The Eagles’ decision to complete a contract extension with quarterback Carson Wentz this offseason, rather than waiting to see what’s behind door No. 3, was not only the smartest course of action, but their only one.
Delaying the move would have put the team in the weird position of gaining financially only if the market value dropped on a guy who is the hope of the entire franchise. That’s a lousy bet to win.
So, they got it done, and if the deal goes full term, Wentz will be 32 years old when the extension expires. It will cost the team an average of $32 million over the final four years, but the Eagles succeeded in their goal, to lock up the most important position in the game and attempt to build a championship roster around him.
Aside from a big chunk of that dough, however, nothing is really guaranteed. There are obvious concerns about Wentz remaining healthy, which seems the only impediment to his success, but the Eagles might not win a Super Bowl with Wentz if he never suffers any more than a hangnail.
The outcome of an NFL season is just that capricious, and pinning a team’s hopes on a quarterback taken at the top of the draft is rewarded far less than you would predict. Having an elite quarterback doesn’t make success a sure thing, but not having one is a pretty reliable formula for failure. The disparity that matters most – and it will take years to determine where Wentz falls on this spectrum – is between where a quarterback is taken in the draft and how he ultimately produces on the field.
It might be football’s ultimate joke on the careful science of the draft that the guy who has led his team to more Super Bowl wins than anyone else was taken in the sixth round with the 199th pick. That meant Tom Brady was taken 181 spots after the first quarterback selected in the 2000 draft, the unforgettable Chad Pennington, something Brady certainly didn’t forget.
In the last 25 drafts, 19 NFL teams have used a top-three selection on a quarterback. Nine of them, including the Eagles, have done it more than once. Every one of those teams made those selections with some degree of confidence that this would be the guy. This would be the quarterback for the next decade, the one to ride in the first float of the parade. That’s what spending a pick that valuable means.
Of the 29 quarterbacks taken with one of the first three picks in that span of 25 drafts, only two won Super Bowls, and they happen to be brothers. Aside from the Manning family of New Orleans, the rest of the country has been slackers in having top quarterback draft picks live up to their ultimate expectations.
It may be that Wentz will be the next one, and while the Eagles have definitely invested in that possibility, other teams feel the same way about their guys; whether it’s Jared Goff in Los Angeles, Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, or one the more recent saviors like Baker Mayfield in Cleveland and Sam Darnold with the Jets. History tells us most of them will be wrong.
An odd thing about this is that the previous generation of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks contained mostly bluebloods from the draft. If you look at the championship span from the mid-'70s to the late-’90s, another roughly 25-year period, 12 of the Super Bowl wins were quarterbacked by guys taken not just among the top three draft selections, but exclusively No. 1 overall. Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Jim Plunkett and Steve Young all got it done. (Young actually entered the league as a supplemental pick, but would have been No. 1 overall had he not opted to sign with the L.A. Express of the USFL.)
Does that mean predicting quarterback success in the NFL was easier then? Has the complexity of the game and the way it has morphed into a pass-dominant sport made projections from college to the NFL tougher? Or does the fact that Joe Montana, a third-round pick, won as many Super Bowls (four) as Bradshaw negate all that? It’s an interesting conversation, but not one with a conclusion.
The truth is that winning a Super Bowl is really hard, and finding a quarterback who can make it significantly easier is every team’s first priority. Reflecting that championships have been won by Jeff Hostetler, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, and, yes, Nick Foles, doesn’t change that equation. Focusing on very high draft picks who didn’t pan out for various reasons – Joey Harrington, JaMarcus Russell, Sam Bradford, David Carr, and Blake Bortles are among those who come to mind – doesn’t alter anything, either.