EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz looked like his old MVP-caliber self Thursday night, slicing through the New York Giants defense to post three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 122 quarterback rating as the Eagles rolled past their division rival, 34-13, improving to 3-3 in the process.
It was clear Wentz was back to form right out of the gate. Facing a third-and-7 at the Giants 13-yard line on the Eagles’ first possession, Wentz rolled out right, extended the play and then threw across his body and into the back of the end zone to a tightly-covered Alshon Jeffery for the touchdown.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he took 6.77 seconds to throw that touchdown pass, the third-longest by any player on a TD this season.
Wentz found Jeffery again in the second half and also threw one to tight end Zach Ertz.
Suddenly, an offense that sputtered through the first five games looked like its old self. The Eagles had failed to post 24 points in a single game entering Thursday. They hit that mark before halftime. They had slipped towards the bottom of the league in red zone and third-down efficiency, but bounced back by scoring four times in the red zone and converting nine third downs.
Wentz, playing in his fourth game since returning from an ACL/LCL injury, was the catalyst. He went 10-of-10 for 155 yards and two touchdowns on third down through the first three quarters. Coming in, he was completing 44 percent of his third-down passes.
Granted, the Giants have been somewhat giving on defense this season — they ranked 19th in average points allowed coming in (25.6) — but the Eagles’ offense was dealing with some issues of its own. Right tackle Lane Johnson was playing through a high ankle sprain suffered just four days prior against the Minnesota Vikings and was unable to finish. Standout left tackle Jason Peters also left early with a biceps injury. And Philly was down two of its top running backs with Jay Ajayi on injured reserve (ACL) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) still working himself back.
An offense that ranked second in points per game last season at 28.6 is currently 25th at 20.6. The Eagles have failed to hit the 24-point mark through five games — something they did an NFL-high 12 times during their Super Bowl run in 2017.
Unable to get their offensive engine humming, they have fallen to 2-3 on the season and face a critical game Thursday night at the New York Giants (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox). Per ESPN Stats & Information, Philly is the fifth reigning Super Bowl champion since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990 to be under .500 through five games. Only one of the previous four such teams — the 1996 Dallas Cowboys — rebounded to make the playoffs.
Most of the central cast members returned and they are still led by the same aggressive, offense-minded head coach in Doug Pederson. What has changed? How much falls on the shoulders of quarterback Carson Wentz? And is there reason to be hopeful about a turnaround?
Let’s dive in.
Decoding the RPO
Pederson’s mantra heading into the season was “Embrace the Target.” He wanted to drill into his players that they would get the opponent’s best shot, week after week, as defending champs.
It goes for coaching as well.
“Each year you’re going to study the team, whether it’s an offense or defensive structure that had success the year before,” Pederson said. “Everybody wants to see what worked and see if it fits for them. Obviously, studying us and looking at some of the things we did, they’ve had a whole offseason to prepare, a training camp to prepare.”
One key component to the Eagles’ offense is the run-pass option, or RPO. Opponents had few answers for it last year. If the defender they were keying dropped into coverage, the quarterback would hand it off to exploit the numbers advantage on the ground. If he committed to the run, the QB would pull it and throw it behind his ear to the open receiver. All day. Nick Foles rode them through an improbable playoff stretch that ended with him being named Super Bowl MVP.
Though they seem to be less present in the Eagles’ offense this season, Pederson says he is still calling them quite a bit, but most are resulting in runs now due to adjustments defenses have made.
“Teams are just defending it a little bit better,” he said, “and we just continue to evolve a little bit and find answers moving forward.”
There are a few methods that are proving effective in combating the RPO. One is moving cornerbacks tight to receivers at the line of scrimmage. If a defensive back is playing off coverage, it’s much easier to connect on a quick slant or stop route. But if they’re playing press, there’s less of a window. The counter to that would be to hit defenses over the top, but the Eagles are short on vertical threats since Mike Wallace went down because of a fractured leg, compounding the issue.
According to one high-ranking offensive coach, teams are blitzing the gap — often vacated by a pulling guard — to hurry the decision-making process. And coaches are teaching backside defenders to stay home and take away the quick pop pass rather than chasing the run away.
“Don’t give them the open window, because that is what the RPO is designed to do,” former defensive back and ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “What you tell them is, we’ll take away one from the run front, we’ll sacrifice that, so we don’t give up the backside pop pass because it’s such an easy throw for quarterbacks.”
The first play of the game last week against Minnesota was an RPO. Alshon Jeffery was blanketed at the line of scrimmage, Wentz had nowhere to go and nearly threw an interception trying to zip it in to Jeffery.
“It’s still something that we’ll always have in every week, it’s just whether we’re calling them so much or not,” Wentz said. “It’s a big part of what we do. It’s just throughout each game, sometimes we use it more if it’s working well, and sometimes we get away from it.”
Wentz and a concerning hit rate
Left tackle Jason Peters made an interesting comment following Sunday’s 23-21 loss to the Vikings, in which Wentz absorbed three sacks and eight quarterbacks hits.
“Right now we’re struggling on the offensive line because we have to block longer,” he said. “We have a quarterback that’s coming off of an injury and he wants to make a play. We just have to block longer in order for him to make a play. We just have to be better in pass protection.”
The eye test and the film backs that up to a degree. There are definitely plays when Wentz holds the ball longer than he should, or goes for extra bases when the right decision is to check down and take the single. Wentz doesn’t dispute any of that.
“It definitely happens. It’s kind of the nature of my game that I think I bring,” he said. “You’re always trying to weigh the pros and cons of doing that, and sometimes it gets you, sometimes it ends up being big plays as well. I would say that’s a fair statement.”
The numbers, though, show that Peters’ theory doesn’t fully hold water. Wentz is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to hanging onto the ball. He is averaging 2.76 seconds to throw this season, according to NextGen stats, which ranks 14th in the NFL. The average time across the league is 2.73 seconds. Wentz’s numbers are up only slightly (2.72) from last year.
Nick Foles, meanwhile, averaged 2.98 seconds per throw in relief of Wentz this season, which is fourth highest.
And yet Wentz is getting crushed. He has been sacked 12 times and has taken 27 hits in three games since returning from a serious multiligament knee injury.
So what gives? The line, for one, needs to own its part in this. Regarded as one of the best units in the league, the line’s play has been down across the board. Right tackle Lane Johnson‘s dip in play is a microcosm of what’s ailing this entire team: He was impenetrable last year but has given up strip-sacks in back-to-back games, including one last Sunday that was returned 64 yards by 330-pound defensive lineman Linval Joseph.
Pederson, though, has not been doing Wentz or that offensive front any favors. Wentz is averaging 41 dropbacks per game. The pass/run ratio has been 85-39 (69 percent pass) over the past two weeks.
“Carson is still a young quarterback and he is still developing,” said Seth Joyner, the former standout linebacker for the Eagles and current analyst for NBC Philly. “Doug can do him a world of good by just running the football, establishing the run, and when he does that, it’s going to open up a myriad of things in the playbook for Carson, for his true talents to be realized, and it’s going to help his development.
“There will come a time in his career when you can lay the entire offense on his shoulders and on his arm and say, ‘Go out there and make it happen.’ But I think he’s still developing to that point. Until we realize that we’ve got to use the running game and use the strength of our offensive line, which in my opinion is the running game, to do that, he’s going to have brilliant moments and he’s going to have moments of struggle.”
That’s exactly what it has been for Wentz through three games. He’s completing 67 percent of his throws (up from 60 percent in 2017) with five touchdowns and an interception, and has shown good mobility despite wearing a large knee brace around his surgically repaired left knee. He has also had moments where he has looked rusty, and with defenders coming over the walls, he has been charged with too many negative plays.
“With the offensive line we have on this team, running the ball like that, that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
“Super Bowl brain drain,” but reason for hope
When reporting that the Minnesota Vikings were hiring Eagles quarterbacks John DeFilippo to be their offensive coordinator back in February, ESPN’s Adam Schefter wrote, “Super Bowl brain drain underway in Philadelphia.” A few days later, offensive coordinator Frank Reich was hired to be head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Mike Groh replaced Reich and Press Taylor took over the QB room for DeFilippo. Both are highly thought of around the league, and their arrows are pointing up. But it is fair to wonder whether losing two coaches who were so critical to the operation last season has hurt the 2018 Eagles in the early going.
“You’ve got a guy with great credibility in DeFilippo and a guy who’s lived the game and coached the game at the highest level in Frank Reich. I just don’t believe that those two guys can walk out of that organization without their being some residual effects to losing those guys,” Joyner said. “I think that Frank Reich has always been a voice of reason in the ear of Doug Pederson on game day. Does Mike Groh and Press Taylor really hold that cache in Doug’s ear? Is he listening to what they say? Are they saying the right things? Are they advising along the same lines as John and Frank did last year?”
One of Pederson’s greatest strengths is that he empowers his assistants. Reich and DeFilippo were given responsibilities over different parts of the offense related to situational football. DeFilippo, for instance, had a hand in tailoring their red zone offense.
The Eagles ranked second in red zone efficiency last year (64 percent touchdown rate) and are 18th through five games this year (53 percent). It’s a similar story on third down. They were second in 2017 (45 percent conversion rate) compared to 23rd this season (38 percent). There’s much more to it than a change in a couple of offensive coaches, but it’s probably fair to say there has been an adjustment period.
That goes for the whole team. The Eagles went from underdogs to the hunted in the blink of an eye. They switched quarterbacks three weeks in. Wentz is reacclimating to the game post-op. Defenses are playing them smarter. And the Eagles are fighting to regain the same level of mental focus they sustained through their championship run, even though their bodies and minds had less time to refresh than most.
The Eagles also have suffered several injuries with Ajayi (torn ACL), Wallace and Mack Hollins (groin) being put on injured reserve. Running backs Darren Sproles (hamstring) and Corey Clement (quadriceps) also have been unable to stay on the field, and Jeffery has played in only two games after returning from shoulder surgery.
But the system is not broken, and there’s reason to believe this once high-flying offense will get back on track.
“The scheme is fine. The scheme is the same thing Matt Nagy is running in Chicago. The scheme works. There is no doubt about it,” Bowen said. “Right now you want a coach calling plays who is a part of the Andy Reid coaching tree or the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree based on what I’m seeing on film. Those are the most prolific offenses and the toughest to defend.
“The talent is there. And Carson is fine … You have to give him more clean-pocket throws. If there’s clean-pocket throws, that offense is going to take off with Coach Pederson. It’s not the scheme, it’s a lack of efficiency right now from the players, in my opinion.”
Cornerback Sidney Jones was asked what he’s seen out of Wentz recently.
“I’ve seen greatness, man,” he replied.
Wentz ran the scout team in practice during the first two weeks of the regular season while awaiting medical clearance. It was a way to get work against the first-team defense while providing Jim Schwartz’s unit with optimal looks.
Jones pointed to one play in particular that stuck out. It was in the red zone. Wentz ran a bootleg to the backside of the defense, evaded the rush and looked downfield, only to find that his receiver was double-covered. But he noticed one of the defensive backs had slipped off the receiver a hair, and he delivered a perfect back-shoulder throw for the touchdown.
“You saw what he did last year, and when he came on scout team, he was doing it [again] and I was like, ‘Man, this guys is special.’ He was making some crazy throws,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘S—, we’re going against the best right now, so this is the best look we’re ever going to get.’”
Tackle Lane Johnson has held the belief that Wentz’s arm is even stronger than last year. He said his theory was “validated” during Wednesday’s practice — Wentz’s first as the starting quarterback this season.
“He’s humming the football out there,” he said.
Johnson is right: Wentz’s arm is the strongest it has ever been. The Eagles use player-tracking technology on their players in practice. Coach Doug Pederson said that his throwing velocity is up over previous years.
“It’s been a long process for him, but I think he did what he could to build up his body,” said Johnson. “He looks stronger physically than what he did last year. He’s looking good.”
It’s his first game in nine months. Is the coaching staff going to ease him in?
It doesn’t sound like it. Pederson said he might offer max protection when the opportunity presents itself, but he isn’t going to hide the franchise quarterback.
“The thing is, I’m not going to coach scared. I’m not going to coach paranoid,” Pederson said. “I’m not going to go in thinking, ‘Oh, no, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ We just have to continue to go play and I [have] to coach that way. That’s where the confidence with the team comes, by doing that.”
Wentz is adopting a similar mindset. He feels “extremely confident moving around, on the run” and plans on using his legs to extend plays right out of the chute.
Doesn’t that seem a little dangerous?
Sure, but there is a reason they waited to give him the green light: They didn’t want to put him out there until they felt reasonably confident that the knee could handle the rigors of a game. Wentz will be wearing a protective brace on his left leg to offer additional support.
That’s not to say there won’t be anxiety.
“His numbers could be perfectly symmetric, everything could look perfect, but their people will still be nervous about his return until that first tackle, that first sack, that first awkward landing running out of bounds,” said Dr. Brian Sennett, chief of sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Only then will people start to feel that he has really made it all the way back.”
To last in the NFL, mobile quarterbacks have to figure out how to avoid unnecessary punishment. Wentz is cognizant of that, and the coaches continue to drill the importance of Wentz protecting himself.
Can his playmakers make it easy on him at least?
Tight end Zach Ertz said it best when he noted that Wentz is not “Superman” and can’t be asked to come in and do all the heavy lifting after not playing in nine months. But injuries have left the Eagles light at the skill positions.
Badly in need of receiver help, on Wednesday the Eagles brought back Jordan Matthews, who could jump right into the fray.
Simply put, the offense is not even close to full force right now, meaning Wentz might have to carry more of the load than anyone would like.
The ideal scenario for the Eagles is to jump out to an early lead and have their defense play light’s out so they can lean on the ground game a bit, even if they’re missing a key back or two.
The Eagles’ offensive line is one of the better units in the league when healthy (left tackle Jason Peters is dealing with a quad injury but expects to start) and knows the importance of its job beginning Sunday.
“The energy has been pretty high, but just knowing that we have our guy back, knowing that he’s put in a lot of work to get back where he is, just motivates us to do our jobs a little bit better and keep these guys off of him,” Johnson said. “Keep him clean, and he’s going to win a lot of ballgames for us.”
PHILADELPHIA — Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is not Superman, tight end Zach Ertz noted recently. Wentz hasn’t seen live action in nine months, and he shouldn’t feel like he has to come in and do the heavy lifting.
But Wentz is setting the bar high. While his coaches and teammates will try to provide necessary support as he makes his return from a multi-ligament knee injury against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Wentz believes he and the offense can operate like it did late last season before he went down with a torn ACL and LCL in Week 13.
A mental coach, marriage and a laser-focused determination helped Carson Wentz return from injury – once again.
“We expect to go out and start fast, play fast, be clicking, and so I truly believe that’s a realistic expectation,” Wentz said before Wednesday’s practice. “Now, [it’s] football, it’s not always like that, so those things come and you have to learn how to balance the ebbs and flows of the game and everything, but I think we all hold ourselves to high expectations around here.”
Wentz will heed the doctors’ advice and continue to wear a brace on his surgically repaired left knee as he has this offseason, and he says he is now at a point where he’s gotten used to it. A large black sleeve covered that brace during practice Wednesday. Otherwise, there were no other signs that pointed to his injury. Now nine-plus months removed from surgery, he is moving fluidly and planting with confidence.
While it may be a little while until he pulls off escapes at the level he did when at the top of his game last season, Wentz intends to play the position as he always has and use his legs to his advantage.
“I feel extremely confident moving around, on the run,” he said. “Even last year I never said I’m a running quarterback — I never want to be — but I’ll find ways to extend time in the pocket and make plays down the field, and I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”
Similarly, coach Doug Pederson said that he is not going to “coach scared.” He’ll max protect when there are opportunities, but he does not plan to be timid in his playcalling.
That’s not to say that Wentz’s health is not being prioritized. There have been conversations about Wentz better protecting himself dating back well before the injury, something the quarterback has had plenty of time to think about and continued to work on.
Wentz says that he is looking forward to taking that first hit — “always a good wake-up call to remind yourself you’re playing a man’s game out there” — and believes he’ll feel at home despite the long layoff.
“I know once I’m out there, I’ll feel good,” Wentz said. “I feel good in practice. I realize live action is going to feel a little different, but I’ve been fortunate the last couple weeks going against the [first-team] defense as the scout quarterback — obviously, they play extremely fast, so just seeing those things. The more experience out there, the better, but I think it will come second nature once I’m out there.”
PHILADELPHIA — One of the first text messages awaiting Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz after word of his season-ending knee injury came down last December was from his friend and mental coach, Ben Newman.
“You’ve been in this situation before, and you are a special human being,” wrote Newman, who has been with Wentz since his days at North Dakota State. “I know you don’t need me to tell you this, but go do for Nick Foles what you did for Easton Stick. And be there for the team and help this team see things that they don’t see possible for themselves.”
The part of the message Newman stressed in the retelling of that moment was, “I know you don’t need me to tell you this …”
Newman first started working with Wentz during Wentz’s senior year in 2015. Newman couldn’t quite figure out why the Bison were bringing him in as a performance coach, seeing as they had just rattled off four straight FCS national championships. What help could they possibly need? But there he was, standing in front of the room addressing the players. His first impression of Wentz was a lasting one.
“I walked in, and Carson is sitting in the front row. He’s got his glasses on. He’s got a notebook,” Newman said. “He, and everybody in that room, wanted an opportunity to get better.”
Newman witnessed Wentz’s turbulent and ultimately triumphant senior year up close, then watched from afar as history all but repeated itself two years later.
Wentz broke a bone in his throwing wrist six games into his senior season against rival South Dakota. He was told that he was finished for the season. This was well before he was being projected as a top NFL draft pick. Wentz was lightly recruited coming out of high school, had to wait until his junior year to take over as the full-time starter and then was stripped of the ability to lead his team and showcase himself for the NFL. He was hit hard by the news.
Still, Wentz quickly began channeling his efforts into helping Stick, a redshirt freshman who had the massive responsibility of filling in for Wentz and guiding a team with championship aspirations. Wentz helped Stick because that’s what he was raised to do.
“You really look at his roots: He comes from Bismarck, North Dakota. He’s a small-town kid, and you stay in North Dakota, and you were never heavily recruited. All he’s ever known is you fight for your teammates, and you fight to be the best you can be with the talent that God gave you every day,” Newman said. “And that’s it.”
Wentz traded a football for a clipboard and his helmet for a headset, and he supported Stick and the Bison from the sideline, just as he did for Foles during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. North Dakota State rattled off five straight wins under Stick, running the table to advance to the title game.
“Two weeks before the national championship game, Carson is cleared to play. And before anybody could go and have a conversation with Easton Stick, Easton goes to our quarterbacks coach Randy Hedburg and to our head coach, coach [Chris] Klieman, and says, ‘I heard that Carson was cleared to play. Let him play. It’s his team, not mine.’ And Carson goes on to start and to win this fifth straight national championship. And to me, [good things happen] when things are done for the right reason,” Newman said. “You saw that happen in Philadelphia last year: Nobody is being selfish.”
In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl LII, Wentz prayed for strength to keep selfishness from overtaking him.
His second season in the pros played out similarly to his senior year — the injury, transitioning into a support role, great team success — but this time, he wasn’t able to return at season’s end. He couldn’t step onto the big stage and deliver the championship himself.
After celebrating with teammates and sharing a moment with Foles — both quarterbacks gripping the Lombardi Trophy while green and white confetti showered them — Wentz went into the locker room, sat at his stall and bowed his head toward his knees, overcome with emotion.
“It was all kind of setting in and happening,” he told the Inquirer recently. “But I just had to thank the Lord for [the victory] and then also just pray against any feelings of jealousy because it was obviously a bittersweet last six games that I missed.”
There was a vulnerable moment or two along the way, including one night in the hospital following season-ending ACL and LCL surgery in December, when Wentz was “really busted up,” a friend relayed, at the reality of the situation. With his then-girlfriend Maddie by his side, Wentz used that time to process what he needed to process.
Maddie remained by his side for the trying weeks that followed, acting both as his companion and as his nurse.
“Behind every strong man is a strong woman. I know it first and foremost from my own experience,” said Wentz’s teammate and close friend Zach Ertz, tipping his cap to his wife, soccer star Julie Ertz. “But with Maddie, she’s been able to keep him grounded, keep him focused on what’s important. Always giving God all the glory. She’s been great for him.
“I think just through the lows, making sure he is not in a lull for too long … He speaks about how she always maintains his level head. She always makes sure that he’s not dwelling too long on anything that’s gone poorly, just maintaining that perspective.”
The relationship was strengthened through that experience. Wentz proposed to Maddie just a couple days after the Super Bowl. In July, they were married.
The difficult situation didn’t impact the way Wentz carried himself, his friends and teammates say. Even the night of the injury, while still at the Los Angeles Coliseum, some sensed he had already accepted the challenge that lay ahead and begun preparing the mental groundwork for his comeback. Days after the surgery, he was right back on task with the various projects he was working on and responsibilities in his life, surprising those who were still learning about the unrelenting nature of the 25-year-old North Dakotan. For Wentz, it was business as usual, only now there was the added duty of rehab, which he attacked like anything else: with uncommon precision and intensity.
Left tackle Jason Peters posted an Instagram video during the early stages of his recovery that summed up the eagerness of the franchise quarterback: There was Wentz, with a full brace still covering his left leg, hurling passes across the training room while sitting on his backside. He wasn’t going to let the fact that he could barely move stop him from getting some throws in.
There was a close-knit group of veterans rehabbing at the same time that included Wentz, Peters, running back Darren Sproles, linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Chris Maragos. They pushed one another and worked like hell to get right. But Wentz was so hard-wired in his approach that he’d sometimes grow frustrated with their pace and break off to do things at his own rate.
“When people are trying to hold him back, he’s not very happy. He’s a guy that wants to be in control. That’s the way he is when he’s leading the offense. He wants this exact. He wants things detailed out precisely.”
“Every day I see him, the guy is [exerting] himself to the point of exhaustion to get back,” Maragos said. “His laser-focus attitude, there’s not one specific moment. It’s every day.”
Those close to Wentz wouldn’t mind if he took a breather every once in a while, but the only time you’re likely to see him resting on the couch for an hour is when he’s icing something. If there is even a little bit of time between one task and the next, chances are Wentz will fill it with another.
Some claim that Wentz has a photographic memory, which combined with his incurable drive bred an ultra-efficient rehab process. If a doctor told him he needed to do a certain exercise for 10 minutes at a specific time, he did it exactly how and when he was supposed to.
It’s no surprise, then, that Wentz was considered ahead of schedule in his recovery just about the entire way. Although he was held out of the first two games of the regular season, the numbers and the eye test suggested that Wentz was good to go earlier in the process.
“In his mind, he was probably ready a month ago,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday, shortly after announcing that Wentz had been cleared for contact and will play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
Wentz is essentially back in less than nine months, despite the fact that the multi-ligament damage delayed the start of his rehab by about six weeks. He hit about every benchmark set for him but ultimately had to cede control to the medical staff and Eagles brass, who erred on the side of caution and took the long view with their franchise quarterback.
“When people are trying to hold him back, he’s not very happy,” Ertz said. “He’s a guy that wants to be in control. That’s the way he is when he’s leading the offense. He wants this exact. He wants things detailed out precisely.
“So when he decided to kind of let people control his rehab, it hasn’t always been how he’s wanted it to go, but he’s understood that they’re trying to do what’s best for him.”
The ironic thing, Newman said, is that he is supposed to be making Wentz better, but he has found the opposite to be true.
As a performance coach, Newman texts Wentz messages designed to focus and encourage daily, but unlike with many clients, he has concluded that Wentz doesn’t really need them.
Newman, however, is greatly benefiting from the relationship. Wentz does everything with such purpose, Newman said, that “it makes me more intentional in my walk. It makes me a better coach. It makes me a better human being. He is that intentional of a person.”
Besides Wentz and the North Dakota State football team, Newman works with a host of other athletes and programs, on the pro and college levels, including the University of Alabama and the Miami Dolphins.
When he interacts with some of the titans of the industry, he tries to get to the bottom of a key question: What makes them great?
“What I have found, in elite performers like Carson or coach [Nick] Saban, is that their level of focus and attention to detail is so extreme, I think it’s probably even hard for the average person to understand,” he said. “So the manner in which Carson is going to prepare for a game, the extra game film that he is willing to break down or the understanding of the playbook and the time that you’re going to spend with an offensive coordinator and the relationships that you build, most people aren’t willing to put in that kind of time.
“He’s been a professional since the day I met him.”
Philadelphia has been cautious about rushing Wentz back from last season’s knee injury, despite how strong he has looked in practice.
There were some within the Eagles organization who thought that, from a football standpoint, Wentz was ready to play Week 1, though the team stuck to a plan it had laid out for the star quarterback, taking a long-range view.
Wentz tore it up at practice this past Wednesday — the nine-month anniversary of his injury, looking sharp and ready for action. All that remains is being medically cleared, which is likely to happen as early as this week, according to sources.
Nick Foles once again will start at quarterback Sunday when the defending champion Eagles face the Buccaneers. The reigning Super Bowl MVP is 6-1 as Philadelphia’s starter — including regular season and postseason — since Wentz tore two knee ligaments in Week 14 last season.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said this past Wednesday that Wentz is doing “great.” He continues to take part in team drills by working with the scout team in practice. According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the player-tracking data that the Eagles utilize indicates that Wentz has hit a vital threshold — the ability to protect himself.
“That’s correct,” said Pederson, when asked if Wentz’s GPS data is trending in a positive direction. “That’s what we’ve seen really since he came back into 11-on-11 as training camp progressed.”
PHILADELPHIA — Nick Foles is many things to many people — a championship quarterback, a Super Bowl MVP, a feel-good underdog, and a bestselling author to boot. But his near-future might be defined by one thing he most certainly is not:
Wentz is a thoroughbred, an athletic marvel already identified as LeBron James‘ favorite NFL player. Before he blew out his knee in December, Wentz appeared poised to carry the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl title they won instead with Foles, widely regarded as a one-trick pony who would remain in place, under center, only until Wentz was ready to go.
And Thursday night’s 18-12 victory over Atlanta at Lincoln Financial Field did little to disabuse anyone of that notion. Foles won ugly — really, really ugly — completing 19 of 34 passes for a lousy 117 yards and no touchdown passes, carrying his disappointing preseason into the regular-season opener.
But Foles did win. He did survive the $150 million local boy, Matt Ryan, and this matchup between the team that should have beaten the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and the team that did. In fact, even after Wentz gets the all-clear from his doctors, Foles should continue to start for the Eagles until he proves he can no longer outscore the opposing quarterback on a regular basis.
Until, you know, he loses two out of three.
Assuming good health, Wentz is going to be an imposing force in the NFL; of this there is little doubt. Foles? He isn’t much to look at, and he is the ultimate streak shooter. His highs are ridiculously high and his lows are ridiculously low, and at some point his physical limitations will make it obvious that the ball needs to be in Wentz’s hands.
The Eagles should ride Foles all the way to that point. He has earned that much, anyway, after lighting up Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game before doing the same to the Patriots in Minneapolis, sending the sport’s all-time coach (Bill Belichick) and quarterback (Tom Brady) spiraling into an offseason both would prefer to forget.
Philadelphia honored its Super Bowl LII conquest Thursday night with a weather-delayed pregame ceremony at the Linc, and with a hard jab at the Patriots during the third quarter, when Eagles coach Doug Pederson called for “Philly, Philly,” the fourth-and-goal trick play punctuated by Foles’ touchdown catch against New England in the Super Bowl — with a twist. This time around, Pederson didn’t call for the snap to be sent directly to running back Corey Clement, but to Foles himself, who gave the ball to Clement before the running back pitched it to Nelson Agholor. The receiver threw a third-down strike to Foles near the sideline, effectively replicating the Super Bowl play New England ran when Danny Amendola threw to a wide-open Brady.
Philadelphia breaks out its iconic Super Bowl LII trick playcall, as WR Nelson Agholor throws to QB Nick Foles for a 15-yard gain.
“That’s where we got it from,” Pederson said of getting the play from the Patriots.
With one difference, the Eagles coach said. “They were in 11 personnel [three wide receivers], and we were in 12 (two tight ends).”
Actually, make that two differences. Brady dropped the ball, and Foles did not.
“Honestly,” Foles said of Pederson and the play, “we were both thinking the same thing at the same time. I went over there to talk to him to say this might be a good time and he pointed to the call sheet and it was like, ‘That was what I was coming over here for.’ So it worked again.
“I love having plays like that. Our team loves it. I mean, everyone loves a good trick play.”
At least the trick plays that work. Jay Ajayi scored the game’s first touchdown at the end of that drive, then scored again in the final minutes before the Philly defense made the same kind of goal-line stop it made against Atlanta and Ryan to win its playoff game last winter. Truth is, the Eagles survived more than they advanced. They didn’t gain a single offensive yard in the first quarter, the worst start for any NFL offense in a season opener in 13 years. Pederson said the game was decided by his offensive and defensive lines, but in reality, it was probably decided by the Eagles’ resilience.
They’re clearly better than the Falcons at closing out tight games like these, and Foles is a chief reason why. The backup quarterback and part-time receiver is 6-1 under Pederson. Foles became the first winning starter to throw at least 30 times with an average yards per attempt as low as his (3.44) since Josh McCown pulled it off for the 2005 Cardinals, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Doug Pederson describes why they called “Philly Philly” and where they got it from.
But he caught a pass like he caught in the Super Bowl, a pass that Brady dropped, to give the lifeless Eagles a spark.
“I was just looking for a big play,” Pederson said. “I just felt like it was the right time to make that call.”
Pederson will know when it’s the right time to make the call for Wentz, too. That will be a challenge among the many he will have to meet in his bid to make Philly the first repeat champion since the 2003-04 Patriots, who were led by a coach who was so moved by his 2001 team’s failure to repeat that he wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the burden of trying to go back to back.
“Remember,” Belichick wrote to the next yet-to-be-determined Super Bowl champ, “the Smart Coach/Moron Coach Meter, which is currently way off the charts in the right direction, can be very moody.”
Pederson will know when that meter is pointing toward using his franchise player. Foles will be looking like the guy who considered retirement in 2016, the Eagles will be losers of two of their last three, and Wentz will be acting light and confident on his feet.
But until that time comes, Pederson should give Foles a chance to see if there is a little opportunistic magic left in his right arm. There is no point in rushing the transition. Philly should stick with “Philly Philly,” and with the bestselling author who might still have a chapter or two to write.
PHILADELPHIA – Eagles coach Doug Pederson said that quarterback Carson Wentz is “close” to a return from ACL and LCL surgery, and apparently is so encouraged by his progress that he held out on officially naming a starter for Thursday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons until the last possible moment.
Pederson said he had not informed Wentz and Nick Foles that Foles would be the starter until Sunday, a day after reports dropped signaling that Wentz would not play.
“The decision was not made at the time,” Pederson said. “I still wanted to hear from our medical team, I wanted to see exactly where Carson was at, and so if I came off a little abrasive, that was part of the reason.”
After the Falcons game, the Eagles play at the Tampa Bay Bucs on September 16 before returning home to face the Indianapolis Colts on September 23.
Wentz has been pushing hard to return from a multi-ligament knee injury suffered against the Los Angeles Rams in December. He had no setbacks during his rehab, Pederson confirmed, and seemingly hit every benchmark that was in his control. But he has still not been cleared for contact.
“Obviously more rest and more time off heals the wounds, heals the [surgery],” said Pederson, of the medical benefit of holding Wentz back. “But listen, you’ve got to understand, too, Carson’s been out there, he’s been in 11-on-11 drills in training camp and this week, and so, we’re just waiting to get the clearance.”
Pederson did not offer a timeline to say exactly how close Wentz is to getting back on the field, but noted that, “He’s had some great workouts here over the last few days.”
The fact that Wentz heard the news through the media instead of the organization, assuming Pederson’s account is accurate, couldn’t have sat well with the franchise quarterback, but Pederson says Wentz remains in a “great spot.”
“Nobody wants to hear it from [the media], they want to hear it from me,” Pederson said. “And that’s why, again, [I had] the reaction because I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing for both guys, number one, and obviously the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s why my communication with them is very critical, and it’s been open, it’s been honest all the way back since the beginning of April.”
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Congratulations, Sam Darnold. You got the job. Free advice: Wear extra padding and don’t listen to talk radio.
Named Monday as the New York Jets‘ starting quarterback, a move that surprised no one in the Western Hemisphere, Darnold steps into one of the toughest gigs in sports. This is a star-crossed franchise with a terrible history for developing young quarterbacks. He will preside over a rebuilding team with a mediocre offense that will struggle to protect him.
Oh, by the way: The expectations are out of control, fueled by lavish endorsements from Joe Namath, Josh Norman and Tony Romo, who actually said Darnold has the potential to be on the same level as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Can we let him play a game first?
Darnold was rushed into the job after a solid — if not stellar — preseason, but this is what happens when you’re the third overall pick in a place like New York. Ready or not, he’s the Sam-chise. His biggest threat, Teddy Bridgewater, was removed from the equation last week, traded to the New Orleans Saints. The 2018 season is all about Darnold, growing pains and all.
Realistic expectations? Let’s talk about Carson Wentz, 2016.
Drafted second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles, Wentz was handed the starting job when Sam Bradford was traded late in the preseason to the Minnesota Vikings, who were desperate to replace the injured Bridgewater. (Ah, so many parallels.) Wentz started off great as a rookie, cooled off around midseason and finished with pedestrian rookie numbers — 16 starts, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The Eagles finished 7-9, but there was optimism because they knew they had found their franchise quarterback.
We know what happened last year. Wentz played at an MVP level before suffering a late-season knee injury, robbing him of the chance to finish the Eagles’ Super Bowl journey.
The Jets would be thrilled if Darnold follows Wentz’s career arc, sans knee injury. Their plan is to give Darnold his on-the-job training this season, hoping for team improvement as well. (Let’s be honest, a 7-9 record would be a success.) In 2019, they can bolster his supporting cast with $90 million in cap room, setting themselves up for a serious run. This isn’t to suggest they’ll be “Philly Special” in 2019, but it’s a practical timeline with regard to Darnold’s growth.
“To me, it’s all about what Philadelphia did with Carson Wentz,” former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said. “I’m not saying the Jets are going to the Super Bowl next year, but get Sam Darnold to that level in Year 2.”
In 2016, Esiason remembers getting a phone call from an excited Frank Reich, his friend and former college roommate. Reich, the Eagles’ offensive coordinator at the time, had traveled to North Dakota State to work out Wentz before the draft and was blown away by his talent and maturity. A few days later, Esiason said, the Eagles traded up, putting themselves in position to draft Wentz.
The Jets followed a similar path to Darnold. Their draft-day giddiness hasn’t faded, but don’t expect a Year 1 miracle.
The offensive line hasn’t had its top pass protector, left tackle Kelvin Beachum, for the entire preseason. He’s expected to play Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, but it’ll take a few weeks before he’s in top shape.
There’s also the schedule — three games in 11 days to start the season, including two on the road. That’s a mental and physical strain for any quarterback, let alone a 21-year-old rookie.
A wise leader such as Josh McCown (or Bridgewater) would’ve helped the team navigate the brutal schedule and inevitable pass-protection problems, but Todd Bowles decided to start the clock on Darnold. The Jets’ coach has no track record with quarterback decisions — this was the first time in four years he had more than one viable option — but he evidently believes Darnold is a wise-beyond-his-years rookie who can handle the grind.
Let me say this about Darnold: Of all the rookies who have passed through this quarterback-deprived franchise, Darnold has more upside than any I’ve covered –and I go all the way back to strong-armed tease Browning Nagle in 1992. Ah, but the preseason can be deceiving. He played only two-plus quarters against starting defenses, neither of which created a game plan designed to stop him. That’s about to change; he’s now a marked man.
Let’s also remember Darnold is stepping into a huddle with no Pro Bowl players, which means more pressure on the young man’s shoulders. This isn’t Mark Sanchez walking into a playoff-ready team in 2009; this will be hard quarterbacking.
Remember that when you question why Darnold hasn’t matched Romo’s ridiculous hyperbole.
PHILADELPHIA — A fiery Doug Pederson shut down most questions about his quarterback situation Sunday, agitated by reports on the subject, but did reveal that Carson Wentz has not yet been cleared for contact with the opener against the Atlanta Falcons just days away.
“First of all, I appreciate y’all putting words in my mouth this week. Therefore, I’m not going to discuss [who the quarterback will be],” he said, in reference to reports that Nick Foles is expected to start Thursday night.
Follow-up questions triggered multiple “next question” responses, a la agent Drew Rosenhaus.
League sources who have weighed in on Philadelphia’s quarterback situation anticipate that Foles, the Super Bowl MVP, will play against the Falcons. Wentz is still on the early side of a traditional timetable for a return from an ACL tear in his left knee, which typically takes nine to 12 months. The Atlanta game comes a few days shy of that nine-month mark. Wentz tore his LCL as well, which delayed the rehab process and made for a more complicated surgery and recovery. The prevailing thought from sources who have spoken on this is that the Eagles want to be cautious when it comes to their franchise quarterback.
Pederson said that he didn’t want to name a starting quarterback in part because he was hoping to gain a competitive advantage.
“A little bit. Yeah, a little bit. [We are] trying to win a football game. I don’t want to put my game plan out there for everybody to see it and read it and teams can scheme,” he said. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. So, I appreciate it.”
On a conference call later Sunday afternoon, Falcons coach Dan Quinn opened by joking, “I understand you have some quarterback questions today, so … Matt Ryan will be our quarterback.”
Quinn went on to say that he is just preparing for the Eagles’ offense rather than a specific quarterback, and doesn’t see much of a competitive disadvantage in not knowing for certain who the Eagles’ QB will be.
“If style was so drastically different … probably back in the day and we were having this conversation between Jaws [Ron Jaworski] and Randall [Cunningham], we might have that discussion. But these two guys are really equipped to run it in a similar fashion,” he said.
The quarterback situation has been a sore subject for Pederson. He got testy last Sunday as well, fed up with questions about Wentz’s health.
“I don’t know how many times I can answer this question,” he said after a long pause and a laugh. “When they clear him, he’ll be cleared.”