Javien Elliott was giving away six inches and 61 pounds to Carson Wentz when Tampa Bay's fourth-string, undrafted rookie cornerback found himself confronted by the onrushing quarterback early in the fourth quarter of Thursday's exhibition opener.
Wentz had momentum on his side as he executed an option bootleg to the left, a lot of momentum, and had already picked up five of the six yards needed for a first down when Elliott realized his coaches would expect him to do something about this. He took the only prudent course considering the physics involved, and felled the tree at its trunk by dropping down and driving his shoulder pad into Wentz's shins.
Probably to Elliott's surprise, it worked well enough to not only halt Wentz, but to flip the big man through the air, spinning him head-down and feet-up toward the ground while the Eagles fans in Lincoln Financial Field, not to mention the coaching staff, front office and ownership, held their collective breath and watched.
It was a good moment to reflect - as Wentz reached down tentatively to brace the fall with his right hand, the same thing that cost him a broken wrist and two months of his senior season last year - that topsy-turvy is also what describes the Eagles at the moment, particularly at the quarterback position. The situation became more complicated Saturday when it was revealed that Wentz suffered a hairline rib fracture on another play, when third-string linebacker Micah Awe hit the quarterback on a weakside blitz.
It isn't as if Doug Pederson can be expected to sort out all the issues with a month still remaining until the regular season. At least, it doesn't sound like he's sorting them out when he talks about them. Jeff Lurie did say it wasn't about having a head coach who could win the press conferences, and there's really no danger there. Whether Pederson can adjust well enough to shifting circumstance to win football games is how he will be judged.
The lack of skill players isn't his fault, nor is the offensive line suddenly depleted by injury and, apparently, stupidity. But as a former NFL quarterback – has he mentioned recently he played the position? – and with another former NFL quarterback as his offensive coordinator, it's confounding that Pederson didn't figure out a smarter way to deal with his quarterbacks during the exhibition season. If he couldn't get this one right, how will he do with the other stuff?
Admittedly, prior to Wentz's injury, he had a puzzler on his hands, far different from the standard NFL quarterback hierarchy of: protected starter, acceptable, but expendable backup, doofus third-stringer. That's easy to manage. Number one with the ones, number two with the twos, and drain the game clock with the threes.
Head coaches don't get paid to manage the easy situations, though, so Pederson needed to find a way to provide as much protection as possible for both Sam Bradford, the team's quarterback of the moment, and Wentz, who was drafted to be nothing less than the future of the franchise.
The part regarding Bradford, who will almost certainly not be here a year from now, was standard, albeit over-cautious even by NFL standards. He was on the field for just three plays and a total of 55 seconds. He threw a quick pass out of the shotgun and handed off twice. There wasn't a Buccaneer who got within three yards of him.
As for Wentz, not so much. The flip into the air turned out to be the least of it, although it's questionable what can be gained by allowing him to run a naked bootleg in any case. Pederson helpfully said he wished Wentz had hurdled Elliott instead of letting the smaller guy take his legs out. Right. Don't see what could go wrong with that kind of advice.
It wasn't his runs that were most worrisome. Wentz is a big, strong, resilient fellow who likes contact. Even quarterbacks who meet that description can get hurt, however, and particularly when their offensive line is composed of Dillon Gordon, Malcolm Bunche, Bruce Johnson, Darrell Greene, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
That was the group protecting Wentz for much of the fourth quarter against players from the bottom of the Tampa Bay roster looking desperately for a big hit to put on film. Putting the future of the franchise behind that was like parking a limousine in a rock slide zone. It got Wentz hurt, even if the fracture is considered slight, and it clearly wasn't a smart way to do business.
The answer, if Wentz is able to return during the preseason? Good question. Pederson thought it was fine as it was, and loved the contact, and his reaction to the injury, if his history is a guide, will be something like, "Well, that's football."
That's not good enough. Chase Daniel, which is what Tampa Bay's defense did when the backup was in the game, can be exposed to risk. You can find another Chase Daniel – and a lot cheaper, too. According to what Howie Roseman has said, finding and landing another Carson Wentz might not happen for a generation or more.
Yes, it's tackle football. Yes, it's a rough game. Yes, Wentz is tough. None of that matters. If he is truly the most important piece of the future, and if he can't be given reasonable protection with decent linemen, then he shouldn't play until the head coach finds a way to provide it.
Come on, Doug. Figure it out. What could possibly matter more?