Among sportswriters, there are a few assertions and aphorisms that serve as our own odd and intrinsic set of guiding principles: Sometimes, when you’re on deadline, it’s better to be done than to be good. Make sure you hoard those frequent-flyer miles and hotel points. And above all, if you want to do this job the right way, don’t root for any particular team or any particular individual. Root for the story.
That last principle can be difficult for people outside the profession to understand, because often they assume one of two things: Either you’re supposed to be biased toward the hometown teams and athletes, or you wouldn’t have decided to pursue this career if you weren’t. True, you might start out with those inclinations, but over time, you end up where you ought to be: You become biased toward the interesting and the thrilling, the stuff that gives sports life.
For example, a New England native might have been rooting hard for the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, but it’s hard to deny that having Nick Foles lead the Eagles to victory that night was the better story. The Eagles (as they liked to remind us during that period and for months thereafter) were underdogs, and they had never won a Super Bowl before, and after nearly retiring from football, Foles had stepped in for the NFL’s prospective MVP, Carson Wentz. The dramatic infrastructure was in place long before Foles trotted to the sideline and whispered, “You want Philly Philly?” in Doug Pederson’s ear.
Now, if Foles’ strolling down Glory Road was a great story, the possibility that he could fill in for Wentz once more, help the Eagles win their final three regular-season games, and – after 13 games of frustration and inconsistency – shepherd them into the playoffs would be an ungodly great story. Philadelphians, as a general rule, are a sentimental bunch when it comes to their sports heroes, which means many Eagles fans surely were inclined to open their arms and hearts to Foles anyway. And as the aftermath of the Eagles’ 30-23 victory Sunday night over the Rams already has begun to demonstrate, if Foles were to pull off this trick, it would ignite the mother of all quarterback controversies here.
Talk-show hosts would argue, if they haven’t already, that the Eagles are a better team with Foles than they are with Wentz, that Foles has some sort of magical unseen quality that Wentz lacks, that the Eagles should make Foles – not Wentz – their full-time starting quarterback. Reporters and media members would be digging for gossip about the relationship between Wentz and Foles: Do they get along? Does Carson resent Nick? What do the guys in the locker room think about all this? It would be white-hot. It would be all-consuming. It would be glorious. (Hey, what can I say? Some men just want to watch the world burn.)
Yes, it would be a marvelous story. But understand: No matter how this all turns out, whether the Eagles make the playoffs or not, it’s probably going to be a short story.
Here’s why: Foles will turn 30 in January. If he and the Eagles were to exercise a mutual option in his contract, he would count $20.6 million against their salary cap next season. Wentz will turn 26 later this month. He is eligible to renegotiate his contract this offseason, and based on the market for franchise quarterbacks, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll someday sign a new deal with an average annual value of $30 million or so.
For all the concerns about the hairline fracture that Wentz suffered during the 2016 preseason, the two ligaments that he tore in his left knee last season, and the injury that now ails him – a stress fracture in his back – the Eagles did not trade up twice to draft him with the No. 2 overall pick only to give up on him three years into his NFL career. They will take his health into consideration. They might adjust their parameters for any sort of long-term contract, just to protect themselves as much as they can in case Wentz gets hurt again. But make no mistake: When it comes to their future, they’re not going to choose Foles over Wentz. At the moment, actually, the safe bet is that Foles won’t be back next season at all. He would take up so much of their salary cap in 2019 that the Eagles are unlikely to keep him on the roster, and after two years of backing up Wentz, no matter how comfortable he might feel in Philadelphia, Foles himself might be ready and eager to explore an opportunity to start somewhere else.
Will the situation play out exactly that way? Nobody knows for sure. Theoretically, Foles could lead the Eagles on another deep playoff run, but from the joy it would inspire to the questions it would raise, that scenario is just too wild to contemplate now. In this business, you try to be realistic. You root for the story, but you don’t count on a fantasy.