The Eagles started this week on the one-year anniversary of the day quarterback Carson Wentz tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. They were hours past a backbreaking loss to the rival Dallas Cowboys that spoiled their best hope of reaching the playoffs, and, despite a season teetering on irretrievable, coach Doug Pederson noted that Wentz was “feeling as healthy as he’s ever been.”
Six days later, the Eagles will try to save whatever hope remains of their season the way they started it: with Nick Foles as the starting quarterback and Wentz on the sideline nursing an injury.
What led to this point is shrouded in mystery, and what will come after also remains ambiguous. What is known is that Wentz is out for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams because of a stress fracture in his back and that Foles, one of the most iconic players in Eagles history, is expected to start at the site at which he relieved Wentz last December to begin one of the most improbable Super Bowl runs in NFL history.
The team announced Saturday that Wentz will miss Sunday’s game, and Wentz will fly with the team across the country despite the back injury. Wentz didn’t practice leading up to the game, and it was Foles as the first-team quarterback. Neither player spoke to reporters this week.
“If we put [Wentz] out there, there has to be 100 percent that there’s no risk" of worsening the back injury, Pederson said.
The Eagles prepared for the possibility of a Wentz injury this season. It’s why they remained so invested in Foles during the offseason, resisting the idea of trading him when his value reached its apex and giving him a restructured contract with a $2 million signing bonus and incentives. Foles started two games to begin the season but hasn’t been seen on the field since. He’s effectively remained behind the scenes, buying time before he becomes one of the most intriguing quarterbacks available in 2019. Before that happens, he’ll have what will likely be one final stand with teammates aware of his capabilities.
“Nick’s the Super Bowl MVP,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He’ll be all right.”
Pederson said, as far as he knew, there were no problems with Wentz’s health when the Eagles returned home from Dallas on Monday. However, one day later, Wentz underwent a medical examination that signaled the back injury. Pederson said on Wednesday that Wentz had a “little bit soreness, a little bit of tightness” and the team would rest him while Wentz underwent more tests.
It was learned on Thursday through NFL sources that Wentz has a fractured vertebra, detected after a CT scan and an MRI exam, and that Wentz sought outside medical evaluation. Pederson labeled it a “stress injury" that “evolved.” But he refused to name a start date for the evolution or why the Eagles allowed their franchise quarterback to play with an evolving injury.
“There were no symptoms,” Pederson said. “He was 100 percent. He practiced. He was not on the injury report for this.”
Wentz was previously on the injury report for a back injury in October, but he hasn’t been on it since the bye week. He also hasn’t missed game time. It’s plausible – and even understandable – for such an injury to go undetected, although teammates seemed to know that Wentz wasn’t himself. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews, a close friend of Wentz’s, lauded Wentz’s toughness and said teammates “knew he was dealing with something, obviously.”
“He was even playing at a high level with what he was dealing with,” Matthews said. "Going through reads, it helps to have a healthy back. But he was still going out there and producing at a high level with the injury.”
Pederson said the Eagles expect a full recovery – there’s no official timetable, but Pederson said it could take three months – and that the “best news that you could possibly have” is that Wentz will not require surgery.
Wentz has suffered injuries in each of his last four seasons, and Pederson acknowledged that outsiders could view that as a “red flag.” But football is a violent sport, Pederson reasoned, and there are ways for Wentz and the Eagles to protect him.
One message made clear from those who know Wentz is how badly he wants to play. That was the case at the beginning of the season, when he was outspoken about starting Week 1. But team officials held Wentz out for two weeks and started Foles.
“Whether he plays this week, or whether he plays this rest of the year, he’s definitely doing everything he can to play,” said tight end Zach Ertz, another of Wentz’s closest friends on the team. “This year hasn’t gone the way we all thought it would. Obviously, you want him to play each and every game. But I care about him as a person.”
The Eagles practiced Wednesday for the first time this week. After their pre-practice stretching, they gathered in a team huddle. As they approached the huddle, teammates shouted out who should be in the middle leading it.
“Let’s go, Folesy!” one player shouted.
Foles stood in the middle surrounded by his team, just like the podium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.
“I just want everyone to know that everyone has full confidence in the guy,” Ertz said. “We’re not asking him to do too much. We’re just asking him to be himself. But at the same time, guys love playing for him.”
Their confidence in Foles doesn’t need much explanation. As Mack Hollins said before the season, Foles “put jewelry on our fingers.” It’s rare to have a backup quarterback as accomplished as Foles. During the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, owner Jeffrey Lurie noted the resources the Eagles invested in bringing Foles to Philadelphia as insurance for Wentz.
"We never called him a backup, ever," Lurie said. "This is a guy who when he was with us played very, very well."
Four nights later, Foles made history. And during the offseason, with Foles under contract, executive vice president Howie Roseman explained that “we know what we have,” and there was a “high price tag” if the Eagles were to trade Foles. The team rewarded Foles with more money, but Foles said he didn’t want a trade. And Foles also tried to make sure that the eventual transition to Wentz wasn’t messy when it could have been.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why didn’t you demand this?’ ” Foles said earlier this season. "Well, that’s just not who I am, and that’s who I don’t want to be. At the end of the day, I want my kids and my daughter, when she gets older, to look back and be proud of her daddy. So I focus on that with every decision I make. "
Foles went 54 of 82 for 451 yards, one touchdown and one interception in two games this season. The Eagles went 1-1 during the span. The coaching staff learned last season how best to use Foles, partly through experience with him and also by studying Foles when he was at his best throughout his career. The Eagles mix in run-pass options, allow for quick decisions and focus on getting Foles into an early rhythm. That will likely be the strategy Sunday night against the Rams.
During the playoffs, Pederson said that the message was, “Let’s go be Nick.” Offensive coordinator Mike Groh offered a similar refrain before the season opener.
"He did a great job of distributing the football throughout the course of the playoffs and getting rid of the football and not holding the ball and putting the ball in our playmakers' hands and letting those guys do what they do best,” Groh said. “He doesn't have to do anything extraordinary. He just has to continue to play like he did before and be the same guy. "