The Eagles are on their annual one-game break from football this weekend, a gift from the NFL that both pleases a players association looking to protect its rank and file, and a schedule-stretcher that works out well for the league as it sells 17 weeks of regular-season radio and television programming rather than just 16.
It’s a win-win situation, as they say in business, and that’s also pretty much what the preceding nine weeks had been for the Eagles. Or, to be exact: win, lose, win, win, win, win, win, win, win.
The season forecast was for mostly average with scattered optimism and occasional periods of rebuilding, but the Eagles, led by boisterous second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, have seen almost entirely blue skies so far. As unlikely as it might have been to expect, the Eagles not only have the best record in the NFL at 8-1, but no other team even had more than six wins entering this week’s schedule. (Yeah, sure, that’s partly because five of the six-win teams had played only eight games, but this is no time to get all logical about what’s taking place.)
“We’re going to enjoy this, relax and kind of get away, and then come back ready to go,” Wentz said after the team put an exclamation point on its opening stretch by beating the Denver Broncos, 51-23, last Sunday.
Just as everyone knew the Eagles would top out at 10 wins if things went well, everyone knew that a game against the No. 1 defense in the league would be a low-scoring test of whether the offense could grind out a win against an unyielding opponent. Turns out knowing stuff ahead of time is a little overrated.
“To put up what we did today, obviously it feels like we have some momentum,” Wentz said.
If nothing else, they have some serious franchise history on their side now to go with the momentum. This is only the fifth time since the Eagles began play in 1933 that the team has started the season with an 8-1 record. In each of the other four seasons, they went to the league championship game, winning in 1949 and 1960, and losing Super Bowl appearances following the 1980 and 2004 seasons. (In their only other championship appearance season, a 1948 win, they began the schedule 7-1-1.)
As the year has gone along, taking nothing away from a defense that held together much better than expected, Wentz is the clear reason the team is doing what it is doing. Not only is he playing exceptionally well despite his relative lack of experience, but his enthusiasm is infectious. Maybe he’ll get to the point someday where he throws a touchdown pass, tugs loose his chinstrap, and walks to the sideline to accept a handshake or two, but that’s a long way from where he is now. The Eagles are up in large part because they have a leader as rambunctious as a lab puppy, and how can they not follow along?
The defense has been good, particularly considering its losses to injuries, but the Eagles have gotten five of their eight wins in games in which the opponent scored 23 or more points. That’s not a shutdown defense. That’s a winning offense.
For his part, Wentz has thrown 23 touchdown passes and just five interceptions in nearly 300 attempts and he is ranked among the top quarterbacks in the league, right up there with guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and, until he was injured, Aaron Rodgers. His ranking is a huge improvement over his rookie season, but also improved was the stability of his offensive line (at least to this point), the quality of his receivers, and the consistency of a running game to keep defenses honest.
“At the end of the day … touchdowns … whatever, that’s all great, but being 8-1 is what it’s all about,” Wentz said. “I didn’t really know what to expect with stats and all that stuff … but I will say I had high expectations for myself and for this team, so we’re fortunate with where we’re at.”
Just to put Wentz’s development in context, here’s what Brady, Brees, and Rodgers did in their first two seasons as starters, and what Wentz projects to do by the end of this season:
Brady, 62.8% completions, 46 TDs, 26 INT.
Brees, 59.5% completions, 28 TDs, 31 INT.
Rodgers, 64.2% completions, 58 TDs, 20 INT.
Wentz, 61.8% completions, 50 TDs, 24 INT.
It’s worth pointing out that Rodgers was 25 years old when he became a starter, and that Wentz’s two-season projection flattens out his current stats because it includes his less-effective rookie year. Regardless, he’s at the table with some high-power players, each of whom won the Super Bowl. There’s not a guy in the Eagles locker room who doesn’t look at Wentz and believe he the guy to get them there as well.
“Carson has done enough on the field to earn the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates,” said quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who has been following Wentz since he was at North Dakota State. “We knew that leadership was there and there was no reason to think that wouldn’t translate into our building.”
A team doesn’t get to 8-1 without being led. Coaches can do only so much. At some point, it has to be done from within the locker room. On a football team, that better start with the quarterback. For the Eagles, it does. It has happened quickly, but, then again, an awful lot is happening very quickly right now.
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