Carson Wentz hoisted the NFC championship trophy into the Philadelphia air last Sunday night, a smile stretching across his face. He hugged Nick Foles during an extended on-field embrace. He held teammate Torrey Smith's son, found baseball star and noted Eagles fan Mike Trout for a handshake, and accepted congratulations from adoring Eagles fans.
Then he walked into the locker room with his right hand grasping a cane to help him walk.
The Eagles depart Sunday for Minneapolis for next weekend's Super Bowl, and it was supposed to be Wentz bringing them there. He carried the Eagles during much of their storybook season, earning consideration for the NFL's MVP award before a devastating knee injury on Dec. 10. In the seven weeks since, Wentz went from star to spectator.
"It's a process coming back from something like this," Wentz said by his locker on Friday. "But I'm also really excited for this team. Seeing the team battle through these playoffs, battle all season long through adversity, injury after injury. I wasn't the only one. We had lots of guys go down. Seeing the resiliency of this team, it's just such a tight brotherhood. I'm feeling great about that."
Wentz could have faced New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, perhaps the best player in NFL history and a quarterback Wentz has long admired. He could have been the Super Bowl darling in Minneapolis, the closest major city to his native North Dakota.
Instead, Wentz will watch from the sideline and spend Super Bowl week as a side character. He'll remain an ardent Foles supporter and loyal teammate, and he'll fulfill his role as the captain for the opening coin toss. But a player lauded for his competitive spirit won't be able to play in the Super Bowl.
"To me, one of the greatest things about a person that you can say is when you see him celebrating somebody else's success," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "Human nature tells you that's hard to do, and it's been fun to see those two do that. It's fun to see Carson have the maturity to truly celebrate Nick's success and understanding how he's helping this team, and also with the frustration knowing that he wants to be in there."
Wentz, who is rehabbing from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament, said he hoped to return by Week 1 next season. He has taken on a notable behind-the-scenes role with Foles and the Eagles while injured. He still attends the 6 a.m. quarterback meetings with Foles, and still learns the game plan and offers input. He wears a headset during the games and can be seen with Foles and No. 3-turned-No. 2 quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
When the Eagles scored a touchdown last week on a play he introduced to the Eagles, Wentz wore a big smirk on the sideline. Foles has been outspoken about being a steward for "Carson's team," yet Wentz said Friday that right now, "Nick's the guy." Players and coaches marvel at their relationship. When they hugged on the field, little need to be said.
"In that moment, you just embrace," Foles said. "It's been a crazy year and we work together every single day for long hours. You don't really need to say anything. A hug goes a long way."
Wentz's workday still begins at 6 a.m. The Eagles quarterbacks work around an early-morning schedule that Wentz learned from former No. 2 quarterback Chase Daniel, who learned it from future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
They've decorated their meeting room, with Christmas lights setting a festive mood. One side of the room is wallpapered with mountain views, the other side with ocean views. There's a coffee maker that's used frequently – Foles turned the quarterbacks on to healthy bulletproof coffee – and they've maintained the routine established when Wentz was the starter. The plays have adjusted to what best suits Foles, but little happens without Wentz's knowledge. Sudfeld said Wentz prepares each week as if he's playing.
"Just the way he's handled it has been amazing," Foles said. "His support for this team, for me personally, whether it's in our meeting rooms, at walk-throughs, at practice, during the game, it's been outstanding."
Wentz attends the general team meeting but not installation meetings. He's one month past surgery and is going through the rehab process with other injured players. Wentz graduated from crutches to the cane, and he's now seen walking on his own. He wore a bulky brace on his left knee Friday.
"Obviously, I still have to do my own rehabs and workouts, so not there for everything," Wentz said. "But still trying to go to practice, still trying to help. … I'm trying to be involved in what I can, but I'm definitely not a coach. I voice my opinion in small pieces. Nick's the guy, Nick's been voicing his opinion more than anybody. I'm just trying to help with what wherever I can."
Tight end Zach Ertz mentioned how Wentz dissects film, gives input to the game plan, and "is still all football all the time." Ertz called Wentz "the smartest quarterback I've ever been around," neck-and-neck with Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Ertz's college quarterback at Stanford. That allows Wentz to see the game in such a way that Ertz believes Wentz's input "has allowed Nick to play at a high level, too."
"Nick's done a great job," Wentz said. "Nick's really taken that leadership role. I'm just trying to help support him anyway I can."
Injured players don't need to stay around the team. They can rehab elsewhere or come and go when their teammates are occupied, sometimes because it's difficult to stomach being around the team when they cannot contribute. As the franchise quarterback, Wentz was noticed by teammates. He has not overstepped Foles, but the players like that he's there.
"Let's be real: You can't play, and a lot of times when you can't play, when you're in the training room, people tend to forget about you a little bit," guard Brandon Brooks said. "Coaches don't see you as much. Out of sight, out of mind. But I think we've done a good job, players and coaches, incorporating those injured guys. Still coming to the game, still being on the sideline."
It's not just Wentz, even if he's the most notable. It's hard to find a player more respected on the Eagles than veteran tackle Jason Peters, who has also maintained a regular presence. Special-teams captain Chris Maragos is in the building every day, and you'll often see linebacker Jordan Hicks. Running back Darren Sproles, whose family is in California, has bounced between coasts since his injury. It registered with the players that Wentz and others were there to celebrate.
"That selflessness is not easy to come by," Ertz said. "You see a lot of guys when they get hurt, they check out. It couldn't be further from the truth."
Late in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game, with the win already in hand, Reich found Wentz and reminded Wentz about the "incredibly important role that he's played in everything, most particularly the fact that that game was played on our turf." That's a reference to the Eagles' NFC-best record. Pederson offered the same message during the playoffs, explaining that he wanted Wentz around because Wentz is "a big reason why we're 13-3 and where we are today."
After Wentz's injury, Pederson insisted the team is more than one player. He didn't want to diminish Wentz's spot on the team or role in the organization, but he also knew the Eagles still had the rest of the season and postseason to navigate. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie called Wentz "the best young quarterback in the NFL" and "maybe the league's most valuable player," which shows the way he's viewed in the organization. Yet the Eagles have won four of their five games without Wentz, and that only loss came when the reserves were in the lineup.
"In a sense, it's harder to see them succeed not being there, because you always want to have value, you always want to have worth," said tight end Trey Burton, a close friend of Wentz's. "I know he's as happy as can be."
Wentz explained that it's tough for him when the offense runs onto the field and that any competitive person would want to play, but that he's into the game once it starts because of his loyalty to his teammates. He feels a part of the team "as much as anyone else."
It's never guaranteed that a player or team will return, but there's optimism that this won't be the last time the Eagles make a Super Bowl trip with Wentz. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery told Wentz this past week, "You've got next year." Ertz added that "Carson's going to be playing in these situations hopefully for a long time" and that the "organization standard now is to be in this game over and over."
Told of this optimism, Wentz nodded in agreement.
"I've said since I've got here, 'We've got something special here'," Wentz said. "Without a doubt. It starts with ownership on down. Coach Pederson, ever since he's got here, establishing that culture. Coming in at the same time with him, it's been cool to establish that together. … I think we're wired for success for a long time."
As of now, all the Eagles know is that they will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday. And it will come without Wentz on the field but rather on the sideline with a a headset supporting Foles. Foles said that support means everything and that Wentz will be stronger from this experience. Wentz was touched by what Foles has gone through in recent years, going from the brink of retirement to an eventual return to the Eagles. It was why the Sunday night embrace was so meaningful to Wentz and Foles – and why he hopes they can share a similar one after the Super Bowl.