On the Friday before the Eagles’ (next) biggest game of the season, Carson Wentz was a glorified ball boy. As Nick Foles and Nate Sudfeld tossed passes during practice, the usual starting quarterback helped collect footballs as the drill proceeded.
It takes only a beating heart to know that Wentz would have preferred to be with Foles and Sudfeld rather than a spectator. But he can’t, or just as likely, the Eagles won’t let him. Wentz has a stress fracture in his back and will be sidelined for a second week in a row.
He had been dealing with a back problem as far back as October, but there were increasing signs that he had something more significant and that it was affecting his performance. Wentz has declined interview requests since coach Doug Pederson first announced his injury, or just as likely, the Eagles aren’t allowing him to talk.
But considering his past and his personality, it’s a safe bet that Wentz believes he can play through the injury.
“I would say this, and I’m not speaking for Carson, I don’t want to put words in his mouth,” Pederson said Friday. “I think as an athlete who has an injury this time of year, if it’s not going to set them back, then, yeah, I would say everybody wants to play through injury.”
Wentz isn’t just everybody, though. He stayed on the field after he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee a year ago and threw a touchdown pass. He returned from the injury in just over nine months, and would have come back two weeks earlier had the Eagles not decided against it.
Three months later, Wentz is back where he was last December -- unable to play as Foles takes over. But there is one notable difference: Wentz isn’t on injured reserve. His season isn’t over. And if the Eagles somehow make the playoffs – a win Sunday against the Texans is a near-must – then he could conceivably return in January.
Pederson can say that Wentz is his No. 1 quarterback all he wants, but how would he handle the situation if Foles were to play as well as he did last postseason? Ride with the known commodity who won a Super Bowl or turn to the more talented quarterback even though he’s yet to play in a critical NFL game?
There is no obvious controversy here, as far as the long-term goes, despite the need by some to stoke that flame. Wentz is the future, and barring something unforeseen, will receive a contract extension this offseason that places a monetary value on being a franchise quarterback.
In terms of talent, there is little doubt that Wentz can be that guy. But there are questions, fair or not, about durability and winning in big spots. And it is injury, for the second year in a row, that is keeping him from playing under those circumstances, and it must be bothering him.
Pederson acknowledged that juggling Wentz’s desire to play against what the team views as his own good can be difficult.
“As long as we communicate and we’re up-front and honest with him and have tough conversations, which we’ve had -- not just me and him but I think with the doctors and the medical staff -- and he understands,” Pederson said, “I think we’re OK.”
But Wentz has now watched his backup lead the Eagles to a title last season and their biggest win this season. It would be only human to allow uncertainty to creep in. He admitted to fighting feelings of jealousy last year. Pederson can help by reassuring the 25-year old that his time will come.
“I can stand here and say that Carson is our quarterback,” Pederson said. “He’s our quarterback in the future. That’s why we drafted him. It’s also why we have Nick here as a backup, as a veteran player to -- I don’t want to say bail us out -- but to come in and execute the offense.
“I think we just continue to reconfirm that with Carson and let him know that. Continue to say, ‘Hey, listen you’re going to be here for a long time, have a long career.’”
Pederson delivered essentially the same message last year after the injury and throughout the recovery, even though Wentz had pushed the envelope. He had to accept the team’s decision to pull him back during training camp and then to hold off his return until Week 3, even though he thought he was ready on both occasions.
Is there any doubt he feels the same way now, especially when others have played through a similar injury?
“It kind of goes back to the beginning of the year,” Pederson said. “We’re going to trust the medical staff. It’s one of those deals. You have to make sure that there won’t be any setbacks if we put him back out there.”
The Eagles have yet to give a clear time line of the injury. But Pederson said the team found out Tuesday that Wentz had a stress-fractured vertebra after a CT scan. That same day, at 2:25 p.m., Wentz tweeted out the following message:
“Thankful for a new week and another opportunity! We’re not where we wanna be but I wouldn’t want to finish this out with any other group of guys. This team will not quit and will always keep fighting. Let the chips fall where they may. Love this team. #FlyEaglesFly”
Pederson announced the following day that Wentz was experiencing back soreness and that he would sit out Wednesday’s practice. He missed Thursday’s session to see a specialist outside the Eagles. Pederson would later explain that Wentz had received “favorable” information after the additional exam.
“It’s something that was positive for him, positive for us,” Pederson said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure that he’s 100 percent or better before we put him back out there.”
But on Friday morning Pederson said that Wentz was questionable for the Rams game before he also said that he would need three months to recover. He was downgraded to doubtful after he didn’t practice, and finally to out on Saturday, before the Eagles took off for Los Angeles.
Wentz, it was understood, wouldn’t talk with reporters until there was some resolution with his injury. But Foles declined to be interviewed, even though the league mandates that the starting quarterback be made available at least once before a game.
After the Eagles beat the Rams, Foles said that the week of preparation was awkward.
“You hate for your teammate to get hurt. I feel really bad for Carson. We’re tight in that QB room,” Foles said. “But then you sort of don’t really know what’s going to happen. You start taking reps. It’s been a while. You go through the human emotions.”
Tight end Zach Ertz, one of Wentz’s closest friends on the Eagles, said last week that the quarterback wanted to talk to reporters. A team spokesman said something similar after the Rams game and said Wentz would be accessible back in Philadelphia.
But he, or the team, must have thought otherwise because Wentz wasn’t available, the official explanation being that he didn’t want to be a distraction.
Wentz had been supportive throughout the Eagles’ postseason run last season. Many players and coaches spoke of his unselfishness. But a deja vu-like return to cheerleader would test even the most resolved.
“Carson’s great. Obviously, I’ll let him speak on his feelings and everything,” Foles said. “But from my perspective, and just being with him the last couple years, he always handles everything with class.”
Wentz and Foles have respect for one another, but the narrative that they are close friends is false. They have a shared religious faith, and have each spoken of how Christianity has forged a bond. But there is a natural distance between the two.
Foles and Sudfeld spend more time together, partly because of their standing as reserves, but also because they have shared traits. Wentz has his posse in the locker room – Ertz, receiver Jordan Matthews, and linebacker Jordan Hicks are the most prominent – but his regimented schedule can isolate him.
Wentz is as A-personality as it gets. He has spoken before of having trouble ceding control. The Eagles love Wentz’s passion and intensity, but as former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said in September, he does have a stubborn streak.
Foles isn’t as headstrong. He’s almost five years older and has had to endure his share of career setbacks. But it’s hard to imagine many quarterbacks coming off Super Bowl MVP performances who wouldn’t have demanded a trade rather than be subjected to another year as a backup.
Who knows if the Eagles would have capitulated, especially if the offers weren’t attractive? But Foles was willing to start until Wentz returned, and then take a back seat, even though he would naturally want to start.
“I want Carson to succeed. I want him to play. It allows you to once again take a step back,” Foles said Wednesday. “You’re not going to be in the limelight, you’re going to be in the background. But once again, that’s where it doesn’t matter. I want to bring joy, bring energy, and help my teammates in any way.
“Now it’s a different role, but I want to be the same person.”
The Eagles rode Foles to a title. While it’s unlikely to happen again, reaching the playoffs isn’t unrealistic. There was an air of levity in the locker room the last week. Defensive end Chris Long, for instance, put together a shrine to Foles in his stall, with a picture from his Rams days, his memoir, and prayer candles.
“He’s been there to bail us out when we’ve had injuries before,” Long said. “And this weekend, no different, I know he’s going to show up big.”