Carson Wentz should have thrown the ball away. He didn’t. That’s why he absorbed a vicious hit from a vicious player. That’s why he suffered a concussion in the first — and last — quarter of his playoff debut. And that’s why the Eagles lost.
There’s really no other way to view what happened Sunday against Seattle.
Despise Jadeveon Clowney all you like, but Wentz continues to put himself in peril. He continues to get hurt. He blew out a knee on a scramble in 2017. Weeks after a 12-hit escapade in Minnesota, he was diagnosed with a fractured back. And Sunday, just less than 5 minutes into the wild-card game, he tucked and ran and got his bell rung.
Maybe that hit will finally teach him his lesson. It’s a fine line, as Doug Pederson likes to say, between aggressiveness and recklessness. Sunday, Wentz needed to stay farther behind the line.
It was the first play of the Eagles’ second series. The Seahawks correctly diagnosed a screen pass to the left — a play designed to invite defenders into the backfield. Wentz turned back to his right. He faced Bradley McDougald, who had spied him from the snap. There were 8 yards between the two. Jarran Reed was maybe 9 yards away, slightly to Wentz’s left. Clowney was closing from just behind Wentz’s left shoulder, maybe 8 yards away.
At that point, Wentz should have dumped the ball. Period. There was no escape. None.
Wentz wasn’t going to juke McDougald, who, as a safety, earns his daily bread by making open-field tackles of football players much more gifted than Carson Wentz. Wentz wasn’t going to run over Reed, who weighs 306 pounds. And he certainly wasn’t going to outrun Clowney, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. Wentz ran a 4.77 in 2016, before his knee and back problems. If McDougald hadn’t sacked Wentz, and if he eluded Reed, Clowney would have downed him from behind like a cheetah hunting antelope.
McDougald was actually spying Wentz the entire play. McDougald hit Wentz at the thighs, then held on to his feet. He was credited with a sack; so let’s quash all that talk about Wentz giving himself up. He wasn’t giving himself up. He chose to become a ballcarrier, and he was trying to escape a tackle.
Wentz was falling when, with clearly malicious intent, Clowney closed in, lowered his head and shoulder; and, with disputable intent, clipped the back of Wentz’s helmet with the crown of his own. Clowney claims he didn’t mean to hit Wentz’s head with his own. The officials considered the contact incidental. The Eagles did not challenge the play, which happened on their side of the field, about 35 yards from where Pederson stood.
Wentz looked woozy when he stood up, but then, Clowney’s a big guy. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time for anyone who has seen more than two weeks’ worth of football. Granted, the forensic, high-definition, super-slow-mo Zapruder replays make it look far worse.
Should Clowney have been penalized? Maybe. Should Clowney get fined? Perhaps. Call for both. Knock yourself out. But 15 yards and $25,000 aren’t going to keep Clowney from doing it again.
The NFL is populated by dozens of big, mean, angry men, intent on making truckloads of money by destroying the opposition’s quarterback. Clowney will be a free agent after this season. Rest assured, when Clowney‘s agent makes his 2019 highlight video, the Carson Wentz hit will be the featured element.
Besides, any conversation about a penalty on the play is pointless. The Eagles converted on third down and gained a total of 12 more yards. Wentz already had his concussion. Penalizing Clowney wouldn’t have cleared the cobwebs — cobwebs that would never have existed if Wentz had simply thrown the ball away.
This is the paradoxical debate concerning Wentz. We have it every year. He can’t be effective playing like a statue, but he’s not Russell Wilson, either. He’s something in between. And that is all he is.
He’s a pretty good athlete. He’s a pretty big guy, at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds. He’s a pretty tough guy; he’ll play hurt if you let him. We’ve seen him make big plays, but he isn’t exactly born to run. If he stays locked in the pocket, he’s less effective. If he exits the pocket, he seems more creative, more dangerous, and, most important, more comfortable.
But Sunday’s incident had nothing to do with staying in the pocket.
Sunday’s incident had everything to do with Wentz’s inability to comprehend that he’s not Deshaun Watson, or Lamar Jackson, or Steve Young, or even Donovan McNabb. He’s a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency runner, not the Ultimate Weapon.
Sunday’s incident underscored why, if he doesn’t wise up, Wentz will continue to suffer serious injuries. He’s been hurt each of the past five seasons, counting his senior year at North Dakota State, an FCS (I-AA) school where he could outrun most players and run over the rest. He’s not injury-prone, and he’s not fragile; he’s fearless, and sometimes foolish.
Trying to escape McDougald, Reed, and Clowney was foolish. It exposed Wentz to a hit that took the ball out of the hands of the best red-zone quarterback in the NFC and put it in the hands of a 40-year-old playoff rookie who began the season as an ESPN analyst. Josh McCown went 0-for-3 in red-zone touchdown chances, and an ugly oh-fer it was, to no one’s surprise.
Eagles postseason hero Nick Foles is now twisting in the Jacksonville wind. Nate Sudfeld has been deemed Worse Than Josh. There is no safety net.
Wentz must realize that it is his responsibility — it is his chief responsibility, as the $128 million face of the franchise — to understand that there are Jadeveon Clowneys and Vontaze Burficts and Derek Barnetts on every team. They are tasked with and rewarded for doing exactly what Clowney did to him.
To be fair, Wentz did a pretty good job this season of realizing that responsibility. But just pretty good. Far too often, he tried to do far too much.
It is Doug Pederson’s job to protect Carson Wentz with judicious play-calling. It is the offensive line’s job to protect Carson Wentz by blocking. It is the officials’ job to protect Carson Wentz by consistently enforcing the proper rules for Wentz and other mobile quarterbacks, despite the difficulty their mobility presents.
But no one holds as much responsibility for protecting Carson Wentz as Carson Wentz.