How will the Eagles respond after Carson Wentz's injury? Doug Pederson, key veterans work to set the message
The Eagles think their "next man up" approach will work with Nick Foles at quarterback. Should you believe them?
"Let's get this [bleep] out of the way, man: Carson being out of this [bleep], bro, that [bleep] sucks. But dig this…whoever's in this room, that's who we ride with, man! We said it: We all we got, we all need. Believe that… Celebrate that [bleep], know where we're at. But at the end of the day, man, we have bigger goals. So we get back to work, man. You know where we're setting our minds: Championships, and that's it. No excuses. Don't [bleeping] blink." – Malcolm Jenkins addressing his teammates after the Eagles beat the Rams last week
The elephant in the room was in the room. Carson Wentz wore a heavy brace on his left knee in the postgame locker room last week while his teammates squeezed together wearing NFC East championship caps. Malcolm Jenkins spoke to the team after coach Doug Pederson, as he does every week, and he put thought into the message he wanted to send.
The players knew Wentz was injured, and their fears would be confirmed hours later when an MRI exam confirmed he had torn anterior cruciate ligament and was out for the season. Jenkins didn't want to ignore what was on everyone's mind throughout Philadelphia, but he wouldn't let his teammates spend the week sulking.
"Because I knew all week that we'd hear questions about whether we felt confident enough to move forward, whether our dreams were kind of over with now that we lost our quarterback," Jenkins said about the postgame speech, which was posted on the team's website.
"So before anybody heard it in the media or got to deal with all of those questions, we wanted to let them know, 'Hey, this sucks, but at the end of the day, this changes nothing.' Everything we want to do is in front of us. We'll go about our work like we always do. We've lost people before, important guys in this locker room all year … and find a way to win. Where we're at in the season right now, there's no time to lick your wounds or feel bad for yourself or take any excuse people try to give you for why you can't win. Because I fully believe we're capable of doing this."
Pederson relayed a similar message to the Philadelphia fans – and he knew his players might hear it, too. After he announced that Wentz would miss the remainder of the season, he offered his most impassioned answer in his two years at the lectern at the NovaCare Complex while pledging confidence in Nick Foles as an experienced backup. There would not be a memorial service for Wentz's season.
"To the fans out there, you can't lose faith," Pederson said. "This has been a resilient football team all season long. If there's ever an opportunity for me as a head football coach to rally the troops, now might be the time."
Pederson wants it on his shoulders. You won't walk by him in the team facility wallowing in sorrow. He won't allow the Eagles to feel bad for themselves. He hit the same note after Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, and Jordan Hicks were injured, and he's not going to stand for it now that the Eagles are a league-best 11-2 with a chance to clinch a first-round bye on Sunday against the New York Giants.
But the quarterback is different. Wentz was the Eagles' MVP candidate. He was the reason they've overcome the other injuries. The tone was set in the NovaCare Complex. Reactions are harder to control.
‘A different perspective’
Nick Foles was once the starting quarterback lost for the season on a playoff contender. Now, he's the player who needs to be a replacement. That experience has been mentioned often this week inside the locker room as a reason for optimism.
"Everybody acts like Nick Foles hasn't been a great quarterback in this league before," center Jason Kelce said. "He's got a set of cleats in the Hall of Fame…for throwing the most touchdowns in a game. He's been pretty darn good in Philadelphia before. …Maybe it's eye-opening to other people who aren't in our world or aren't in our business, but without question, when it happened in the game, everybody was confident Nick would go in there and do a good job."
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who achieved playoff success two decades ago as Jim Kelly's backup in Buffalo, noted how rare it is to bring a Pro Bowl MVP off the bench.
But much has happened since then. Foles was injured in 2014, traded in March 2015, failed to keep the starting job in St. Louis, and has changed teams each of the past three offseasons. He's only 28 and he might be one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league, but he qualifies as a journeyman.
Yet ask around, and it's apparent that Foles is different now than he was during his last Eagles stint. By his own admission, everything happened so quickly in 2013 – one day he was the backup quarterback, the next day he threw seven touchdowns and was on his way to starting a playoff game and being a national story. Foles has grown from experiences elsewhere – the surprising trade, the St. Louis demotion, backing up Alex Smith in Kansas City – before deciding to return to Philadelphia during the offseason.
"I think he has a different perspective," tight end Zach Ertz said. "He's just going out there and having fun. Before he was seen as the face of the franchise – and maybe he wasn't comfortable at that time – but he's also come in here with not a lot of expectations, coming in here as a guy who's done a lot in this league, but has had a lot of ups and downs. And we're just trying to go out there and help him…and we have all the confidence in the world in him."
Foles said experience and age have provided "knowledge and wisdom." He sees the game "more clearly," and he thought the way he played in a high-pressure situation in the fourth quarter last week was an example. He's a father now, more well-adjusted than the 24-year-old first swimming in Philadelphia's fishbowl. Foles said a weekly news conference used to require preparation to just get the words out of his mouth. Now, he just talks. He's comfortable. He knows Philadelphia, the stage it provides, and the demands of the fans. He was drafted into it. He sought it.
"There's a reason I came back here," Foles said.
There's a reason the Eagles wanted him, too. Chase Daniel was Pederson's hand-picked backup, but the Eagles absorbed a $7 million cap hit and gave Foles an $11 million contract because they wanted Foles as an upgrade. Maybe the 27-touchdown, two-interception season was an outlier and Foles certainly isn't Wentz, but the conversation in the NovaCare Complex this week might be different if they were turning to a less-accomplished quarterback.
"If you don't have a backup quarterback that's played and had snaps in this league," Pederson said, "it's tough."
Next man up
Go back to Week 1 and consider where the Eagles would be in December if they lost Sproles in September; Peters and Hicks in October; and played games without Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Ertz, Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, and Mychal Kendricks throughout the season.
The answer wouldn't have been 11-2 with Super Bowl aspirations.
"Hasn't slowed this team a bit," Cox said. "This locker room is really special because it's always the next guy steps in. And when the next guy steps in, we hold you accountable to your actions."
The "next man up" mantra can become a cliché in the NFL and overlooks the reality that there's a reason a backup doesn't play over a starter. It hasn't stopped the Eagles from believing it. Johnson pointed to other teams where a key player goes down and there's hysteria.
"I don't think you'll see that here," he said.
That'll be tested with Wentz. The Eagles recognize how important Wentz is to their 11-2 record, yet another message last week was that the team is bigger than one person. A quarterback can cover up other injuries, though, and missing him can expose shortcomings elsewhere. Since 2003, the only years the New England Patriots failed to play beyond the first weekend of the playoffs were the year Tom Brady tore his ACL and the year after. Since 2009, the only year the Green Bay Packers failed to win at least 10 games came when Aaron Rodgers suffered a multi-week injury.
The Eagles must prove they can overcome their loss. Ertz thinks they are because they've seen it work this season.
"That kind of set us up for this," Ertz said. "If it was reversed and Carson was the first injury, it might have been a little different. But throughout the year, everyone's kind of gained the confidence that it's the next man up."
That's why Pederson and the veteran players wanted to make sure it wasn't like a funeral around the NovaCare Complex during the week. Immediately after the injury, there might have been a solemn mood. Pederson has worked to eliminate it. The message came from the coach and a captain, and it will continue until kickoff. Wentz might be finished, but the team isn't.
"If we would have started this year and someone would [tell] you, 'You've got one game against the Giants to clinch a first-round bye,' you don't care who you have on the field, you'd take those odds," Jenkins said. "Everything we want is in front of us. So we won't let a little bit of adversity, somebody going down, stop us from feeling good about ourselves. Because we're right there."