Everyone needs to stop hyperventilating over Carson Wentz. I realize this is a stern challenge as the Eagles languish at 0-2-1 ahead of their game Sunday night against the defending NFC champions, the 49ers. But as poorly as Wentz has played this season, there’s scant evidence yet that we are witnessing some great and terrible meltdown of a franchise quarterback. What we are seeing now, we have seen from the best quarterbacks the Eagles have ever had – and what we saw from them was often much, much worse.
No one wants to hear this, of course, because Wentz had that marvelous 2017 season and those terrific final four games last season. Because he was drafted high enough and has been good enough often enough to have established the highest of expectations for himself, and he’s not meeting those expectations now. Because the Eagles won the Super Bowl without him, after rising to become the NFL’s best team with him, and somehow that fact leaves him diminished in people’s eyes. And because, to PG-13-ize Ed Harris' line in Glengarry Glen Ross, too many analysts and fans nowadays have the memory of a freaking fly.
One of the gifts of getting older, at least when it comes to covering sports, is that at some point you hit a sweet spot for age and memory. You’re old enough to remember well the past without having that history be so deep in the distance that it’s irrelevant.
Sure, you can scan through game-log databases and find that Ron Jaworski once went 20-for-43 for 229 yards over three games: the final two of 1977 and the first of 1978. Or that Randall Cunningham, in his breakout 1988 season, completed 48% of his passes and threw five interceptions over three games, two of which the Eagles lost. (“He made one great play on Monday Night Football, but can the Eagles win with a running quarterback? Call 215- …”) But unless you’re Ray Didinger or Merrill Reese, those anecdotes probably aren’t fresh in your mind, and besides, they come from a different era of the NFL, when the league wasn’t quite as quarterback-friendly as it is now. So they aren’t as revealing as a more recent example.
Here, then, are a couple of more recent examples: In 2014, Nick Foles went through a four-game stretch that gave no indication that he someday would be capable of outdueling Tom Brady in a Super Bowl: a completion percentage of 58.5, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a lousy 70.3 passer rating. The Eagles managed to win two of those games anyway, but that achievement paled in comparison with what they had done in 2003. They began that season 4-3 even though their quarterback, Donovan McNabb, was objectively awful.
Yes, McNabb was playing through a thumb injury, but the fact remained that he was more of an obstacle for his team to overcome than he was an asset to it. Over those seven games, McNabb completed 50.5% of his passes, averaged 142 passing yards per game – not per half, per game – threw three touchdown passes and seven interceptions, and was sacked 26 times. (If you think social media makes for an odd and inane news cycle these days, you’ve never experienced the pure strangeness of having your editor call you and ask, “Did you hear what Rush Limbaugh said about Donovan McNabb?”)
Those numbers and that performance make Wentz this season (59.6%, three TDs, six INTs) seem an All-Pro. The biggest difference between McNabb and those Eagles and Wentz and these Eagles is the makeup of each team. The ’03 Eagles had a defense that allowed 17 points or fewer in four of those seven games and no more than 25 in any of them. They had three top-flight running backs: Brian Westbrook, Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter. And they had enough depth to withstand significant injuries to several important players, including Brian Dawkins, Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, and Jermane Mayberry.
These Eagles have none of those qualities, not merely because of a remarkable (and, in certain cases, predictable) succession of injuries but because of their inability to replenish their pool of young talent. None of this is to suggest that Wentz has been good this season. He has not. But Wentz is the only player the Eagles have drafted since 2016, since Howie Roseman regained control of the team’s player-personnel department, about whom you can say with certainty: Howie got that one right.
Remember: The Eagles' entire post-championship strategy was built around two things: (1) the necessity of finding inexpensive, inexperienced players to replace the short-term-solution veterans who had excelled for them, and (2) the presumption they would find those players. Instead, they had one healthy wide receiver available at practice Thursday. They spent three games backfilling the most important position on the offensive line. Their defense hasn’t created a turnover, even though the unit features the priciest group of defensive linemen in the league. And their once-daring coach is publicly second-guessing himself.
If you want to blame someone for that, fear not. There’s a long line. Carson Wentz just isn’t at the front of it.