Maybe we’re looking at the Eagles’ quarterback situation all wrong. Around here, and really anywhere in the country where such matters are discussed, that situation comes down to a question fraught with more questions: Carson or Nick?
At one level, it’s a silly question. Carson Wentz will get healthy before next season, when Nick Foles is scheduled to make $20 million, and Wentz’s ability and age and the economics inherent in a salary-cap league will lead to what still is and should be a predictable outcome: The Eagles will stick with Wentz, and Foles will depart for a new contract and a starting job somewhere else. The question will start to change only when we get to another level, and we aren’t there yet. If the Eagles manage to beat the Saints on Sunday, and if they manage to beat either the Rams or the Cowboys the following Sunday, then the question becomes less hypothetical and more tangible. But, to paraphrase Gene Hackman’s words to his players in Hoosiers, I’m sure Nick Foles’ guiding the Eagles to another Super Bowl is beyond your wildest dreams, so let’s just keep it right there.
That’s where everyone’s eyes are turned, of course – to the future, to what could or should happen. It’s natural to do that, but it’s also worth contemplating the trick that the Eagles pulled off to create this situation and its attendant questions. When so many teams are hoping to find just one terrific quarterback, the Eagles have two, and their initial acquisitions of both Wentz and Foles showed how adept the team’s front office, particularly Howie Roseman, and coaching staff, particularly Andy Reid and Doug Pederson, were in using the two primary strategies that NFL teams tend to follow in their searches.
Obviously, there are more than two ways to acquire a franchise quarterback. Once in a while – and perhaps this will occur more frequently in the years ahead, after more players see the guaranteed money that Kirk Cousins extracted from the market and the Minnesota Vikings – an accomplished QB will become available in free agency. But, when those blue-snow scenarios present themselves, they, too, often come with risk. The Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning after he missed an entire season because of a neck injury. The New Orleans Saints signed Drew Brees only after the Miami Dolphins, cautious because Brees had dislocated his shoulder, decided not to. Cousins had a track record suggesting that he would struggle against any opponent with a winning record, and the Vikings’ regular-season finale, a loss to the Bears that kept them out of the playoffs, validated that concern.
The preferred course of action, for most teams, is to draft a franchise quarterback, and it’s here where the Eagles made the most of those dueling strategies. Their selection of Foles in the third round in 2012 was part of a seven-year span that saw them draft four quarterbacks – Foles, Matt Barkley, Mike Kafka, and Kevin Kolb, none of whom was a first-round pick – and sign Michael Vick to a modest contract upon his return to the NFL.
The thinking there was simple and familiar: Quarterback is so valuable a position, and it can be so difficult to tell whether a particular player will excel in the NFL, that a team should hoard quarterbacks. It might develop and keep one. It might develop and trade another. It also might strike out completely and never find one worthy of starting in the league. Kafka and Barkley were nothing more than backups, and concussions shortened Kolb’s career, but from his startling 2013 season under Chip Kelly to his recent performance, Foles has more than justified the Eagles’ decision to draft him.
The other strategy is the one that the Eagles employed to get Wentz and, before him, Donovan McNabb: Target a quarterback regarded as a surefire first-round pick, with great talent and potential, and do what you have to do to get him. In McNabb’s case, that meant passing on running back Ricky Williams. In Wentz’s case, that meant making two significant trades to move up from the No. 13 pick to the No. 2 – and it meant that the Eagles had to be as certain as possible that Wentz would be worth so great a sacrifice in players and picks. Misjudge a quarterback in that situation, go “all-in” on a player, only to have him fall short of expectations, and it can cripple a franchise for years. Ask the New York Jets, who traded up in 2009 to draft Mark Sanchez. Who knows? You might need to ask them again in a few years, given that they traded up to draft Sam Darnold last year.
It’s difficult enough for an NFL team to find a franchise quarterback by relying on one of those approaches. The Eagles struck gold twice in a five-year span, and no matter what happens Sunday in New Orleans or beyond, either Wentz or Foles will be here for a good, long while.
If nothing else, there should be some appreciation that the Eagles had them here at the same time and got the very best from both, and some confidence that they’ll handle well such situations again, when the time comes.