With Sunday’s overtime loss to Dallas, it became even more likely the Eagles will finish the third year of the Carson Wentz era without the franchise quarterback having a chance to play in the postseason.
That’s far from unheard of for a quarterback taken with one of the first two picks in the NFL draft, but it usually indicates an organizational miscalculation or some other unforeseen disaster. Of the 22 quarterbacks taken that high beginning with the 1990 draft – excluding the 2017 and 2018 drafts – Wentz would become the 10th to fail to reach the playoffs in a three-season span.
The list of those who did and those who didn’t has been a fairly accurate career predictor, however, with guys such as Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, and Carson Palmer on one side of the sheet, and a slew of guys such as JaMarcus Russell, Derek Carr, and Ryan Leaf on the other.
No one is saying yet that Wentz will land on the wrong side of the ledger, of course, particularly since the Eagles enjoyed the largest asterisk of all last season after the quarterback guided them to playoff position before succumbing to injury. He was having an MVP-caliber season, but had to turn it over to his backup. What happened next almost never happens, but it did for Nick Foles and the Eagles. The fact that Wentz was merely a groomsman at the ceremony was considered only a delay in his true arrival and nothing more.
Here we are a year later, with a healthy Wentz having a healthy statistical season – superior to 2017, in that regard – and his team is just bobbing along with the tide, unable to chart its own course.
The disconnect is not the norm in the NFL. Eleven of the 15 teams with winning records have quarterbacks ranked among the top 15 in the league. Reversing that, obviously, it means only four of the top 15 quarterbacks are on teams with losing records. Wentz is among those, despite a 69.6 percent completion rate, 21 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 102.2.
The question becomes whether the Eagles are wasting a spectacular season from Wentz because of their other failings, or whether the quarterback himself is a few intangibles short of the perfect package who can lift an imperfect team when necessary. The answer to that question is usually found in the crucible of the playoffs, but Wentz, as he heads toward a fourth professional season, will probably not be accorded that test. If nothing else, just making the postseason would have alone been a beneficial experience for Wentz, and further reason Sunday’s messy loss in Dallas stings the organization.
A recurring issue this season has been the team’s slow offensive start in games. Even by their standards – only 28 of 281 points scored in the first quarter – Sunday’s first-half shutout was a new low. Does that speak to Wentz’s ability to spark his team out of the gate, or to some mismanagement in preparation and coaching?
“Obviously, everyone’s seen what we’ve put out there, and getting in a rhythm and starting slow has unfortunately been a common theme for us," Wentz said after the Dallas game. "That’s something we got to look hard at.”
That could be read as a subtle shot at the coaching staff for sticking with what worked last season, but Wentz probably didn’t mean it that way. He, like everyone else, is frustrated and confused by the outcomes this year.
If Wentz’s dilemma is that he can’t carry the team by himself, the organization’s looming problem is that it won’t be able to give him even this much help for long. The team will look to extend the quarterback’s rookie contract sooner than later – it can do so starting with the upcoming offseason – rather than let him inch toward either free agency or the unsatisfying solution of exercising an unguaranteed fifth year and, beyond that, the possibility of a franchise tag. That almost never makes for a happy marriage. Wentz is accurately portrayed as an upbeat team player, but business is business, and a front office is not wise to tempt fate.
Locking him up, however, will start a salary-cap crunch that can be devastating. For reference, gaze down I-95 to what happened in Baltimore once the post-Super Bowl Ravens paid Joe Flacco.
The NFL, brilliant in so many ways, has devised a game in which having a top quarterback is vital, but getting one can also consume a team eventually. For the Eagles, the window to get the most out of Wentz at a bargain is nearly closed. Had they not won a championship in the most surprising of ways – without him – that closing would be a gloomy prospect indeed for the franchise.
Instead, the trophy shines in its case as a reminder that not all successes can be carefully planned. This season is a reminder, too, that not all careful plans are destined to succeed.