Nearly a year ago, it would have been hard to find someone who didn’t think the Eagles would have still won the Super Bowl had it been Carson Wentz and not Nick Foles at quarterback.
But the opposite could probably be said this season about the Eagles’ late-season charge into the playoffs and their first-round victory. They needed a change and Foles was just the instrument. But was there any reason to believe, based off the previous 11 games, that the Eagles would have also rallied with Wentz still under center?
We’re talking hypotheticals here, but what isn’t speculative is that Wentz’s stock – however marginal -- has dipped some in the last 12 months, and that he has more to prove next season than even this past season after Foles was Super Bowl MVP.
Wentz, who spoke Monday for the first time since he was sidelined with a stress fracture in his back last month, knows about the anti-Wentz narratives as he enters his third offseason in the NFL: He’s not as clutch as Foles. He’s injury prone and can’t finish a season. And he’ll never win in the postseason.
“You want to play postseason football. I still have zero games of postseason football under my belt and realize I have a lot to prove in that regard,” Wentz said a day after the Eagles’ season ended with a 20-14 divisional playoff loss to the Saints. “But I’m confident that I will get the chance to do that.”
Wentz, of course, would have played in last year’s postseason had he not tore knee ligaments in Game 13. But for the second year in a row he watched as Foles played in elimination games, and was more times than not successful. That’s a tough act to follow, especially when the quarterback some would rather see lead the team in the future is unlikely to return next season.
There’s always pressure playing quarterback in the NFL, maybe more in the Philadelphia than anywhere else. But Foles has cast a large shadow, even if he had his struggles this postseason.
“You look at that and you could say it could put more pressure,” Wentz said. “You could say coming into the season there was more pressure. I do everything I can to block that stuff out.
“Right now, going forward, my focus is getting my body right, and to play this game freely the way I did back last year before the injury, and just cut it loose, and get rid of all that pressure, anxiety … and play the game freely.”
Wentz, who earlier met with coach Doug Pederson and head executive Howie Roseman for his exit interviews, said that he received no assurances about his future. But the overwhelming expectation is that he will return for his fourth season and that Foles – whether via trade or free agency – will leave for another team.
On paper, it makes perfect sense. Wentz, 26, is more talented, he’s four years younger and the Eagles still have two years left on his rookie contract, although an extension this offseason could be in the works. Of course, the best screenwriter couldn’t have written the script for Foles’ last two seasons. There’s something undefinable about the way the team raised its play with him under center, particularly this season.
“I learned a lot both from watching Nick play and the type of player he was,” Wentz said, “and seeing the guys just play as well.”
Wentz didn’t shed new light on his injury. He said that he didn’t know when he first fractured his vertebra, but that it evolved over time. He said that he wanted to keep playing, even after a scan revealed the break on Dec. 11, but that everyone involved agreed that there would be far too much risk.
Wentz said that he remained active rather than go on injured reserve because he and the Eagles were holding out hope that he could recover, although it’s unlikely that he would have supplanted Foles. He didn’t give a timeline for his return, but said that he should make a full recovery and have no long-term issues.
Asked if the return from tearing his ACL and LCL, and playing through the back fracture affected his play, Wentz declined to use that excuse. But it was obvious to the naked eye, even before the latter injury was made public, that he wasn’t the same player he was before those injuries.
“There’s times I was just constantly trying to get back to feeling 100 percent like myself,” Wentz said. “It’s tough wearing a knee brace, trying to get used to that. … Getting that full mobility back.”
Wentz took some early shots after he returned in Week 3, but he ran less as the season progressed and did, overall, a better job of protecting himself. But in the last four years, dating back to his senior year at North Dakota State, Wentz has suffered injuries that have caused him to miss games.
He broke his wrist in college and sat out eight games. He fractured ribs as a rookie and missed three preseason games before playing in the entire regular season. He missed five regular-season games because of the knee injury. And was sidelined for three more with the fractured vertebra.
Injuries in football are inevitable, but quarterbacks have more safeguards. It doesn’t take long to earn the “injury prone” label at that position.
“I realize that’s other people’s opinion on things,” Wentz said. “I, first and foremost, am looking forward to hopefully putting that to rest over the next couple years. But at the end of the day, you play this game, you can’t control injuries.
“Things happen and so I’m going to do everything I can to avoid those. But my hope and goal is to put those doubts to rest.”
Wentz should have a long enough career and multiple opportunities, but the clock on accomplishing postseason goals is seemingly ticking for the first time in his career.