In 2016, his rookie season, Carson Wentz ran 30 times. The quarterback avoided contact on only 12 rushes and was flat-out tackled to the ground, like any ball carrier, a dozen times.
During film review, Eagles coaches instructed Wentz to be more cautious when running. The headstrong quarterback brushed off the advice, however, as he did so many defenders.
“It definitely went in one ear and out the other early on,” former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said recently. “It didn’t go exactly like this, but this is just made up to protect the innocent or protect the guilty, however you say it. We would say to him, ‘Hey, you just need to kind of back off on some of this tackling stuff.’
“And he didn’t quite say it like this, but it was essentially, ‘No. I’m not backing off. This is me. This is how I play.’ ”
Reich said that Wentz heeded his coaches’ counsel more during his second season, but the numbers don’t exactly support that claim. In 39 runs in 2017, he evaded contact only 13 times. Wentz’s last dash ended in ruin when a collision at the goal line against the Rams resulted in a season-ending left-knee injury.
It’s unclear if he had torn his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments when he got sandwiched between two defenders or when he planted before takeoff. But Wentz’s aggressiveness surely increased the odds for injury, and it’s not just his scrambles downfield that have placed the quarterback at greater risk.
His refusal to give up on any play has given the Eagles many first downs and several touchdowns, and his toughness has galvanized teammates. But Wentz’s daring potentially threatens his and his team’s future — despite last season’s improbable Super Bowl-winning run directed by his replacement, Nick Foles — and further emphasizes the importance of quarterbacking out of harm’s way.
“I’m going to sit down and talk to him,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last week at the NFL owners meetings. “Longevity is everything in this business. Learn from the best. Learn from Tom Brady, who got hurt early in his career. And learn from guys that have done that and yet still went on to have great careers and long careers.”
Brady is a pocket quarterback, though. Wentz has mostly drawn comparisons to strong, athletic quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, who have played the position as if they were fullbacks but have also been prone to injury because of that hardiness.
Roethlisberger became less aggressive, to some extent, the more he missed games and the more he matured. The jury is still out on whether Luck, who missed the 2017 season after shoulder surgery, will dial back on his natural impulses. But, like Wentz, he may have no other choice — at least initially.
Wentz is unlikely to be as mobile when he returns. The Eagles haven’t publicly set a timetable for his return, but he has said that his “goal is to be ready for Week 1.” Whether he is forced to play more conservatively or not, the 25-year-old said in January that he will not alter his approach despite the injury.
“I am who I am,” Wentz said, channeling a certain resolute sailor man. “Injuries happen. Injuries aren’t going to change me. … Obviously, guys want to talk about, ‘Are you learning to protect yourself?’ And we debated and talked about that all season long. That will continue to grow and develop.
“But as far as playing aggressive and being the player that I am, I won’t change.”
Wearing the cape
The Eagles drafted Wentz in part because of his competitive fire. It would have been uncharacteristic for someone who threw a touchdown pass on a torn ACL, as Wentz did against the Rams, to accept his limitations — both publicly and privately. Former NFL head coach Bruce Arians said that such a concession would be worrisome.
“I don’t want a guy that’s hurt saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be real careful now.’ That’s not the guy who’s leading your team,” Arians said during a recent telephone interview. “You got Superman, and you want him to think he’s still Superman.”
But quarterbacks must also be Clark Kent sensible. Andy Reid has had more than his share of mobile quarterbacks, and the former Eagles coach has had varying results in getting them to resist certain Darwinian urges. Donovan McNabb became more disciplined as his career progressed. Michael Vick less so.
Reid, now with the Chiefs, said that Wentz’s Popeye-esque decree shouldn’t be taken literally.
“He’s got to say what he has to say, but he knows he wants to be there for his team, and so there are going to be times when he’s got to get down,” Reid said recently. “He’s a smart kid. He’ll be able to judge that.”
Arians, who has tutored NFL quarterbacks from Peyton Manning to Roethlisberger to Luck and wrote about it with The Quarterback Whisperer, How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback, said that playing styles should be harnessed not changed — even at the college level. He recalled a young mobile quarterback he wrongly tried to turn into a drop back passer.
“I took away his No. 1 thing. So I had to quit doing that,” said Arians, who retired from coaching in January. “When you draft one, you think that you got the personality that you’re looking for. The guys you’re talking about, they got the grit. They all wear the cape. They think they can throw a touchdown on every play even if nobody is blocked.”
But that grit can extend to areas outside of throwing the football. Luck re-injured his right shoulder early in the 2016 season when tried to tackle Aqib Talib after he threw an interception to the then-Broncos cornerback. Reich, now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, said that his new quarterback sometimes looked like “a missile” going after defenders who picked off his passes.
“If you watch guys like Andrew and Carson, there’s a direct path oblivious to anybody,” Reich said. “Most quarterbacks want to know, ‘Where’s everybody?’ The tape I remember seeing on Andrew early, and Carson was the same way, is, ‘That guy just took my ball, I’m going to go get it back, and I’m going to hurt him.’ ”
But they’re just as likely to get hurt. Luck didn’t miss a game in his first three NFL seasons, but he has missed 26 of 48 to injury over the last three. Wentz hasn’t played as long, but he sat out most of his rookie preseason with broken ribs to go along with December’s knee injury. A broken wrist during his senior year at North Dakota State also sidelined him for eight games.
The wrist injury happened from incidental contact, though. There is a fine line between exposing yourself to harm and getting injured by playing cautiously, just as there is between extending a play and having success and trying to do too much and failing.
“He’s not exempt from contact, but at the same time … I don’t want to diminish any of his aggressiveness,” Pederson said in February. “If he can pull the ball down and run, I want him to. It was a big part of our third-down success this past season.”
Wentz converted 12 third downs with his legs in 2017. Three were on short-yardage sneaks, but many of the others came when he dodged, escaped and out-ran would-be tacklers. Wentz also converted just as many other third downs with spectacular moves in and out of the pocket that bought him time to throw downfield.
The hits piled up, though. Wentz slid or ran out of bounds on only 13 of 39 carries, excluding sneaks, fumbled snaps/exchanges and kneels. He dove forward nine times, sometimes avoiding direct shots. But Wentz was often fair game — barreling ahead in the open field like the younger running back he once was — and sometimes suffered the consequences.
In Week 6, he lowered his right shoulder and tried to run over Panthers safety Mike Adams near the goal line. Wentz even took a few blows because his slides were so late. On some occasions, there was little he could do. He would escape a collapsing pocket and have no time to either throw the ball away or fall to the turf before getting tackled.
Quarterbacks have what Texans coach Bill O’Brien calls “a silent alarm” that tells them when they need stop going through their reads from the pocket.
“If you drop back to pass — one-thousand one, one-thousand two — if you’re getting into that three-second range in this league and you haven’t thrown the ball yet, I would say that you better start thinking about doing something because they’re coming,” O’Brien said.
The clock varies depending upon the play call, the defense and the protection. Some clocks, however, run longer than others. When Wentz ran, it was often because it was the last option. But once he took off, reaching the first down marker or crossing the goal line was often his only objective.
O’Brien said that it can be difficult to get tigers to change their stripes.
“It’s hard. I think when you look at all these guys, they’re such great competitors,” he said. “If you look at Roethlisberger and Wentz and Andrew Luck, they don’t think that the play is ever over.”
The Houston coach equated DeShaun Watson, his young quarterback, to the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson when it came to being mobile without taking unnecessary hits. Locker rooms will often rally around quarterbacks who demonstrate their toughness as Wentz has obviously done in two seasons, but Reich said that playing up the team aspect is one way to break through.
“I think it needs to be couched as, ‘This is what’s best for the team. You have to be available. You have to certainly see that you’re putting yourself at a high risk, and that’s not good for us. You don’t want to hurt the team,’ ” Reich said. “Because that’s what those guys have. There’s a team mentality.”
While it may be a stretch to say that durability is the best ability — a favorite catchphrase of Chip Kelly — the Eagles envision a future as perennial playoff contenders with Wentz at quarterback. If all goes according to plan, they will sign him to a large contract extension next offseason.
Wentz might not consciously alter his style, but Arians, for one, believes that it will come naturally with time.
“I think there are ways as you get a little older you learn when to slide, when to get down. You’re not trying to prove to your locker room that you’re the toughest son of a bitch on the team,” Arians said. “Wentz probably has that respect now that Andrew has in his locker room, that Ben has.
“It’s time now to duck and dodge a little bit more. Still keep the play alive, but just be smarter about it.”
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.