The only person who has prevented this last half-decade of Philadelphia sports from being a catastrophic failure — of high expectations unmet, of patience unrewarded, of promises unkept — is Nick Foles. An overstatement? Of course. But the more that the Eagles’ victory in Super Bowl LII recedes into the distance of history and memory, the more that the years since seem a cosmic measure of comeuppance for the city’s sports fans, a cruel karmic joke punishing them for experiencing something so refreshing, so joyous, so fleeting.
Yes, you can have your sports miracle, Philadelphia. You can have the backup quarterback/all-around swell guy win you your first Super Bowl … and against the best QB and coach of all time, to boot. You can all be bit players in a real-life Rocky script. You can all be Gazzo at ringside, casting aside your cynicism and buying into the underdog story. And in return, there will be agony and disappointment. Have fun replaying that YouTube clip of the Philly Special into perpetuity.
The latest reminder of how marvelous this period might have been, and how underwhelming it has turned out to be, came Monday, with the revelation that Carson Wentz would undergo foot surgery and miss 5-12 weeks of action for the Indianapolis Colts. The surgery, according to Colts head coach and former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, stems from an injury — a broken bone in Wentz’s left foot — that might trace back to his high school career.
Now, there are short-term ramifications for the Eagles that are directly tied to Wentz’s absence and health. Per the terms of their trade with Indianapolis, they get a draft pick that, based on the number of snaps that Wentz plays this season, will be either a first- or second-rounder. But that detail is less relevant to the big-picture view of this period in Philadelphia sports than the fact that Wentz is having surgery at all.
Even if the sequence of events that led the Eagles’ decision to trade him — the drafting of Jalen Hurts, Wentz’s poor play last season, his dissatisfaction with the franchise — had never unfolded, even if Wentz were still here, there’s a decent chance this injury would have surfaced anyway. And instead of I-told-you-so’ing the Colts, Eagles fans would be lamenting that their franchise quarterback was dealing with another damaged body part and proving too brittle to count on over the long term.
Either way, Wentz’s career would fit with the theme that has defined this era around here. The Eagles, the Sixers, the Phillies, the Flyers: All of them embarked on rebuilding processes to varying lengths, and while the Eagles can cite 41-33 as validation that their process worked, their steady regression since and Wentz’s acrimonious departure have cast that championship more as a fluke than as a stroke of genius.
What binds these four franchises at this time is that they had opportunities to get great and stay great, and they haven’t fulfilled those opportunities. From 2016 through 2018, they had six top-three draft picks: Wentz, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Mickey Moniak, Nolan Patrick, and Alec Bohm. The teams came by those shots at glory through plans that, on paper and provided they were carried out properly, made sense: The Phillies, Flyers, and Sixers broke themselves down for the sake of building themselves back up again, collecting high draft picks so they could acquire terrific young talent. The Eagles targeted Wentz as a quarterback prospect too enticing to pass up, then made two major trades to position themselves to draft him.
Those are picks that are supposed to turn into players who are supposed to turn into superstars, and though there’s plenty of luck and good fortune involved in the success or failure of such decisions, at its core the exercise rises and falls on a single, simple determination. Use “analytics.” Use “the eye test.” Use whatever combination of information and instinct you want. The final call always comes down to an evaluator saying one of two things: That guy has it. … That guy doesn’t.
And the teams here, to one degree or another, kept getting that call wrong. None of those six players was or has been able to establish any staying power with the organization that drafted him. At best, you saw flashes of marvelous play from Wentz and Simmons. At your most optimistic, you could evaluate Patrick or Bohm with a Well, let’s wait and see how he develops. At worst, you looked at Fultz and Moniak and saw they didn’t have a chance.
Three of them — Wentz, Fultz, and Patrick — are already gone. Another, Simmons, is likely to be. Another, Moniak, is already regarded as a bust. Bohm was up last season and has been down this season. If any of these four teams wins a championship in the near future, it will, in all likelihood, do so in spite of these players’ presences and contributions, not because of them. The next time someone asks why Philadelphia sports fans so often keep their eyes to the sky for the plummeting anvil, refer him or her to the ‘16-18 drafts. Then fire up YouTube, grab a pint of butter pecan or a tall glass of something strong, and settle in for a good, long, sentimental weepfest.