You probably think it’s going to get bad here. Nick Foles is leaving, and Carson Wentz is staying, and you probably think, when it comes to the Eagles’ quarterback situation, that we have not yet begun to controverse.
Sure, it has been wild enough as it is, what with Wentz putting together an MVP-quality season in 2017 before tearing up his knee, with Foles coming in to win the Super Bowl, with a similar dynamic playing out this season until the Eagles lost to the Saints last Sunday. But man, just wait. Just wait until Foles ends up somewhere else and Wentz becomes the clear-cut franchise quarterback again.
There will be weekly, if not daily, who-played-better comparisons. There will be an Official Carson Wentz Super Bowl Countdown Clock in Fairmount Park. There will be wailing and moaning and, later, second-guessing that the Eagles picked the wrong guy to ride with, that Foles was always the better choice, that Wentz was too injury-prone or didn’t love his teammates enough or just didn’t possess a certain intangible, invisible, unidentifiable thing that Foles did.
You probably think it’s crazy now. It’s not. You think this is a quarterback controversy? Please.
What we need is a little trip back in time to San Francisco in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You want a quarterback controversy? Now that was a quarterback controversy — Joe Montana vs. Steve Young, two of the greatest at the position in NFL history — and it’s worth reviewing the details of it from the perspective of one of the involved parties. It’s worth cracking open Young’s memoir, QB, to get his memories and insights.
Why Young? Because if we’re drawing analogies between the 49ers’ situation then and the Eagles’ now — and there are plenty of differences and caveats in that comparison; it’s by no means perfect — then Young is Wentz. Young was the younger player, the one who had to watch from the sideline while Montana won the Super Bowl, the one to whom the team eventually made a long-term commitment, just as the Eagles are preparing to do with Wentz.
More, their arrivals with their respective teams were similar. The Eagles traded up twice to draft Wentz; a team doesn’t do that unless it plans to make that quarterback its centerpiece. The 49ers traded two draft picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987 to acquire Young, who consented to the trade (he was threatening to retire) only because 49ers coach Bill Walsh assured him that Montana, who had just undergone a second back surgery, could not and would not play anymore. But at his first practice with the 49ers, Young noticed that Montana looked as healthy as a horse.
“I felt misled by Walsh,” Young wrote. “I didn’t come to San Francisco to be a backup. I came to play.”
So began six years of stress, success, machinations, and mind games for the 49ers, Young, and presumably for Montana. When one was injured, the other played, and both of them were injured relatively frequently. Sometimes, Walsh pulled Montana from a game and inserted Young, then started Montana the following week.
At the end of the ’87 season, for instance, Young started against the Rams, led the 49ers to a 27-0 halftime lead, and didn’t take a snap in the second half. Walsh wanted to give Montana some work before the playoffs started. Then Walsh started Montana in the team’s first postseason game, a loss to the Vikings in which Walsh benched Montana and inserted Young after the 49ers fell behind by 17 points.
The following season, Walsh told Young he would be the full-time starter. The next week, the 49ers blew a 23-point lead and lost to the Cardinals, and Walsh went back to Montana. In retrospect, it all seems insane.
Maybe it was. Yet with Montana as their starter, the 49ers won two Super Bowls, after the ’88 and ’89 seasons, despite the tumult. At least Wentz had to watch Foles win only one.
“I was happy for the team,” Young wrote. “But I absolutely loathed my situation.”
An elbow injury caused Montana to miss the 1991 season and most of the ’92 season, and on April 21, 1993, the 49ers traded him to the Chiefs. Over those two seasons and thereafter, the team was Young’s, finally, with all the attendant liberation and pressure.
He began seeing a sports psychologist. He was named the Associated Press NFL MVP in 1992. What did that matter? The 49ers lost in the NFC championship game to the Cowboys, and again the following year. Montana and the Chiefs lost the 1993 AFC championship game, too, but they got just as far as his old team and its new starting quarterback did. So why did the 49ers have to trade him in the first place?
“Statistically, I was playing very well,” Young wrote, “but the comparisons and expectations were crushing me.”
It wasn’t until the 1994 season — seven years after he joined the 49ers, three years after he became their full-time starter — that Young led them to a Super Bowl victory. (He threw a record six touchdown passes in the game.) In hindsight, it’s easy to look back and say, Well, he was Steve Young, and they were the 49ers. He was always going to win a championship.
At the time, though, few people, particularly in San Francisco, made such assumptions. It was a hard go, even for a truly great quarterback.