BALTIMORE — A white towel in his left hand, a fitting symbol for his plight had he chosen to wave it like a flag, Carson Wentz paced the visitors’ sideline at M&T Stadium late Monday night, powerless to stop Lamar Jackson from dealing him a devastating defeat.
Jackson was capping a brilliant game in prime time — 37 completions out of 43 passes, 442 yards, four touchdowns, plus 62 rushing yards — by leading the Baltimore Ravens on a quick and, for Wentz and the Indianapolis Colts, painful drive. Out of the depths of a 16-point deficit with less than 10 minutes left in regulation, Jackson cut up an exhausted Colts defense on the only possession of overtime: 68 yards, 10 plays, and a 5-yard scoring pass to Marquis Brown, all in less than five minutes. Ravens 31, Colts 25.
Wentz strode off the field, through the bowels of the stadium, and into the locker room alone and in stone silence, having played his best game of this season, having looked like the quarterback he was not last year, when he was the NFL’s worst for the Eagles, but in 2019, when he shepherded a band of second-teamers and castoffs to an NFC East title. He had thrown for a career-high 402 yards and for two touchdowns, had compiled a 128.5 passer rating, had gotten the ball back with 39 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and pushed the Colts into field-goal range. None of it mattered. None of it was enough. Rodrigo Blankenship, Indianapolis’ kicker, nursing a sore right hip, missed a 47-yarder as the clock hit 0:00. Wentz never got the ball back. He became not the hero but the quarterback of a 1-4 team.
“Not a fun loss,” Wentz said. “Talked to everybody after the game and said you’ve got to have a killer instinct. That goes for me. That goes for all of us. You’ve got to finish games and put teams away when you have them on the ropes like that.”
Little about the last 13 months has been fun for Wentz, and the question of how much of that disappointment is his own doing and how much of the blame for it the Eagles bear is one that will inspire barroom debates in Philadelphia for generations to come. The same pattern has continued in Indianapolis. Sometimes it’s circumstances: Wentz sprained both of his ankles in a game last month. Sometimes it’s his own choices: Colts owner Jim Irsay called him out over the “difficulties” Wentz was causing the team by declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19. There never seems to be calm around him.
He was not the reason that the Colts lost Monday night, but in the offices of One NovaCare Way and among fans of his former team, any sympathy for him was probably in short supply. It’s not just that Wentz decided he’d had enough of the Eagles, had enough of Philadelphia, and forced his way out of town. The conditional second-round draft pick that the Eagles acquired from Indianapolis can become a first-round pick if Wentz plays at least 75% of the Colts’ snaps this season and they miss the playoffs. That’s the best of all worlds for the Birds: Wentz plays a lot, and the Colts lose a lot.
Monday was ideal in that regard, a perfect microcosm of what the Eagles need and what so many of their fans and followers want: the chance to see Wentz suffer for abandoning their team and them. Sure, the Eagles — Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, et al. — should have gotten a more accurate read on who Wentz was, how he would react to using a second-round draft pick on another quarterback. But fans’ loyalty will always go to the team first, and if Wentz is a means to a better end for the Eagles — a higher pick in next year’s draft — that’s just an added sweetener to their schadenfreude over his struggles.
Truth be told, though, he didn’t struggle much Monday. He committed just one turnover, a light night for him. With a chance to put the Colts up by double digits early in the game, he was sacked by Ravens linebacker and Penn State alum Odafe Oweh and fumbled at the Baltimore 14-yard line. “We got down there, and I’ve got to protect the football,” he said. “That’s the only one I keep playing in my head. That’s one I want back.”
But the more telling sequence came late in the fourth quarter, with the Colts up eight and facing third-and-8 at the Ravens’ 15. Frank Reich, Wentz’s offensive coordinator with the Eagles and his head coach with the Colts, called a handoff to tailback Jonathan Taylor that the Ravens stuffed for a 4-yard loss. Baltimore’s Calais Campbell then blocked Blankenship’s 37-yard field-goal try, then Jackson led the Ravens on a tying touchdown march. Reich was left to lament his earlier decision, with the game in the balance, to take the ball out of Wentz’s hands.
“I wish I had that call back,” Reich said. “That was a conservative call. The reason I didn’t [call a pass play] was I knew they were pressuring. I didn’t want to get sacked, didn’t want anything crazy to happen. Given how good [Wentz] was playing, I probably should have said, ‘Let’s just go for the jugular. Throw it in the end zone.’”
But Reich didn’t, because something crazy might happen, and crazy things have tended to happen with Wentz at quarterback: 60 fumbles in five-plus years, a league-high 15 interceptions and 50 sacks last season. There’s that hard, recent history with Wentz, and maybe next time, his coach will give him that opportunity to overcome it. Maybe that’s a right he has to earn back. There was no next time Monday night against Lamar Jackson, just an endless and excruciating stint on the sideline watching as a victory slipped away, just Carson Wentz’s circumstances and choices conspiring against him one more time.