CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carson Wentz is a large man, comparatively speaking. But in person he’s a wiry 6-foot-5, 237 pounds. As he finished dressing in the visitors’ locker room at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, a national reporter asked the Eagles quarterback if he had broken any ribs from the hits he took.
Wentz, as he often does when being complimented or seemingly complimented — as the reporter’s implication that he had played through cracked ribs suggested — just smiled and shook his head.
A few moments later he strolled into a nearby room and climbed the podium for a news conference. After a cursory question about the importance of the 5-1 Eagles’ 28-23 win over the Panthers, Wentz was asked once again about his condition.
They really hit you good a couple of times. How are you feeling right now?
Wentz relishes injury questions about as much as he does getting sacked by 300-pound defensive ends.
“I feel great,” Wentz said. “Five and one, baby.”
That he played a pivotal role in the Eagles’ impressive start goes without saying. But Thursday night was a national audience’s first opportunity to catch a glimpse of Wentz 2.0. What they saw was a quarterback who rose to the challenge despite suffering a barrage of first-half shots, and who has a knack for delivering in crucial spots.
Wentz has already endeared himself to Philadelphia-area fans, in part because he plays with a blue-collar mentality. “He’s the right guy” for the Eagles, coach Doug Pederson said after the game. But he would be the right guy for any NFL team that covets young, wise-beyond-their-years quarterbacks.
Of course, one may question the wisdom of taking on a safety in the open field. On second-and-goal just before the half, Wentz scrambled and lowered his shoulder into Mike Adams at the 1-yard line.
“You don’t really want your starting quarterback to lead with your throwing shoulder,” Pederson said Friday, “but I understand, too, the situation, and him trying to get in the end zone.”
Adams stood Wentz up and five other Panthers joined to gang-tackle the quarterback to the ground.
“He is fearless,” Panthers cornerback James Bradberry said. “I saw him take on one of our linebackers and a safety down there by the goal line. You could tell he was trying to will his team to win.”
But many of the other hits couldn’t have been avoided. Wentz was sacked three times and hit four other times in the first half – once by Bradberry – as the offensive line adjusted to having Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle for the injured Lane Johnson, and to multiple defenders who were blitzing past the running backs.
Wentz kept popping up and dusting himself off, however.
“You want to look at a game and talk about character? That freaking showed it right there,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said. “I mean, the guy’s getting smacked early and often in the beginning of the game and it never wavered his confidence, never wavered his composure.
“I think that speaks volumes about how we feel about him and how he feels about us.”
And when your quarterback, after all the hits he took in the pocket, lowers his shoulder and tries to bull over a safety, it can only galvanize his teammates. A play after Wentz’s ill-fated scramble, he hit Ertz for a 1-yard touchdown pass that knotted the score, 10-10.
Pederson and the offense adjusted to the Panthers’ exotic blitz packages in the second half. And Wentz, aided by another interception by the Eagles defense, took advantage and hit Ertz again for a touchdown with a 17-yard strike early in the third quarter.
But his finest moments came on a six-play, 75-yard drive later that quarter. Faced with third-and-16, Wentz stepped up from the blitzing Captain Munnerlyn, but just before he was hit he fired a 20-yard bullet to receiver Mack Hollins.
“Just standing in the pocket and staring down blitzes and still delivering the football … those are also signs of toughness, and those resonate throughout your football team,” Pederson said. “Guys see that and guys respond.”
On the next play, Wentz lofted a 37-yard bull’s-eye to Alshon Jeffery and later connected with Nelson Agholor for a 24-yard touchdown and a 28-16 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“That was a huge drive,” Wentz said. “You never want to be in third-and-16.”
Only 22 games into his NFL career, Wentz is far from a finished product. Accuracy can be a problem. He misfired on several first-half tosses, although the onslaught may have taken its toll. He is prone to holding the ball too long, but his elusiveness in the pocket can offset the occasional sack.
With the Eagles clinging to a five-point lead with just over two minutes left in the game, Wentz threw incomplete to Ertz rather than to a wide-open Agohlor on third down.
“I was pretty ticked off when I came out,” Wentz said.
When he makes a mistake, Wentz always shoulders the blame. That accountability resonates as much in the locker room and outside the NovaCare Complex as does his durability. The Eagles would rather see occasional errors than a significant injury. Wentz is young and strong, but he isn’t made of granite.
“You don’t think about it,” Wentz said of the hits. “Honestly, I just go look at the [film], figure out why I got hit, what was the protection issue, and just go fix it. And just keep playing ball.
“It’s football. You’re going to get hit.”