. 6. It was unlikely that he would talk while Hurts was starting, but he turned down the opportunity after the season when he could have rebutted reports about his relationship with Pederson and that he wanted to be traded.

There was a disconnect even before Wentz was benched, though. Pederson would call a play only for his quarterback to occasionally kill it for apparently no other reason than his personal distaste, sources said. It became “a pissing match” between the two, one of the sources said.

“The trust in an NFL building goes far,” a source said before Pederson was fired. “If there’s communication and trust everything goes faster and it goes further. And if you lose either one of those, [it’s] going to be hard to come back from.”

The information in this story was compiled from reporting from team and NFL sources with direct knowledge of the inner workings of the Eagles in relation to Wentz. The sources requested anonymity because they were either unauthorized to speak publicly about the subject or they feared retribution.

Pederson, Taylor, and Wentz declined to comment, whether directly or through a representative. Roseman and Lurie have publicly endorsed Wentz’s return and deemed the 2020 season a blip, although a new coach could have a differing evaluation.

Nevertheless, they reinforced their commitment to him — Roseman compared Wentz to “fingers on your hand” the day after the Eagles finished a woeful 4-11-1 — and their long-held belief in his character.

“He’s a great guy and he wants nothing but to win big and win Lombardi Trophies for Philadelphia,” Lurie said Monday. “This guy is tireless. He has his heart in the right place and he’s really dedicated offseason, in-season — he’s just what you want.”

Resistant to coaching

Wentz does want to win. He is tireless. He is dedicated. No one publicly has ever suggested otherwise, and the same seemingly holds privately. But his resistance to hard instruction made him lose faith from coaches and an unwillingness to accept blame for his mistakes hurt him in the locker room.

“He doesn’t understand that he lost games for us,” a veteran player said. “He will never admit that and that’s a problem because he can’t get it corrected.”

There are Eagles who supported Wentz throughout the season, and some who continued to defend him after the season. But there was a sentiment among various coaches and players that he needed to do a better job taking the external and internal blows for the team even if he wasn’t always at fault.

That’s leadership and the best do it almost instinctively because when there is another mistake — a dropped pass or a false start, for example — he can go back to that player and privately tell him that he needs to clean up his performance.

In the quarterback room, when his errors were pointed out, Wentz would sometimes make irrelevant excuses and Taylor wouldn’t correct him. For instance, there would be a play when he didn’t throw to an open receiver. The read was drawn up as designed, the coverage played out as expected, and he would be asked why he didn’t pull the trigger.

And Wentz would say the look wasn’t there, or he would overemphasize the pass rush, and when it was suggested the play be run again in practice as to get it right, he would object.

John DeFillipo, Wentz’s first quarterback coach with the Eagles, coached him hard. Former offensive coordinator Frank Reich did as well. They had years of experience, though, and Wentz was just entering the NFL when he worked under them.

Pederson didn’t have to be the bad cop because he had DeFillipo and Reich. When he promoted Mike Groh to offensive coordinator after Reich left to become the Colts head coach, he had someone who would play the role, although with a softer touch.

Wentz would at times fight back and Groh, who had never previously been an NFL coordinator, eventually learned when to pick his battles. But they struggled to see eye to eye, with Wentz focused more on playing to his strengths, and Groh scheming plays to counter a defense, the divide a prominent reason why the latter was fired last offseason.

Taylor was an offensive quality control coach when Wentz was drafted. He was a holdover from the Chip Kelly regime and would become an assistant Pederson would mentor. Taylor worked primarily with the quarterbacks from 2016-17, and in game-planning specialized in gadget plays.

He has been credited with digging up the design for “Philly Special” in Super Bowl 52. When DeFillipo left to become the Vikings offensive coordinator, Taylor was seen as a natural replacement. Reich said that he would have taken him to Indianapolis if possible.

But there was internal concern that Wentz’s friendship with Taylor could cause a conflict of interest and that his inexperience could allow for the quarterback to overpower him. His nurturing style of coaching was also antithetical to DeFilippo.

Pederson knew Taylor needed time, which is one reason why he didn’t promote him to offensive coordinator after Groh left. He made him pass game coordinator instead, on top of quarterbacks coach, and hired Rich Scangarello and Marty Mornhinweg as senior offensive assistants.

Scangarello would be more directly involved with scheme and Wentz, while Mornhinweg was brought in to consult Pederson and help train Taylor. But the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for relationship-building and when advice was offered from various outlets, Taylor would often resist.

The 33-year-old has been described as reserved, and while that can serve him well in certain aspects of coaching, some staff believed that he needed to be more forceful, not only with Wentz, but with the offense when Pederson had handed him several of Groh’s responsibilities.

Some thought that Pederson had become blind to Taylor’s failings because they shared the same agent in Bob Lamonte. Others thought that the assistant was placed in an impractical position and that when the coordinator role wasn’t filled there wasn’t a delineation of command.

Pederson also struggled with communication and being more open about decisions he had made. His decision to play third stringer Nate Sudfeld in the season finale without directly telling Hurts, or the team as a whole, was the example most recently cited. But there were others.

No one quite knew what to make of Scangarello’s role, including himself. He was hired to bring some of Kyle Shanahan’s offense to the Eagles, specifically his marrying of the run and pass with play-action.

But the lack of practice time limited opportunities to work on the nuances, and offenses need to run a fair amount to sell those plays. Pederson is a pass-first play-caller.

Taylor, on the other hand, struggled to be assertive with Wentz when it came to his sloppy mechanics or questionable decision-making. And Pederson, who had once met with Wentz every Thursday, no longer did so, and the only real conversation they had before games was during install meetings.

There wasn’t a voice among the three main coaches involved in game planning — Pederson, Taylor, and Scangarello — who could rein in Wentz. And even when they tried, many on the team saw Roseman and the front office’s kid gloves treatment of Wentz as a barrier.

Struggles in camp and in games

Most in the organization understood the amount of pressure Wentz was under and how it had been mounting since Foles won the Super Bowl in 2017. The following year he suffered a season-ending back injury and Foles carried the Eagles to the postseason.

Last year, Wentz played all 16 games, but a concussion knocked him out of the first-round playoff loss before it really even started. The head injury was significant and he has since spoken about its gravity.

He came into camp, however, bulked up a year after he had improved his nutrition, among other improvements. And while the drafting of Hurts wasn’t what he would have done, he told a few teammates, he showed up at NovaCare ready to pick up where he left off, in terms of his on-field play, last season.

But Wentz struggled throughout camp. He had never been the best practice player, often using the time to work out kinks, but passes that had previously been secondhand were no longer.

Coaches initially used the lack of spring practices as an excuse. But as the errant passes continued — even on standard throws he’d made to tight end Zach Ertz, his favorite target, hundreds of times — they began to think that something was wrong.

Was he hurt? Were the mounting injuries finally starting to take a toll? Wentz implemented an intricate warm-up program four years ago. It isn’t much different than other quarterback routines, but its 45-minute length seemed extreme to some Eagles staffers.

Did he need that much time to get loose, they posited?

Wentz suffered a lower body soft-tissue injury toward the end of camp, but with no preseason, he was able to rest for an extended period and was ready for the season opener.

He got off to a hot start at Washington, but a late first-half interception turned the tide. He tossed another pick early in the second half and was sacked eight times behind an already makeshift offensive line.

Wentz’s protection was sound the next week, but he tossed two more interceptions and wasn’t seeing open receivers. The defense also played poorly. He played better the next five weeks, but was inconsistent and as the losses piled up, and the team, overall, failed to compensate, he played more “hero” ball.

He threw ill-advised passes into double coverage. He held the ball too long and took sacks. Some coaches watched film from as far back as 2017 to see what had gone wrong. They still saw some of the same issues, but he was a tick faster in his decision-making, more athletic, and the overall strength of the team was greater.

Wentz was pressing and putting too much additional pressure on himself, some thought. He’s always been the cerebral type, but he was overthinking, some opined, and wasn’t taking what defenses had been giving.

Hurts, meanwhile, had gravitated toward working with Mornhinweg. Pederson had initially held off on playing the rookie. He was inactive in the opener. But the offense needed a spark and he was on the field for three plays in Week 2. While he had early success, Pederson was reluctant to use Hurts or to take Wentz off the field when he was under center.

Plays for Hurts didn’t come until deep into the scripted first 15 base plays, which could mean he wouldn’t get on the field until the second quarter. Some players and coaches started to wonder if Hurts’ presence had affected Wentz, and that the small number of plays was Pederson being sensitive to his starter.

By the bye week, Wentz had been sacked an NFL-high of 32 times. A coaching analysis deemed the quarterback responsible for almost two-thirds. Around the break, one offensive lineman had gone to management and requested a switch to Hurts.

“Everyone believed Carson had no clue about when to get the ball out on time,” a source said, “and as a result made his [O-line] look terrible in times they were playing fine.”

But Wentz was without his two best targets, Ertz and fellow tight end Dallas Goedert, and his best long-ball option, DeSean Jackson, for extended periods. The young receivers either weren’t ready or they struggled to develop chemistry with the quarterback because of inconsistencies.

Pederson’s play-calling was also dubious. He would go long stretches without rolling Wentz out of the pocket to take advantage of his ability to throw on the move. Wentz, in turn, made “bizarre kills that made no sense and effectively was going rogue,” one source said.

The coaches then started having conversations about a possible demotion. Pederson and others argued giving Wentz every chance to pull out of his funk. He had earned that right, they said. They figured a switch would happen naturally, whether he got hurt or played so poorly it would be obvious.

Some argued against Hurts believing him not to be ready. But Pederson felt he had no choice in Green Bay. Coaches had noticed weeks earlier Wentz dipping his eyes toward the rush early into his drop, but it had become all too apparent against the Packers.

Pederson made the call on his own, according to a source familiar with his thinking, without input from Lurie or Roseman. He said as much publicly and there was some skepticism. But after he was benched, Wentz went to the owner and GM to voice his frustration, a team source said.

Can he return to form?

Hurts remained the starter, of course, but Wentz, in his actions and assistance, was supportive. While he had lost the backing of some players before his benching, many admired how he handled his demotion.

The Eagles roster is likely to undergo significant turnover this offseason. But there will be returnees and some who might not be 100 percent on board with Wentz. Some coaches and players believe that he can win them back, and the best way is by winning.

As for returning Wentz to his pre-2020 form — maybe not 2017, but more like 2018-19 — some sources believe it’s possible. A lot will depend on the new coach and his staff, roster acquisition, and the quarterback himself.

Some argued that a parting would be best for both parties, even with Pederson out of the picture. Hurts is likely to return. But Wentz’s contract makes it difficult for the Eagles to justify a trade, and there aren’t likely to be many suitors.

“If you look at the film, anybody out there would be hard pressed to say, ‘OK, I’m going to bring him in as my starter,’” an NFL source who works with quarterbacks said.

Reich and the Colts could have interest with Philip Rivers a pending free agent and near 40. But it would take a leap of faith and significant cost.

“I’m not sure Frank would take him,” a source familiar with Reich’s thinking said.

A new environment could help Wentz. Philly is as tough as it gets for professional sports teams. But he still has an affinity for the city and naturally the Eagles. But many coaches, players and staffers, over the last five years, believe that if Wentz is to return, the organization needs to peel off from treating him like a god.

In Roseman’s office, there’s also a quote from Bill Russell that sits behind his desk on a banner in between the poster of Wentz, and another of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, that maybe should have been more prominent in his thinking:

Professional athletes are not paid to play, they’re paid to WIN.