On Monday Night Football, the Eagles’ franchise quarterback led two touchdown drives in the last 17 minutes of regulation, forcing overtime. He led another touchdown drive that beat the Giants, 23-17. He likely saved the season. And, perhaps most significantly, he cleared a daunting hurdle in his career.
On Tuesday morning, I asked a veteran NFL executive how important it was for Carson Wentz to perform in the clutch, in prime time, in such a manner.
“Very. Very important," he said, "That is what the great ones do.”
Actually, it’s how the great ones become great. Wentz failed in his five previous fourth-quarter comeback tries this season, including each of the Eagles’ previous three games. He looked panicked, and tense, and terrified of failure, and this was nothing new. Wentz was 4-for-18 in feasible comeback chances in his 52-game career.
So what, Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks told him last week on the team plane, after the offense dissolved at Miami, and the Eagles fell to 5-7. Don’t worry about any of that. That support might have made all the difference.
“Look, man,” Brooks told Wentz, “I just want to you know, this ---- ain’t all on you. I know you’re the franchise guy. You’re the face of the franchise, the $100 million man, all that other ----. But with us losing ... we’ve got more problems, and everybody’s pointing a finger at the franchise guy.”
Brooks knows how paralyzing worry can be. He suffers from an anxiety condition that has cost him five games in his career. He missed most of Game 11 this season because of the pressure of having signed a $54 million contract extension. Now in his eighth NFL season, Brooks wanted to make sure Wentz, in just his fourth, wasn’t putting too much pressure on himself. That’s why Brooks approached Wentz.
“Don’t think our win-and-loss columns are strictly on you," Brooks told Wentz. "Because they’re not. It’s a team game. A team sport. You lose a game, we lose a game — we all lose.”
That’s true, to a point. Doug Pederson played with Dan Marino and Brett Favre before he became Wentz’s coach. Those two combined for 61 comebacks and rank fifth (33) and 10th (28), respectively. Pederson knows that comebacks are the essence of greatness. They turn a little faith into a lot of faith.
Monday night helped instill “more confidence from his teammates in him,” Pederson said Tuesday morning, then referenced the time he spent watching Dan the Man and The Gunslinger.
“You could see it. When it gets to crunch time, you put it on the quarterback. And guys rally. That’s what we saw yesterday. That’s hopefully what you’re going to see as we continue to grow as a team in the years to come.”
Notice that Pederson did not qualify that statement. He didn’t say, “As long as we surround Carson with star players.”
Pederson knows that great quarterbacks work with the tools at hand. In 2016, the Eagles mortgaged their future to draft Wentz No. 2 overall. In February, they cut Super Bowl hero Nick Foles. In June, they signed Wentz to a $128 million contract extension, and they had never even seen him in a playoff game. So Wentz had better be great.
Wentz defenders like to point out that his teammates hadn’t made every possible play this season. Please. Wentz’s teammates didn’t make every play Monday night, either. There were drops and penalties and botched assignments galore.
The difference was, on Monday night, Wentz finally played well enough to compensate. That’s why Wentz got a $128 million extension. That’s why Eli Manning, whom Wentz beat Monday, has made $252 million. It’s why his brother Peyton, whose 43 comebacks are the record, made $248 million. The Brothers Manning are the two richest football players ever because they won.
On Monday, Wentz won.
Buoyed by Brooks’ encouragement, playing as freely as he did as a rookie, Wentz led three TD drives that featured practice-squad call-ups Boston Scott, Greg Ward, and Josh Perkins, players so marginalized that neither the Eagles nor any other team wanted them on their roster. In the first half, he’d lost No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery and star right tackle Lane Johnson to lower leg injuries. They watched the rest of the game with No. 2 receiver Nelson Agholor and lead running back Jordan Howard, who weren’t available at all.
Monday night was ... well, pick your cliché. A must-win. A gut check. I prefer a Wentz referendum.
He passed. Lord, how he passed.
When Wentz ran up the tunnel at halftime trailing by two touchdowns, he was the main target of deafening boos the likes of which hadn’t been heard since Marion Campbell’s odoriferous editions soiled the Veterans Stadium turf almost a decade before Wentz was born.
Those boos intensified in the middle of the third quarter, when Wentz whiffed on a shotgun snap on second-and-1 at the Giants’ 47, which squelched that drive. He was 11-for-22 for 98 yards and two sacks, a 62.3 passer rating.
To that point, he’d played like the same inefficient player he’d been in the three games since the bye.
From that point, everything changed.
Wentz went 22-for-28 for 227 yards and two touchdowns, a 124.3 passer rating. Granted, Wentz came back against perhaps the worst pass defense he’d faced all season, but he also did it with the worst weapons he’d had all year.
Again: Great quarterbacks succeed with the tools at hand.
This was not Wentz’s best game of the season. He’d played very well in the nine games before the bye. He beat the Bills in October at Buffalo in much more brutal conditions than Monday night’s warm, wet setting. He outplayed Aaron Rodgers in September, with three TDs, no turnovers, and no sacks in Green Bay.
This was, however, Wentz’s best moment. In fact, it was his best moment since he scored a touchdown at the Rams in December 2017 on a shredded knee. It might be the most significant moment of his short career. If nothing else, Wentz finally proved that, after knee and back injuries ended the past two seasons and diminished his mobility, he can pull out a win.
“I don’t think he needed to prove that to us,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
Did Wentz realize that? Because, for the past three weeks, it sure looked like he’d been trying to prove something. Brooks wanted to make sure Wentz knew he had nothing to prove, so that’s why he spoke to Wentz last week. He knows how lonely the NFL can be, even in a room full of 52 other men.
What was Wentz’s response? Brooks smiled. He didn’t want to tell, and he didn’t want to lie. Instead, he replied: