One day when Zach Ertz was at Stanford -- when he was just a promising young tight end and a management science and engineering major, before he was what he is now, which is the best tight end the Eagles have ever had -- the football team’s new strength and conditioning intern delivered a speech to all the Cardinal’s players. This was no ordinary intern. This was Steve Wisniewski: an All-America guard at Penn State and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection with the Raiders, a member of the NFL’s 1990s All Decade Team.
Wisniewski, the uncle of Eagles offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski, told the group that, during his career in football, he thought not at all about those achievements and accolades. What he wanted, most of all, was to leave the sport without having any regrets. He did not want, years after he’d retired, to wonder to himself, If I hadn’t gone partying, if I’d lifted more weights, if I’d gotten in better condition, what would I have done then? Who would I have been?
“That really resonated with me -- not only in football, but in life,” Ertz said after a recent Eagles practice. “When I was studying in school, I wanted to pick a major that would challenge me so I didn’t look back and say, ‘If only I did this, worked harder in the classroom…’ That’s the same mentality I’ve taken over the past seven years in the league, 11 including college. That’s what’s driving me.”
He was saying this as he leaned against a wall in a shady spot outside the NovaCare Complex, after a two-hour-plus practice on a blazing hot day, after spending another 20 minutes catching footballs shot from a JUGS machine and dumping them into a gray trash can next to him. In 2017, Ertz had his third consecutive season of at least 74 receptions, then scored the winning touchdown in Super Bowl LII. Last year, he caught 116 passes during the regular season, 26 more than any other player in Eagles history. He has 437 catches over his six seasons in the NFL. He is 28. Pete Retzlaff, clinging for only so long to the title of Best Eagles Tight End Ever, had 452 catches in 11 seasons. Do the math.
Sure, football was a different sport in Retzlaff’s era, without the souped-up, pass-first thinking of the modern era, and Ertz came along at just the right time, just after Bill Belichick drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 and dared defensive coordinators to stop two big, swift tight ends at once. Ertz, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, perhaps even Ertz’s teammate Dallas Goedert -- they represent the apex of the position’s latest iteration, and they all fit that same profile.
“I don’t see how Ertz is not one of the top three tight ends in the league,” said Mark Dominik, a longtime NFL scout and executive, who spent Tuesday morning watching the Eagles practice. In 2013, the year that the Eagles drafted Ertz in the second round and the Chiefs drafted Kelce in the third, Dominik was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he listened in the draft room as some of his scouts doubted whether a team would pick Kelce before the fourth round.
“The traditional scout says, ‘Well, he’s not very good at the point of attack. He doesn’t run-block well,’” Dominik said. “And I’m like, ‘Does he run and catch? Because that’s what we’re doing now.'’”
That’s what Ertz does and has done. He might not do it as often this season, if only because Carson Wentz has more options and talent at the skill positions than he ever has before: Ertz, Goedert, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, an improved backfield.
“I feel like I’ll get the ball,” Ertz said. “Eight times a game? Maybe not; 116 may be the most I ever have in any season. But if we’re 11-5 or 12-4, and I’m at 80, 90 balls, that’s fair. If the numbers drop, if they naturally regress a little bit, that doesn’t mean I’m a worse football player. I feel like I’ve still improved. Maybe the explosive plays go up. Maybe the yards after catch go up. It doesn’t really matter, the receptions and everything. It’s whether I’m helping the team when the team needs me.”
Even if Ertz’s numbers do decline from last season, he’ll still be at a pace that, if he plays another five to 10 years in the league, would earn him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was asked if he had contemplated that possibility, if he had looked at the careers of, say, Tony Gonzalez (who has been selected for induction) and Antonio Gates (who someday will be) and compared his career to theirs.
“For su-,” he said, stopping himself, then pausing. “I know every player who comes into the NFL, their goal is to be one of the best to ever play.”
Yes, but there are guys who get closer to it than others.
“A hundred percent. The actions that you lay out in the offseason translate to how serious you are about those goals. I don’t really do much outside of football and trying to get better.”
So he catches extra balls after practice, and when he can’t sleep at night, he goes through an elaborate stretching routine to relax himself. Will he play those 10 more years? He has had two concussions, and that gives him some pause, because he is no longer 22 and single and making decisions for only himself. He is nearly 29, and he is married to a woman who herself is a famous and accomplished athlete, and what good is erasing all the regrets in one part of your life if it only creates more in another part?
“God willing, we’re going to have a family,” he said. “Julie’s going to be involved. When you’re playing the game, you understand that when you have a family, that comes first. Longevity is based on that. I know football is going to end at some point. Whether it’s in four years or 10 years, it’s going to end, and I’m going to want to look back and say, ‘I’m good. I did everything I possibly could.’”