When Carson Wentz takes a hit on the field, he isn’t the only one affected. His offensive linemen will turn around and see him on the ground and wonder if it was their fault. His receivers, while they may not actually see the carnage, will return to the huddle to see their quarterback wincing. His coaches will call run plays so that he can catch his breath.
Wentz, meanwhile, will do everything within his power to stay in the game no matter the discomfort. It’s the kind of toughness that can galvanize an offense and, if productive, frustrate a defense. While there’s an element of glorification to enduring physical pain in football, it can serve a purpose.
But there’s a thin line between exposing yourself to contact in the name of the winning and putting your health unnecessarily at risk. And Wentz has crossed that line and suffered the consequences before.
Last Sunday, the Eagles quarterback was hit at least a dozen times in the loss to the Falcons. He took a shot to the knee on the first series, a blow to the rib cage on the second and was in the medical tent being examined for a head injury as backup Josh McCown took over for six plays just before the half.
Wentz would return, however, and seemingly will the Eagles into the lead, his most amazing feat completing a pass with a defender riding his back. After the game, he echoed previous declarations that he would do everything within his power to protect himself.
“Tonight was the way it was, and we battled, and we fought. I did the same,” Wentz said in Atlanta. “That’s just football. At the end of the day, I’m not going to lose much sleep over it.”
But there were clear examples when Wentz exposed himself to harm, and the results weren’t successful. Did he, upon retrospect and re-watching the game, find any instances when he could have avoided needless contact?
Wentz paused for a moment to contemplate the question.
“Ah, not really,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve kind of put that behind me.”
As nerve-wracking as Sunday night might have been for everyone from owner Jeffery Lurie to the most casual Eagles fan, Wentz has seemed the least affected mentally by how close he could have come to another injury.
But his daring, despite the threats, may have been the best sign that he was back to the quarterback he was before his knee and back injuries.
“To me, Carson’s toughness is unquestioned,” Eagles guard Brandon Brooks said. “I think you saw it when he tore his ACL. Let’s be honest. He knew he tore his ACL, yet he stayed in there to throw a touchdown. His back was [screwed] up last year, and you want to say, ‘Sit out and make sure it’s right.’ He did everything the trainers had asked him to do, but he wanted to play so bad. When you’re willing to play through anything, that’s also a sign of toughness.”
The same was said about Andrew Luck early in his career. But the former Colts quarterback, after several injury-riddled years, abruptly retired in August at the age of 29. And reminders that NFL quarterbacks are as prone to injury as any player have already been prevalent through two weeks.
Nick Foles broke his clavicle in the Jaguars’ season opener. The Saints’ Drew Brees injured his thumb and had surgery. And while the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow injury had more to do with wear and tear, it’s just another reminder of how sudden a season can end.
Wentz has seen his previous two seasons end prematurely because of injury. He tore ligaments in his left knee when he dived into the end zone in 2017. And while it’s unclear when he suffered a stress fracture in his back in 2018, the hits he took early last season couldn’t have helped.
The narrative surrounding Wentz’s health and how he can avoid further injury was often debated during the offseason, especially after the Eagles signed him to a four-year, $137 million contract extension. But now that the season has begun, and after the Falcons game, it’s clear that it’s hard to get a hunter to drop his rifle.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said that he and his offensive coaches still offer reminders about protection and that Wentz remains receptive. But …
“This is a physical, violent game. Quarterbacks are going to get hit. … So it’s part of the game,” Pederson said. “It’s one thing you love about Carson is his toughness. You’d love to see him maybe throw the ball a bit sooner here and there. But the fact that he performed well yesterday and really kept us in this football game … That’s just natural God-given instinct. It’s hard to take that away from a player.”
In other words, it’s fine until it isn’t.
McCown hasn’t lasted 15 years in the NFL without toeing that line, but he’s also missed approximately 25 games to injury.
“Admittedly, I haven’t done the best job of this over my career,” McCown said. “Your value to the team, it becomes not only physical toughness but mental toughness to go, ‘You know what, I know there’s moments when I’m going to have stay in there and take hits and deliver balls. But there are also moments when I need to avoid contact so that my body doesn’t get beat up, and I can play for, hopefully, 16 games.’”
Nate Sudfeld didn’t even make it to the start of this season. The reserve quarterback broke his left wrist in the Eagles’ first preseason game. He was hit late and as he fell backward braced himself with his hands. Was there anything he could have done differently?
“I’ve thought about it a million times,” Sudfeld said. “Could I have tried to fall on my side? I’ve even practiced tumbling without putting my arms out. I guess it was an instinct because I don’t usually use my hands like that.”
There was little Wentz could have done on most of the blows he took Sunday. The Eagles’ blocking was subpar. He was tackled by his left leg and landed awkwardly on the third play from scrimmage. He grabbed his knee after the play, and even though the Eagles faced 1st-and-15 after a penalty and 2nd-and-long, Pederson called two straight rushes.
A series later, Wentz had to escape the pocket on third down. But rather than throw the ball away, he withstood a clean shot from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. The pass fluttered short, however, and was intercepted.
Cameras caught Wentz grabbing his chest as he walked off the field, which had the NBC broadcast crew speculating that he had injured his ribs.
Jones “hit me in the ribs, and I was just trying to catch my breath,” Wentz said.
At some point in the second quarter, the NFL’s independent spotter had Wentz examined for a concussion just before the start of an Eagles’ drive. Wentz called it “super frustrating” and “something [the NFL] has to figure out,” and when he emerged from the medical tent rushed back out on the field.
The hits kept coming, though. Guard Isaac Seumalo had a particularly rough night. Brooks said that when Wentz returns to the huddle after a hit there’s never any pointing fingers. He doesn’t so much as make a sound, despite the aches.
“He’ll get up like, '[Screw] it. Next play. Let’s go,’ ” Brooks said. “I think he’s so locked into the game that he’s not thinking about the hit.”
Or the costs if he’s the one placing himself as risk. After the Eagles scored their first touchdown, Wentz dived into the end zone – in a scenario similar to the one on which he injured his knee – but was denied the 2-point conversion because his knee was down.
Pederson said the play was designed to go to tight end Zach Ertz. But he was covered. Wentz improvised, and instincts took over.
“The dive was fine,” Pederson said. “We just have to be aware, if you can, keep your knee up.”
On the Eagles’ next drive, Wentz’s teammates said they could almost feel their quarterback trying to urge the offense down the field. He completed all eight of his passes, converted four third downs, and sneaked in for the touchdown. But the play that will be remembered came when Wentz, with Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley dragging him down from behind, hit receiver Mack Hollins just before his knees hit the turf.
Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh called the pass “heroic.” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said that quarterbacks who keep getting up from hits don’t discourage defenses because they know the blows take their toll. What can be exasperating is someone who escapes harm.
“You’re rushing and doing everything to get to the quarterback,” Jenkins said, “and he’s either getting rid of the ball quick, or he’s running around, and you’re not able to hit him.”
Even some of the most successful quarterbacks with long careers haven’t escaped multiple injuries. Aaron Rodgers has missed his share of games. Roethlisberger was good for an injury a season early in his career. Brees had been one of the most durable. Tom Brady has been essentially the exception.
“You watch some quarterbacks who never take hits and sometimes you’re like, ‘Maybe he could have stood in there and delivered it,’ ” Sudfeld said. “But then he’s still playing. Maybe there’s a fine to taking hits but then avoiding them. ‘Best ability is availability,’ as we say.”
Wentz has spoken about the emotional toll of his injuries and of missing time. But he said he had discarded those anxieties this offseason. At his news conference Wednesday, he wore a shirt that read “Landon’s Light” across his chest.
Landon Solberg, a native of Fargo, N.D., who had been a part of his foundation, died Tuesday from cancer at the age of 12. Wentz was asked how his death put his own football travails into perspective.