ANAHEIM, Calif. – The NFL schedule came out in April. The Los Angeles Rams brain trust received a call from an NFL executive going through their week-by-week opponents. They were told that on Dec. 10, the Rams would host the Eagles.
"The Goff vs. Wentz Bowl," Rams general manager Les Snead said, as captured by the Rams' official website.
It was clear from the spring that the Eagles-Rams game would be billed as the first matchup between quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the top two picks from the 2016 draft. Goff and Wentz share a relationship forged during their predraft workouts and will be linked throughout their careers.
"I think it's exciting any time two young quarterbacks like us face off," Wentz said. "I think it's definitely exciting for the league, and Jared and I are both excited about it."
But what wasn't predicted when the schedule came out was that this December meeting would be between two first-place teams and that Wentz and Goff would both rank among the NFL's top quarterbacks in only their second seasons. Two organizations whose quarterback fortunes have been intertwined since a blockbuster trade that included Sam Bradford and Nick Foles finally found their franchise quarterbacks, and they're both on the verge of taking their teams to the postseason.
They've put their name in the conversation with established quarterbacks in the conference. Whether it's Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, or Cam Newton, the NFC has its share of quarterbacks who have brought their teams to the Super Bowl and could do so again this year. Wentz and Goff are now knocking on that door.
"Over time, you start to have this new wave of players in the league, and I think you are seeing that," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Not necessarily the page turned. You're starting to see new talent, new identities arise – Carson being at the forefront of that, Goff being right there with them. It's exciting for the league. Especially with all the injuries you've had this year and all these star players, you have this whole new wave of talent that everybody's paying attention to. Quite honestly, it's fun watching those guys."
The Eagles' decision-makers hosted Goff on April 14, 2016 for a get-to-know-you session. During a meeting, Goff's cell phone buzzed with a notification. The Los Angeles Rams acquired the No. 1 overall pick, moving up from the No. 15 pick in a blockbuster deal to position themselves to select the University of California quarterback.
It wasn't official, but the Eagles were out of the Goff sweepstakes.
One week later, the Eagles traded with the Cleveland Browns for the No. 2 pick to take Wentz – the object of their affection. Although the Rams had not announced they were taking Goff, the Eagles had a good idea that Goff would go No. 1 and made the trade to pick Wentz at No. 2.
"You're playing every scenario through your head," Wentz said about whether he thought he'd go No. 1. "You try not to, but you naturally are. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't trade for the world where I ended up."
Wentz and Goff met when Wentz flew to Irvine, Calif. – right near where the Eagles lodged and practiced this week – after winning the FCS national championship with North Dakota State and started his predraft workouts with Goff. They both signed with the same agency and had former NFL quarterback Ryan Lindley leading them through their training. The friendship continued through the scouting combine and into the draft, when both players were in Chicago and came off the board within minutes.
"The competition was good, without a doubt," Wentz said. "We both love the competition and it made us both better. It prepared us both well for the draft."
Their rookie seasons weren't exactly comparable. Wentz started from day one and had early success before growing inconsistent as the season progressed; Goff didn't become a starter until November and failed to win a game.
They have accelerated their development in Year 2. Because the Eagles and Rams have had six common opponents, they have had plenty of chances to watch each other on film. Wentz said both are bunkered during the season, but they'll exchange text messages and have noticed each other's success.
"Everything he's done has all been earned," Goff said of Wentz. "He's worked to get where he's at."
As is typical for this narrative, they both noted that the quarterbacks aren't playing each other Sunday and it's more than Wentz vs. Goff. They'll exchange pleasantries before the game and Wentz said he'll always follow Goff because of their relationship.
"We're good friends now," Wentz said, "so I think we're both pretty excited to finally face off."
And it's hard to ignore what it means for the league. The same conversations took place when the Eagles faced Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. Since the 2012 draft, the NFC hasn't had many young quarterbacks find success. Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater was the only NFC quarterback drafted from 2013 to 2015 who led his team to the postseason. Wentz and Goff (and Prescott) represent a new wave.
"When you talk about the league and how important and how marketable that quarterback position is, you look at two great individuals that are great human beings, great leaders, great representatives of their organization," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "And then to have them playing productive football, it sure makes for a fun matchup."
The seeds of the Wentz-Goff matchup actually predate the quarterbacks' meeting in Irvine.
The Eagles and the Rams swapped starting quarterbacks in March 2015 – Nick Foles went to the Rams, Sam Bradford went to the Eagles – and neither player found a new home. Foles was released after one season with the St. Louis Rams, and he learned that the Rams were moving on even before they traded up for Goff. Bradford was traded by the Eagles before the 2016 season started to open the job for Wentz.
The inability of either player to cement himself as the franchise quarterback in 2015 prompted both teams to try to move up in the draft one year later, making hard-to-do draft day trades that included relinquishing significant resources. The Eagles needed to make a series of trades to move up from No. 13 to No. 1. In conversations with Tennessee and Cleveland, Eagles executive Howie Roseman learned that the Eagles couldn't get up to No. 1 or No. 2 without a second-round pick.
Who had their second-rounder? The Rams, from the Foles-Bradford deal. It was an asset that helped the Rams jump to the top pick.
Because both teams traded up from the teens, they had talent in place uncommon for teams with top-two picks. Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said the Rams had a Super Bowl-caliber defense in recent years and needed only to build the offense. They hired former McVay as head coach, overhauled their wide receiver corps, and now are tied with the Eagles for the top-scoring offense. The Eagles had Pro Bowlers on the offensive line and young talent on defense, and finally found the franchise quarterback that they exhausted other options to find.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said the quarterbacks' success is a credit to "having really good coaching around each quarterback" and connected to strong running games and offensive line play, along with sound defense. Both players have benefited from that infrastructure when they arrived.
But make no mistake: This is a quarterback league, and both teams made bold moves in 2016 to try to enter the conversation that had been reserved for players such as Wilson, Brees, Ryan, and Newton. Wentz and Goff are entering that conversation. It will be clear Sunday.
"It's picks one and two in the NFL draft a year ago … and both guys are on good football teams, too," Pederson said. "So that makes it exciting for the league and makes it exciting for the fans. And hopefully down the road, there's going to be many more of these matchups."