THERE WAS a moment midway through the fourth quarter that will not show up on any highlight reels of Carson Wentz's NFL debut. In the historical record, it exists as a fumble and an incompletion, neither of which played a consequential role in the Eagles 29-10, Week 1 victory over the Browns on Sunday. It did not lead to a score. It did not lead to a turnover. In short, it is a strange place to start a story about a day that could prove to be one of the more pivotal in franchise history.
Yet when somebody asked one of the longest-tenured members of that franchise for his thoughts on the proceedings, this was the moment he chose. At first glance, it looked like a regular play. The receivers were running their patterns. The linemen were holding their blocks. The rookie quarterback was dropping back. But the quarterback's hands were empty. The ball was on the ground next to him, bouncing end over end like a windblown dollar bill, a low shotgun snap that never achieved liftoff.
It was the kind of situation that rarely ends well. Either the quarterback throws himself on top of the football in the fetal position, or he compounds the mistake with a panicky, pants-on-fire spasm. Wentz did neither of these. Without breaking stride, he reached down and scooped the ball into his hands on the bounce, then planted and threw a bullet to a receiver running an out pattern. The throw itself was a dangerous one, and Wentz was fortunate that Joe Haden was in position only to knock it away, rather than undercutting it and taking it back the other way. But to Brent Celek, it was as sure a sign as any that the rookie was in control.
"That's the type of poise we need from a guy at quarterback," the 10-year veteran said after the game.
Poise is an abstract term that Wentz's coaches and teammates often invoke to explain their optimism about a future with him at the helm. Here was a concrete manifestation of it, not so much a triumph of will or grit or gumption, but of an ability to make the chaos unfolding around him appear as if it is moving at a manageable speed. It is a rare ability, and the Eagles have seen it ever since they made Wentz the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Coming out of North Dakota State, the book on him was that he was raw, that he would need plenty of polishing, that it would take him some time to harness his athletic gifts and establish himself as a legitimate NFL starter. All of this was true then and remains true now. Yet those who believe in him do so because of a certain something that they swear he's always had, a certain something that all the greats at his position seem to possess.
Call it the X factor, the special sauce, whatever. There is a certain level of obliviousness a quarterback must have to everything standing between the ball and his receivers. He must be cognizant of the pass rush without focusing on it. He must play a full-contact game like he is wearing a red jersey. It is a combination of awareness, fearlessness, and reactivity. Wentz seems to have it.
Throughout a debut in which he completed 22 of 37 passes for 278 yards and two beautiful touchdown passes, you could see some of the things that left general managers leery of drafting Wentz. He does not possess the level of pocket awareness that we've seen out of top picks like Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston. The Browns batted down several of his passes, a symptom both of a failure to use his feet to slide himself into open passing windows as the offensive and defensive lines flow around him, and of throwing mechanics that, in the week leading up to the game, Browns rookie defensive end Carl Nassib accurately noted can get a bit long. When Cleveland had success against Wentz, it did so with pressure, such as a zone blitz on third-and-4 in the first quarter that resulted in a sack, forcing the Eagles to settle for a field goal attempt that Caleb Sturgis missed.
Yet Wentz never allowed the pressure to knock him out of his rhythm. He never looked like he was running for his life. On fourth-and-4 from the Browns' 40-yard-line, he saw a blitz coming from the edge, stood tall, and zipped a five-yard first-down pass to Zach Ertz as a defender's shoulder pads crashed into his chest. On the next play, he tossed his best pass of the day, a 35-yard rainbow down the right sideline that dropped into Nelson Agholor's arms midstride for a touchdown. Agholor ran a great route against a great defender (Haden), and the quarterback took all that was there for the taking.
Doug Pederson used the word "aggressive" on several occasions in his postgame news conference. Wentz has the size and arm strength that enable him to make the kind of throws that can decimate a defense, and he is looking to make those throws Not the long bombs, but the intermediate routes from sideline to sideline. With just under two minutes remaining in the first half, he threw an 11-yard bullet to Agholor on a curl route to the far sideline. Later, he threaded a 22-yard bullet between two defenders who were attempting to cover Jordan Matthews in the middle of the field. He also hit Matthews with a 16-yarder on a crossing route where he threw the ball high enough for his receiver to make a sliding catch but not so high that the defender (Haden again) could make a play on the ball.
"That's all about timing, accuracy and then poise," Matthews said. "Not getting rattled when you say, 'OK, you got the matchup, let me rush this ball out of here.' "
There's that word again. Poise. In his first NFL start, Wentz showed us what they mean when they say it, and why they think that the rest of the stuff that goes into greatness is bound to follow.