Carson Wentz’s comeback is complete and the headstrong Eagles QB is already on to his next challenge
Carson Wentz returns to the field on Sunday, but he isn't ready to celebrate. That will have to wait for when he achieves his next goal.
After 9 1/2 months of recovery, of professional and personal highs and lows, of public scrutiny over when he would return from knee surgery, and of his own self-admitted "built-up almost-anxiety" during the process, Carson Wentz hardly celebrated when he was finally cleared to play football again.
"I'll celebrate after the season," Wentz said Wednesday, two days after the Eagles officially announced he would start Sunday against the Colts. "I got a lot of work to do first."
Wentz texted his wife, Maddie, when the decision was final. But the 25-year-old quarterback couldn't even recall what we wrote, he said, because they had known it was coming. He fell short of his goal of being ready by the opener, but Week 3 had increasingly become the internal endpoint and Wentz had begun to make the transition from spectator to playing the most important position in all of team sports.
He had cleared the injury hurdle with obsessive precision, but Wentz is hardly one to look back. He is on to the next obstacle, and to those who know him best, he won't consider his comeback complete until he has returned to form and won the Super Bowl he watched his backup Nick Foles claim last season.
Wentz may be Type-A personality to the point of stubbornness, his teammates and coaches say, but he is by nature even-tempered.
"Honestly, this is just how I am with everything," Wentz said at his stall, after most of his teammates had showered and left the locker room at the NovaCare Complex. "I try not to make it a big deal. I just go back to handling business like I know how."
He made great strides in his sophomore season and was arguably the MVP of the NFL until he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee in Los Angeles on Dec. 10. His rise was almost as sudden as the setback. To be considered among the elite, Wentz must scale that peak for an extended period and he must remain healthy.
The third year is considered by some coaches and analysts to be the most important in terms of a quarterback's development. It is also often the year in which franchises will decide whether to make a long-term investment. Wentz is eligible for a contract extension next offseason.
But there's enough to worry about for now. The Eagles went 1-1 with Foles under center, and while he didn't perform near his Super Bowl MVP level, the team's problems go deeper. Wentz is unlikely to be a panacea for the struggling offense, but he thinks it's possible they pick up where they left off 9 1/2 months ago.
"I truly believe that's a realistic expectation," he said.
Coach Doug Pederson has tried to temper expectations. He has said that he doesn't want Wentz to don the cape he wore so often last season. But there may be no holding him back.
Jordan Matthews was one the first to predict Wentz's seamless entry into the NFL. In 2016, both players were injured before the season. The Eagles had Wentz work out Matthews and as the receiver walked off the field, he flipped the football to team executive Howie Roseman and said, "I'm ready – and so is he."
A few days later, Roseman traded Sam Bradford, paving the way for Wentz to start as a rookie.
Matthews, by coincidence, was re-signed by the Eagles on Wednesday. It had been over a year since he caught passes from Wentz, but he said he has seen little reason to be less enthusiastic. In fact, he has upped his ante.
"Carson's one of the best and everybody's been vocal about that, but I guess I'm always the one that wants everybody to say, 'Look at the talent. Look at the intangibles Carson has,'" Matthews said. "You know this guy's a beast. You know he's going to be fine.
"No matter what happens in the process of him getting to his elite level, everybody needs to enjoy it. Good or bad, he's going to be the best."
An Abrupt Change
Matthews may be impartial, but many around the NFL have projected the same. It is why the Eagles never considered sticking with Foles despite his imprint on team history. If there was another reason for Wentz's subdued demeanor, aside from his blinders approach and the challenge ahead, it was Foles.
"Carson is cognizant of the guy who was Super Bowl MVP, who's done a lot for this team," Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. "And Carson's our guy. But there's two sides to it: One side is you're certainly excited about Carson, but, two, you feel for Nick, too. It's an abrupt change."
The switch wasn't as sudden as it was two years ago when Wentz found out he would start only eight days before the opener. But the guy he replaced was no longer in the building. Wentz and Foles will be side-by-side for the next several months. Of course, the cleat was on the other foot in February as Wentz watched his backup lead the Eagles to their first title in 57 years.
"We, as an organization, and myself included, we owe him a lot," Wentz said. "He did some amazing things. So handling the transition, from the outside looking in you might think it would be hard, it might be tough, but with Nick and my relationship … we're so close."
Foles admitted that he would have to fight competitive urges in taking a lesser role. But the journeyman quarterback, who considered retirement just two years ago, understands better than most Wentz's comeback.
"He's worked his butt off to get to this point," Foles said. "He's out there working every single day. Ultimately, I'm excited for him. … I know he's going to be going through a lot of emotions stepping back on the field because I know what it's like."
Wentz pushed the envelope in his recovery, inspiring everyone within the Eagles organization with his efforts.
"It is no surprise to us that he has approached his rehab with the same focus and intensity that he has brought to this building since the day he was drafted," Roseman said. "Carson is as passionate and determined as any player we've ever had here. … Every day since the injury, he has been the first guy in and the last guy out."
The rehab was mentally and physically demanding. There were peaks and valleys. The lowest moment may have come post-op when an invalid Wentz had to watch the Eagles play the New York Giants from his couch, and he needed his then-fianceé to be his nurse.
But it was in the worst times that Wentz said he discovered more about his faith. He had to learn how to surrender control. He had also determined that he would propose to Maddie. They got engaged two days after the Super Bowl and married 11 days before training camp in July.
There would be other setbacks. The Eagles dialed back his practice participation early in camp and as the season approached it became apparent that they wouldn't clear him for contact in time to reach his goal. Wentz made it obvious again that he thought he was ready for Week 1.
"Physically, I felt good," he said Wednesday. "I feel about the same where I'm at. But at the end of the day, it comes down to what the research says, what the doctors are saying, and this was the best situation."
Said Pederson: "In his mind, he was probably ready a month ago."
Wentz isn't accustomed to failure and not getting what he wants. He won championships in all levels of football. He scored straight A's in every year of schooling. His success has reinforced his self-confidence. When Wentz desires something, he isn't afraid to voice it.
Colts head coach and former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich saw it up close for two years.
"He's not only opinionated, but he's very mature. You love this about him, but he has a stubbor—," Reich said Wednesday during a conference call, before cutting himself off. "So he's going to voice his opinion."
Reich was referencing Wentz's offensive preferences, but his hardheadedness applied to the Eagles' handling of his injury, as well. Pederson and the medical staff had to often remind him that they were looking out for his — and theirs — long-term interests.
Almost all the great quarterbacks are headstrong. And Wentz backs up his bite.
"He's a control freak," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "He wants to know everything. He wants to have his hand in everything. He wants to be involved in every aspect. It's what makes him a special and unique player. It's hard to do. So few quarterbacks do it because the amount of work he puts into it during the week."
Wentz wants to know the whys behind every play Pederson installs. He's not only concerned about defensive coverages and his receivers' routes, but he wants to be able to make the pre-snap protection calls that are usually left for Kelce at the line of scrimmage.
"Some weeks you have to build that into the game plan, as a coach," Kelce said, "but with him, it's more like he can do this all at the line."
And with that control, Wentz will sometimes place himself in detriment – vs. an extra pass rusher – at the expense of the play, and because his athleticism allows him to either escape or extend a play.
But will he initially have the same mobility and will he do a better job of avoiding contact?
"Obviously, the injury is going to now magnify that type of protecting myself," Wentz said. "But that's something my whole career, even before the injury, I was harping on."
And yet, there were about a handful of times last season when he had little regard for his body. Some of Wentz's teammates believe his competitiveness won't allow him to take his foot off the pedal.
"I'll find ways to extend time in the pocket and make plays down the field," Wentz said. "I don't think that's going anywhere."
On Tuesday night, Wentz and about a dozen teammates were going to dinner after meetings at Bar Amis in South Philadelphia. When a time was requested, most gave an open-ended answer – until the quarterback spoke up.
"He's like, 'No, we're going at this time,'" Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "He's the guy in charge."
When they all sat down, someone asked who wanted to order appetizers.
"There's 12 of us sitting at the table looking around," Hicks said, "and Carson, immediately, boom, 'I got it. Don't worry about it. I'll do it.'"
Matthews was one of Wentz's best friends on the Eagles before he was traded in August 2017. He understood the business decision, but he expressed difficulty reconciling the move. But circumstance has brought them back together.
They said they would joke with each other about a reunion, but with the Eagles shorthanded at receiver, they brought Matthews in for a workout Tuesday. Pederson said that Wentz had no influence on the decision, but the Eagles brought him back with the quarterback's comfort in mind.
Wentz knew Matthews had been re-signed by the time they spoke Wednesday. He offered his home to Matthews' wife, Cheyna, and newborn son, Josiah.
"My wife said they could stay with us until they find a place, but I think that was more so she could hang out with his wife and baby," Wentz joked. "But they're not here yet, so I may have to revoke that offer."
Eagles fans are likely to give Wentz a rousing welcome back when he's introduced at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday. He has said that the injury has taught him more than ever not to take his opportunities for granted. But now that he has returned, Wentz has little reason to appreciate his comeback.
"It's hard to put 9 1/2 months into one moment," Wentz said. "It will probably feel real … like a sigh of relief to finally get out there again."
But then he'll receive the snap and there will be a game to be won.