LOS ANGELES — Beyond the far corner of the end zone and up the tunnel to the tiny locker rooms of the Memorial Coliseum, the scene on Sunday evening went from light to darkness just like that. It was a real sunset over the west wall of the stadium, on the wide ocean beyond, and a symbolic one for a team that had just won a battle but lost a larger war at the same time.
The players eventually emerged one by one wearing their NFC East party hats. Some league-affiliated sponsor had paid for them to be worn and, fallen quarterback or no, the Eagles were going to come out of the locker room wearing them. The business of the NFL grinds on even as its participants are ground down by it.
Jason Kelce walked into the concrete corridor and was asked what he knew about the condition of Carson Wentz. His eyes shifted around as he considered the answer.
“I don’t know if anything’s been released yet or what,” Kelce said.
It isn’t the place for a center to tell the world that the quarterback has torn his anterior cruciate ligament and the team’s hopes for a championship had probably been torn along with it. There was the formality of an MRI still to come, but doctors and trainers at the professional level know what they have when they examine a knee and it swings loosely like a closet door missing a latch. Word spreads quickly in a locker room and the Eagles came out of theirs on Sunday night merely reminded that they play a cruel game. It wasn’t really news to them.
“We knew something was up,” Kelce said of the scramble on which Wentz was injured. “That’s the way he plays, and that’s one of the things that makes him an incredible player in this league.”
The hope for the Eagles is that, when Wentz eventually returns, the tense of that isn’t changed to played, as in, “That’s the way he played before the ACL.” Players come back from surgery all the time. They are young, elite athletes and get the best of care and rehabilitation. They don’t always come back exactly the same, however. Will Wentz be the same quarterback if the injury takes away some of what made him special?
It’s been said that he might even be a better NFL quarterback if he weren’t as mobile, not as quick to put himself in harm’s way, more apt to take the smart yards that are available. That’s a stretch. Torn knee ligaments rarely end up being career enhancers.
It fell to Doug Pederson to deliver the official word on Monday and put as positive a face as possible on the loss of the starting quarterback with just three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“We overcame [losing] a Pro Bowl left tackle. We overcame our middle linebacker. We overcame a running back, a core special-teams player this year, our kicker this year,” Pederson said. “This is no different.”
Pederson trotted out the “next-man-up” motto that is always handy for a sport that chews up its players. Of course, there’s a reason the next man up wasn’t up in the first place and that’s almost always because he isn’t as good as the previous man up. That’s certainly the case with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, even though Foles can be a competent game manager, and even though Pederson will pad the edges of the offense for the backup. If you thought Jay Ajayi was getting a lot of work before, just wait.
The coaches will do the best they can, and the players will do the best they can to finish this thing out, but, if we’re being honest here, the clock has stopped on the next Eagles championship, or trip to a Super Bowl, and it won’t start again until Wentz is back on the field. That is the reality of what he means to this team. When Howie Roseman surrendered roster depth and salary cap room to maneuver up the pole of the 2016 draft, he did it because nothing in the NFL means as much as having a transcendent quarterback. It was the right move, but it came with the unspoken risk that even the right move has no guarantee.
Someone asked Pederson on Monday if a plan is in place yet for how to handle Wentz’s return next spring, or whether he’d even be ready to return by then. The swelling in the quarterback’s knee hadn’t yet subsided. His surgery hadn’t taken place yet, let alone been successful. The team left behind is still the number one seed in the NFC, the only team in the conference to clinch a division title or a playoff spot. It can get a first-round bye with another win.
“I’m focused on the New York Giants, man,” Pederson said.
Still, it was a good question because, like it or not, admit it or not, everything about what this team can be went into suspended animation pending Wentz’s return.
This had been looking like a season of destiny until just before dusk in Los Angeles on Sunday, and for Carson Wentz and his ability to play the game so well, that could still be the case. It just might not be the destiny everyone had in mind.