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How Eagles’ Carson Wentz changed his approach: a $10,000 dinner, a pool party, and the act of letting go

After facing criticism about his leadership and ability to stay healthy, the face of the Eagles altered how he treated his relationships, his mind and his body. The Eagles can only hope it all pays off, and he becomes the type of player they're paying him to be.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has made changes in his approach to teammates after his leadership was questioned in the offseason.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has made changes in his approach to teammates after his leadership was questioned in the offseason.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Carson Wentz sat at a corner table at Barclay Prime with bottles of Remy Martin Louis XIII and Hennessy XO.

He didn’t order the $8,500 worth of liquor, although he was picking up the tab.

The Eagles quarterback had just signed a $137,871,683 contract, and the extravagances, Wentz’s guests presumed, were merely a drop in the Delaware.

But there was also a subtle implication behind the orders that Alshon Jeffery (Louis XIII) and DeSean Jackson (Hennessy) had placed at the posh Rittenhouse Square restaurant: When we celebrate, this is how we roll.

Wentz had treated his teammates before. He had gone out to dinner with Eagles wide receivers on other occasions. But this June feast, six days after the 26-year-old had agreed to a four-year extension, was different.

Wentz invited only his top three receivers — Jeffery, Jackson, and Nelson Agholor — and tight end Zach Ertz. He had already made an increasing effort to be more social with other teammates this offseason, partly in response to a January story published by PhillyVoice that, citing anonymous sources, painted the quarterback as a divisive presence in the locker room.

Wentz refuted the few details referenced in the article, but he didn’t counter the characterizations that he could be selfish or uncompromising. He acknowledged that he had been weighed down by his injuries and performance last season and might have missed signs of strife.

But there was discord, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and especially among Wentz’s receiving targets. He recently downplayed the June dinner and drinks — “I’m not confirming or denying anything,” he initially joked — but the players in attendance understood its significance.

    “There was a lot of drama last year, on the field, off the field,” Ertz said. “So we’re just trying to get ahead of that and focus on being great teammates. I feel like that article, whether it was true or not, Carson looked internally and didn’t brush it off. He reflected and tried to see that even if I’m not perfect, how can I be better?

    “And I think he’s a little more outgoing and made an effort, for instance, to take us all out to dinner. He’s extended himself this year, and hopefully all that drama stuff will be in the past.”

    Jackson wasn’t on the team last year, but the 12-year veteran has seen his share of drama. The quarterback-receiver dynamic can be a tenuous one. There could be 60 passing routes over the course of a game, but a receiver might see only a few targets. Communication is vital, but it helps if there is also a foundation built outside football.

    “We want him to be comfortable with us. We want him to understand how we are,” Jackson said. “I feel like when you’re in the building, it’s all football, football, football, and sometimes it’s good to have a flip side to go out and see what people’s other interests are.

    “Obviously, we didn’t grow up together, but the better he knows us as men, the better off we’ll be, because he’s going to be our guy, and he’s going to be distributing the ball to us.”

    » READ MORE: Carson Wentz is already one of the top QBs in Eagles history. He can be the best ever. | Mike Sielski

    Wentz’s first three seasons didn’t necessarily allow for him to become an extroverted leader in the Eagles locker room. Even though he was thrust into a starting role from Game 1, he was still a rookie. He organically assumed more responsibility in his second season, but a season-ending knee injury and the subsequent recovery had, to some extent, isolated Wentz.

    And then another injury — a stress fracture in his back — prematurely ended his season last December. Although Wentz watched Nick Foles lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl championship the year before, it would have never happened without his MVP-worthy regular season. But his play had regressed in 2018, and the Eagles were 6-7 when he was shut down.

    Wentz, during a sit-down interview, said he had hit his boiling point.

    “The pressure and the expectations … that I have always done a good job of blocking out, [and] then you compound that with injury and then the struggle that we had last year early on, it just kind of got to me,” Wentz said. “Seeing this game, it was more stressful and I was less free playing it. Finally, that injury, it just allowed me to release everything.”

    Wentz said he met with his pastor, Kyle Horner, at the Connect Church in Cherry Hill, and “let it all out.” The outside criticism that every NFL player is susceptible to, especially quarterbacks, and especially in Philadelphia, had begun to affect him. Not only was he not playing his best, but his fourth injury in four years had some labeling him as brittle.

    “I finally just kind of had to let it all go and then realize that I can’t control what people think, what they say, what they write,” Wentz said. “It doesn’t really matter to me. I realize I play this game for a bigger purpose.”

    ‘Where can I improve?’

    Wentz said he had to surrender to God. A self-described “Follower of Christ,” as it reads on his Twitter page, he has expressed the same sentiment when talking about previous struggles. He admitted, though, that he doesn’t “have everything figured out.” There have been notable changes over the last nine months, some of his own doing, some partly for his benefit.

    Wentz altered his nutrition, training, and sleeping habits in an attempt to exhaust all avenues for staying healthy. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback is noticeably leaner, if not lighter. Wentz is also without the brace he was forced to wear last year after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017.

    The Eagles, meanwhile, made moves that may have been inevitable, but taken together underlined their commitment to Wentz. They released Foles. They traded for Jackson and running back Jordan Howard and expended their first three draft picks on offensive players. And then, on June 6, they gave Wentz the NFL’s largest-ever guaranteed contract.

    » READ MORE: The Eagles' 53-man roster

    He said the contract extension hasn’t lifted any burdens. But Wentz, armed with the Eagles’ long-term endorsement and added weapons, and free from physical restrictions, is seemingly in his best frame of mind as he enters a fourth season that some believe could end with an MVP trophy and another title.

    “I feel like I’m just mentally in a much different place, and physically I feel good too,” Wentz said. “A little more relaxed, you could probably say.”

    There were various reasons for extending Wentz early. The Eagles, for example, stood to benefit financially. But they also sent a message to the locker room, according to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, that if you weren’t on board with Wentz, you had better be now.

    “If you don’t do the contract, maybe in some corner of the locker room there’s one or two guys going, ‘No, no, we got there with Nick, ultimately. Can we get there with Carson?’ ” Jeremiah said. “This kind of helps eliminate that doubt. ‘Well, everyone upstairs sure thinks we can get there with Carson.’ ”

    Ertz and Agholor, who have been with Wentz since his first year, said they considered him the future as soon as the Eagles traded up to draft the North Dakota State product with the No. 2 overall pick. But just as they needed time to grow into their roles, so did the quarterback.

    Wentz had previously spoken about the importance of finding like-minded individuals in the locker room during his first few seasons. He had a posse, which centered on their shared Christian faith. The six-member group called itself a brotherhood, but after two years of attrition, only Ertz remains.

    NFL rosters can turn over at an alarming rate. There have been approximately 300 players on the Eagles since Wentz arrived in April 2016, and only 15 have been there throughout his career. A franchise quarterback, often more than any other position, must be adaptable to the changing face of a locker room.

    » READ MORE: Carson Wentz’s last two seasons could have been Dan Marino-esque ... if not for injuries

    “You come in, you are a young guy, so you maybe have a smaller circle, so to speak, and less of an influence in the locker room,” Wentz said. “And just getting to know guys on a personal level, whether they play linebacker, [defensive back], or kicker. It doesn’t really matter. It is just a bunch of guys who want to hang out and spend time together.

    “Some of those things were natural, so I didn’t really overanalyze that. I’ve just always tried to look at myself through a really strict lens and just say, ‘Where can I improve?’”

    Wentz has had barbecues at his South Jersey home before, but he invited more defensive players over this spring. He’s chilled out more at the NovaCare Complex and interacted with players outside his circle, several veterans said. And, perhaps more important, he has ventured out of his comfort zone, as he did during his celebratory dinner in June.

    “That’s so much out of his character,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “But just the ability to be there with the receivers and kind of just build that bond outside the throwing camps and all the other stuff, that kind of fellowship is important.”

    ‘Learning every year’

    Wentz has dined at Barclay Prime before, but he allowed Agholor to pick the restaurant. Wentz arrived first, per usual, around 7 p.m. and requested a discreet table. The main dining space is open and chic with eight crystal chandeliers that hang from the 25-foot ceilings, but the Eagles were tucked in the right-back corner.

    The steak house is often a destination for businessmen, travelers, and decked-out dates, but Wentz, Ertz, and the receivers were dressed casually in jeans, sweats, and backward caps. The quarterback was his typical low-key self, but the atmosphere of the dinner was festive to nearby observers.

    When Wentz would dine with Ertz and other members of the brotherhood, he’d often order the appetizers. But he ceded control here to the receivers. They ordered raw fish starters, lobster, Japanese beef, and the two expensive bottles of cognac brandy.

    They toasted their quarterback. Wentz said he didn’t imbibe.

    “None of that is even in the diet,” he said, “so I wasn’t even able to partake in said alcohol.”

    Some of the others did.

    “It ain’t for everybody,” Agholor said. “Did I drink it? Hell, yeah.”

    Jackson briefly posted an Instagram story with pictures and videos of the dinner. Wentz had a look of helplessness in one photo. The bill was for around $10,000. Wentz’s tip was over 20 percent.

    “It was a fun night, for sure,” Ertz said. “We have to have those things as skill position players and quarterbacks just to always make sure we’re open with one another and see what someone is going through, because we’re all from different areas, have different demographics, and are in different stages of our lives.”

    » READ MORE: The Eagles offensive line may be elite, but it’s behind schedule — just like last year | Marcus Hayes

    Two years ago, Wentz had the receivers and tight ends out to North Dakota for summer workouts. But after taking a year off because of his rehab, he switched up the destination and flew everyone to his new home in Houston.

    They practiced, but they also swam at his pool, took out jet skis, played ping-pong, and ate Wentz’s patented bison burgers. But it was also another opportunity for the quarterback, as Eagles coach Doug Pederson said he should in March, to be “more vulnerable” and “more accessible.”

    Jackson and Wentz may not have much in common off the field. One is from Southern California and lives a celebrity lifestyle, while the other is a North Dakotan who loves to hunt and fish. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t commonalities.

    “He’s not coming into the woods to hunt with me or anything like that,” Wentz said, “but we can just talk life.”

    Wentz still has Ertz and several other teammates, like linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, to confide in when he’s looking for a Christian ear. But last offseason, tight end Trey Burton left, and this offseason saw the departures of wide receiver Jordan Matthews, linebacker Jordan Hicks, and safety Chris Maragos.

    “Those were obviously guys I was close with, very faith-oriented guys from the spiritual aspect, but there’s always new guys coming in every year,” Wentz said. “That’s just part of this league that I’m learning every year, and just how to continue to form new relationships and nourish them, and the spiritual side has been no different.”

    In May, about 30 teammates participated in Wentz’s second annual charity softball game at Citizens Bank Park. Even Jeffery and Jenkins, who didn’t attend Eagles spring practices, showed up for support.

    Wentz doesn’t get to appear at many of his teammates’ events. His schedule can make it difficult, but he also isn’t especially comfortable in the public eye.

    “For someone like Carson, who doesn’t necessarily enjoy large crowds and the city, that stuff can be a little more challenging for him,” Jenkins said. “But I have seen him more relaxed and extend himself more, because if he can’t show up to support in some kind of way, at least spend time in other ways.”

    ‘A happy medium’

    Wentz has always been guarded with the media, but he has increasingly offered little detail when asked for specifics. A reporter recently recounted a dream he had about having unfiltered access to Wentz and his family, and Wentz joked, “It was a dream all right.”

    He’ll give a taste. At the start of organized team activities, he revealed that he had changed his diet and given up gluten. He said he hasn’t found a substitute for pizza as gratifying, but one of the chefs at the NovaCare has helped him stick to his regimen.

    » READ MORE: The Eagles bolstered the running game as insurance against another Carson Wentz injury. Will it work? | Bob Ford

    Wentz said that he also altered his training and has been more proactive after practice. As a result, he said, he feels he has more energy and can recover more quickly. But the greatest consequence, if the body fuels the mind, has been in the space between his ears.

    “A lot of it is just up here,” Wentz said, pointing to his head. “I do my best to stay even keel a little bit more and maybe not stress out so much about the game-planning.”

    Dating back to his rookie season, Wentz has wanted to have a say in the offense. He has suggested particular plays and Pederson has always taken his preferences into account. But his exacting ways stood in contrast to Foles, and his frustrations could boil over, as they did when he threw his helmet after tossing an interception against the Saints last November.

    Wentz said he might still get perturbed by an incompletion, but that he’s trying to find the middle ground between his alpha approach and Foles’ Zen-like one.

    “He’s very relaxed and chill and I’m more kind of type A,” Wentz said. “Just to see his approach to the game and how it was a little different than mine, but to find a happy medium.”

    But he said he must remain true to himself. While he said he’s been more vocal “at times,” Wentz picks his spots when to speak up. Team leaders like Jenkins and defensive end Brandon Graham said that he has, so far, taken a natural approach to leadership.

    “I don’t want him to have to be fake just because it’s not your personality,” Graham said. “But you also have to be aware that this is what the team wants from you. Every chance you get, for instance, when coach calls on you to break it down, make sure you say something good.”

    Wentz didn’t have to agree to the Eagles’ contract proposal. Some quarterbacks may have gambled and played out the season. But the offer was market value and Wentz said he didn’t want to get into a “long, drawn-out” negotiation, even if it netted him a few million more.

    When the Eagles held a formal news conference, it was subdued. Wentz and owner Jeffrey Lurie were dressed in suits, and Wentz’s wife, Maddie, was seated nearby. But the quarterback answered about only 10 minutes of questions — modestly but also vaguely.

    “A lot of guys want the highest-paid contract, want this, want to make sure everyone knows all about it,” Wentz said more recently. “For me and my family, it was like we wanted to find what was fair. Obviously, you get your moment. But for me, it was, ‘All right, let’s embrace this.’ ”

    Jeremiah, who previously worked in the Eagles’ scouting department, said that quarterbacks typically have two reactions to receiving a franchise contract. They either succumb to the pressure or they are freed from it.

    “In Carson’s case, I look at it as more of a release of the pressure than mounting pressure,” Jeremiah said. “This organization is completely behind you, Nick’s moved on, and there’s going to be none of that chatter on the periphery.”

    There may not be a more pressure-packed city to play in than Philly. There are reminders of Foles leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl all around the NovaCare Complex and Lincoln Financial Field, and all it will take is one ill-timed interception for Wentz to hear it from fans.

    “I’m not going to say he’s got a full-fledged chip, but I feel like playing in this city you’re going to have some sort of chip on your shoulder,” Ertz said. “Not everyone can do it, especially when you’re young.”

    ‘Everyone will get theirs’

    Graham said that he never approached Wentz about the PhillyVoice article. But the topic, he said, was addressed by team leaders and they had decided to fix it, not directly, per se, but with how they rallied around their quarterback and kept any negativity out of the locker room.

    “I don’t see a lot of negativity right now,” Graham said. “If I see anything, I try to say my two cents, just let them know that we see certain stuff, but in a good way. I always try to be positive. But if people saying stuff in a negative way with somebody’s that’s going to be here, we got to get it fixed. You got to get it fixed.”

    There appeared to be a crack last December when an ESPN report cited an anonymous team source as saying one of the reasons the Eagles offense was struggling was because Wentz had been over-targeting Ertz. The PhillyVoice story doubled down on this premise and made the claim that Wentz played “favorites” while Foles spread the ball around.

    Ertz set an NFL record for receptions by a tight end with 116, but he also caught a career-high 74.4% of passes thrown his way. There was also little difference in pass distribution per game between the quarterbacks. Wentz targeted Ertz 26.4% of the time and Foles 24.4%, Jeffery 20.3% vs. 19%, and Agholor 15% vs. 17.3%.

    Graham said it didn’t matter which players were behind the anonymous quotes, and even if they weren’t entirely true, they offered Wentz the chance for introspection.

    “I can’t believe everything I hear, but I know where there’s smoke, there’s fire. There’s something in there a little of it may be true,” Graham said. “That’s why I say only he knows. So maybe that was a good thing for him. It’s like, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ ”

    Jackson was added to the mix in March, and while there were reports that Agholor was on the trading block, he returns in the slot. With tight end Dallas Goedert and rookie receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside farther down the depth chart, Wentz has his greatest collection of passing options.

    Can he please everyone?

    “I don’t feel like I’ve ever really played favorites. I just go with the ball, where the defense tells me to go,” Wentz said. He added: “I know at the end of the day everyone will get theirs, and I believe at the same time everyone’s personalities … if they’re not getting the ball for three quarters, no one’s going to be complaining on the sideline.”

    Wentz and his receivers have worked extensively on chemistry, on the field and off, at the NovaCare and outside the practice facility. But the conversations haven’t centered exclusively on football.

    “It’s just great to have him hang with the bros,” Agholor said. “He’s obviously married and he’s very chill, but he’s a young dude who can hang out with the guys. It means a lot. I love hanging out with him, cracking jokes, finding out what he’s thinking about outside of the game.”

    Even though the Barclay Prime dinner was a special occasion, the bottles weren’t finished. Wentz declined to say who took them home. Reminded of the cost for such indulgences, he joked that it was a “one-time thing.”

    But if Wentz and his receivers are to deliver on their promise this season, there’s a good chance they’ll be celebrating in Miami in five months, and it will be Lurie’s treat.

    See the 2019 Eagles season preview here.