Zach Ertz isn’t looking back, only forward.
It’s understandable considering the last year he has had. From a contract dispute to on-field struggles, from an ankle injury to surgery and recovery, from endless trade speculation to somehow still an Eagle, Ertz has had the most trying 12 months of his career.
He could have turned bitter with much of his future unknown this offseason. He could have handled his unexpected return to Philly when he was still without assurances about his future differently. But with little to lose, Ertz said he felt unencumbered as training camp and the preseason progressed.
“This is,” Ertz said Wednesday, “the most fun I’ve had coming into work in a long time.”
If production in practice was an indicator, then the three-time Pro Bowl tight end must be truthful. Ertz looked his old self for much of the last month, even as rumors about an eventual departure persisted. But, naturally, there were questions about the past after nine months of silence.
In January, Ertz gave a tearful “goodbye” news conference that indicated he thought his days here were over. He wanted a new deal, the Eagles weren’t prepared to meet his demands, and with Dallas Goedert a younger, cheaper option, surely there could be only one conclusion.
And there almost was. Ertz confirmed that he was close to being traded. He confirmed that he often asked himself, “Man, what is going on?” when his faith had been tested. And he admitted there was strife with the Eagles that needed mending.
“There have been apologies,” Ertz said during a video news conference.
But when asked if he felt the front office (read: Howie Roseman) had treated him fairly in light of all his contributions made to the franchise, Ertz spoke only of its support in his first eight seasons and of his forgiveness.
“At the end of the day, it’s a moot point … They were standing firm to what they believed was fair and ultimately I can’t fault them for that,” he said. “They know how I feel about this city. I truly love being here. And what’s happened in the past is in the past. I’m not thinking about it.
“For me and my faith, it’s all about forgiveness, forgiveness, and who am I not to be able to extend a forgiving arm with everything I believe in my faith?”
Ertz said he told his agent, “Don’t leak anything,” as trade discussions were being held throughout the spring. And despite any anxiousness he may have felt about his situation being unresolved, he was going to keep business in-house.
“I love this city too much to ‘burn it down,’” Ertz said, “like some people wanted me to do at times.”
There was interest from teams, specifically the Bills, Colts and Chargers, and a deal for a conditional fifth-round draft pick was on the table, NFL sources said. But for whatever the reason, Roseman never pulled the trigger.
It was certainly within his right. Ertz is a quality player. He’s still only 30. But after the draft, there was a sit-down with Roseman and new coach Nick Sirianni, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Sirianni liked Ertz, had studied his film intently when former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich became Colts head coach and Sirianni his assistant. But the coach wants an explosive offense that favors three-wide receiver sets over two tight ends.
But day after day, week after week, nothing happened. Some NFL insiders believed that Roseman wasn’t making any significant moves during camp with a possible acquisition of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson in the mix.
Ertz, meanwhile, showed up for camp in his usual great shape, and aside from his bleach blonde hairdo, not much seemed to change. And over the next month, Sirianni slowly adjusted to the idea of keeping both Goedert and Ertz.
“You look at all our catch charts throughout the entire preseason practices, they’re both right up there with the most catches in team periods and they’re up there with the most targets and up there with the highest percentage,” Sirianni said last week. “Just because we want to be a little bit more 11 [personnel] than 12, it doesn’t mean you don’t mix it in and work through it.”
Goedert eked ahead of Ertz in playing time as last season wore on. Quarterback Carson Wentz and the entire inefficiency of the offense affected both players, but so did injuries. Ertz suffered a high ankle sprain that he described as “freaking debilitating at times,” and it clearly affected his ability to get in and out of his breaks late in the season.
But there was concern from interested teams, beyond the remaining $8.5 million left on his contract, that he had lost a significant step. The Eagles’ willingness to hang onto him, though, suggests they believe he can regain some of his pre-2020 form when he was a perennial Pro Bowler.
Does that mean they’ll extend him with the 26-year-old Goedert also in the last year of his deal? It’s unlikely. Ertz’s standing on the roster for the entire season isn’t guaranteed either. But few expected him to be here just weeks ago.
“I can’t focus on how they feel about other people, whether they want to be in 11 personnel, whether they want to be in 12 personnel,” Ertz said. “I just know that I can produce in this league at a high level. I feel better now than I did this time last year going into the season, physically, mentally, emotionally.”
It once seemed only a matter of time until Ertz would break the Eagles’ record for career receptions. And then last year happened. But he’s back and only 29 catches from eclipsing Harold Carmichael’s mark of 589.
He should get it, and who knows, maybe many more in midnight green. Ertz’s return proved once again that anything’s possible.
“This is the place I want to be,” Ertz said. “This is the place I want to retire.”