Third down, 13 yards to go, one of the NFL’s most tenacious pass-rushers bearing down. As far as preseason moments go, this one was as memorable as they come.
Clay Matthews burst unblocked through the line of scrimmage, and Carson Wentz looked like a soon-to-be outline in the grass. Next thing you knew, Matthews was the one lying splayed on the 45-yard line, Wentz having shaken him off with a shoulder-ducking shimmy before escaping to his right. As the linebacker watched from his stomach, the second-year quarterback found receiver Mack Hollins dragging across the field with open field in front.
“That’s something big,” right tackle Lane Johnson said later as he thought back to the play. “A lot of quarterbacks can’t do that in this league.”
Throughout the summer, members of the Eagles organization have taken turns raving about the command with which Wentz has seized control of this team. In the locker room, in the huddle, on the practice fields of North Dakota, the 24-year-old has emerged as exactly the kind of leader Jeffery Lurie, Howie Roseman, and Doug Pederson thought they were getting when they made their bold move up the draft board almost a year and a half ago. But if you’re looking for the secret behind the respect that Wentz has commanded from his teammates since landing in Philly, it starts in moments such as the one above.
Leadership is useless if it’s not coupled with talent. At the highest level of any profession, it doesn’t take long to sniff out a fraud. The NFL is a team sport played by self-interested participants. The goal is to win. If you want guys to follow you, you’d better offer a material contribution to that cause. Chase Daniel might be a respectable guy in the film room, but it’s between the lines that matters most to the 52 other guys in the locker room.
From the jump, Wentz has shown the kind of talent capable of converting the masses.
Consider the perspective of a guy such as Torrey Smith. At 28, he has played in eight playoff games during his career, winning a Super Bowl in 2012 with the Ravens. He has seen some of the best quarterbacks the NFL has to offer, and during the last two seasons in San Francisco, he has attempted to catch passes from some of the worst.
“It didn’t take long to see that he’s got ‘it,” Smith said of Wentz this summer.
The arm strength, the escapability, the accuracy on his deep throws: That is the primary source of the capital that Wentz has accumulated for himself among coaches and teammates at the NovaCare Complex. Everybody who watches him play understands that he has a chance to become the kind of player who can transform any roster he inhabits into a contender.
Don’t mistake any of that as a diminishment of the importance of some of Wentz’s more intangible qualities. He’s got all the cliches covered: first to arrive, last to leave, texting his newly signed teammates to arrange throwing sessions, hosting working vacations with receivers, grilling ribs and steaks and burgers with his offensive linemen, etc.
“As the quarterback of this team, you’ve got to kind of accept that role and run with it,” Wentz said this spring. “I’m going to let it all happen organically and just still be myself, and it will all take care of itself.”
There’s something infectious about Wentz, a quality difficult to articulate without delving into small-town, red-state stereotypes. When he arrived in Philly after the draft, it might have come across as something akin to naiveté. But the longer you watch the guy play, and listen to him talk, and observe him interacting with teammates and coaches and fans, the more you realize that the reality of the matter is something he said last month.
“I just tell everyone I’m just a normal dude who has been blessed to play this game,” Wentz said.
There’s a lack of pretense with Wentz that is impossible not to like, a quality that deserves plenty of credit for the way he has been able to navigate some of the more tumultuous moments of his young career. He stepped into a situation fraught with peril, the heir apparent to a respected incumbent who was well aware of the implications of his employer’s decision to trade up to the No. 2 overall pick. When Sam Bradford stormed out of minicamp after the deal, it was hard to envision a situation in which the two players could coexist. But by the time the Eagles pulled the trigger on the trade that shipped Bradford to the Vikings a week before the season-opener, Wentz had clearly won over the locker room.
“He’s a guy you want to play for and play with,” Smith said. “I look at him in the huddle and, man, I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like on game day. He’s not going to be flustered. He’s going out there making great throws, so we know that if we do our jobs, we’re going to make big plays.”
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