Sometime since training camp ended in August, the Eagles resodded their practice fields at the NovaCare Complex with Zoysia, the Asian grass that, after maintaining its plush emerald condition throughout spring and summer, turns wheat-brown in the autumn and winter. The franchise’s field-maintenance staff cuts the grass so low these days that, on Thursday afternoon, the Eagles appeared to be working out not in South Philadelphia, but on a Southwestern prairie, as though they were a high-school or small-college team from Nowheresville, Texas.
To watch Carson Wentz go through some throwing drills with the team’s available wide receivers early in practice was to see that metaphor reaffirmed. Wentz’s first two passes went to Rob Davis, whom the Eagles promoted from the practice squad Thursday and whose NFL career comprises three games and one 11-yard reception, and Greg Ward, who had been on the practice squad for three years before the Eagles promoted him to the active roster three games ago.
Davis and Ward can call themselves NFL players without hearing anyone snicker, of course, and Ward has proved a quick study as a slot receiver, catching 11 passes in his three games. But no one is ordering either man’s jersey on Amazon for Christmas, either.
For Wentz, the presences of Ward, Davis, Josh Perkins, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and running back Boston Scott — and the Eagles’ need to play them — have changed everything about the perception and the possibilities of him and this season. After the Eagles’ 23-17 victory over the Giants on Monday night, Wentz was rightly praised for the basics of his performance: Over the second half and overtime, he completed 22 of his 31 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, rallying the Eagles from a 14-point halftime deficit to win a game that, if only for emotional and psychological reasons, they needed to win.
“This would have to be his number-one game, quite honestly,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson told reporters Tuesday.
But it wasn’t just that Wentz, who hadn’t rallied the Eagles for a big win all that often in his career before Monday, had finally done so. The basics were impressive, but they didn’t capture fully why people were going gaga over his game.
It was that Wentz had pulled off the comeback without Alshon Jeffery, without Nelson Agholor, without Lane Johnson, and without Jordan Howard — without several of the veteran starters who were supposed to have made the Eagles’ offense so potent this season.
You lead a comeback with those guys, you’re doing what a franchise quarterback is supposed to do. You lead a comeback by floating a 22-yard completion over Arcega-Whiteside’s head and into his hands on third down, by sizzling a throw to Ward to set up first-and-goal, by relying on Perkins and Scott … that’s something else. That’s a quarterback carrying his team, even if Wentz himself doesn’t see it that way.
“I do not, no,” he said Thursday. “I do not look at it that way at all. I know that’s kind of part of the quarterback situation, but the other night, I think that was just a perfect example of us as a team — guys stepping up, a guy like Boston Scott taking a 5-yard swing route and taking it 20 yards. Little things like that lead to big plays in big moments. Guys just kept stepping up, and that’s what it’s going to take. …
“I came in after the game super-excited to see a lot of those guys who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to make a play on Monday Night Football to put us in the situation that we did — to go out and win. It’s a credit to all those guys and how hard they worked to be ready for that moment.”
It was a credit to Wentz, too, and ahead of the Eagles’ game this Sunday at FedEx Field against the Redskins, it has him in an unfamiliar position — unfamiliar to him, but not to his team.
During their Super Bowl season of 2017-18 and their late-season surge to the NFC divisional round last season, the Eagles branded themselves “underdogs.” They used the term as a source of defiance and inspiration. But they based that collective persona mostly on one overriding fact: Their franchise quarterback had torn his knee one year and broken a bone in his back the next and couldn’t play. They had lost other starters to injury, but the Eagles weren’t “underdogs” until Nick Foles was under center and Wentz wasn’t.
Now, here they are at 6-7, with the NFC East title still within their reach, only this time, it’s not the quarterback who’s gone, but so many important players around him. Boston Scott will be in the backfield. Halapoulivaati Vaitai will be at right tackle. Rob Davis will be on the outside. Greg Ward will be in the slot.
For once, Carson Wentz is an underdog, too, and if he can get these backups and castoffs and practice-squadders into the playoffs, someone should hand him a dog mask, and he should wear it with pride.