Carson Wentz's success is a happy shock for Eagles fans, but no surprise to teammates
PHILADELPHIA — It's nearing 9 p.m. on Sunday night, about two hours after the Eagles shocked the football world by mollywhopping the Steelers 34-3, and the party is just beginning on the streets surrounding Lincoln Financial Field. There is a distinct feeling in the air, one that's unfamiliar with this team and this city, but unmistakable nonetheless. Hope.
It's not just that the Eagles won (marking the franchise's ninth 3-0 start in its 84-year history), or how they won (by providing their in-state rivals — and a preseason Super Bowl favorite — with their worst beatdown in 27 years), but rather who it was that delivered the win. "Carson [expletive] Wentz!" as one inebriated Eagles fan puts it, yelling into the dark abyss of the night sky, rewarded with a chorus of cheers in response. This might just be the fastest an athlete has become beloved in this city since Rocky went the distance with Apollo Creed.
Men are hugging on the sidewalks, cars are honking in the streets. "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants rain down from rooftops. And as those on the streets below join in, the sound reverberates like a record stuck on repeat. One child — somewhere between the age of 5 and 10 years old — turns to his father and says, "Why is it so loud?"
I'd like to think the dad went into a long soliloquy about how Eagles fans haven't had much to be happy about in recent years, or any years for that matter. About how this forlorn franchise that his son was born into now has something — nay, someone — to believe in. But before I could find out, my Uber driver, Tamara, arrives. She doesn't complain about the standstill traffic she had to fight through to find me, or the drunk fans zig-zagging across the street, narrowly avoiding collisions. No, the first thing she says as I climb into the back seat of her Dodge Avenger is: "So, how about that quarterback?"
An hour earlier, Carson Wentz was just getting out of the shower. Walking around the locker room, towel draped around his waist, cross necklace hanging from his neck, Wentz demonstrates his jubilation by giving out firm handshakes to teammates and staff members. There is a staid, professional vibe in the air. A We expected this, even if you didn't vibe. When you watch this rookie quarterback work the room, it's not hard to figure out the genesis of that.
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel has just finished putting product in his hair and is now ready to talk about the rookie sensation who is getting dressed at the locker directly to his left. This is Daniel's fourth season in Doug Pederson's offense, after spending the past three years with the coach in Kansas City. During training camp Daniel explained Pederson's system to me, emphasizing just how much is placed on the shoulders of the quarterback, how much precision is required in each and every route concept, and also how much freedom the QB is afforded to make changes at the line of scrimmage.
"It's just very detailed in every way," Daniel said in August. "And it takes time to learn and master."
As Wentz puts on his beige khakis — yes, he puts them on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us — Daniel is reminded of these comments. He is asked, how do you explain this guy to your left then?
"For a rookie quarterback, especially in this offense, to come in, with limited snaps in the preseason, and play at this high a level is extremely difficult and impressive," Daniel says. "[But] we always knew he was capable of doing something like this."
Daniel — who should be credited for helping Wentz learn the finer points of the offense — talks about Wentz's uncanny "poise" for a young signal caller, the way in which he "commands the respect of the huddle," and how he "just gets it." He acknowledges that it was a difficult situation for Wentz to be thrust into the starting quarterback role just eight days before the team's first game, but describes how the two of them have attacked the playbook every day, beginning their film study at 5:30 in the morning.
"The moment hasn't been too big. It's just football for him," Daniel says. "He's playing at a very high level right now and the entire team is too, because of him."
I turn to Wentz, now almost fully dressed with a grey checkered blazer over a black V-neck t-shirt, and ask if his ears are burning hearing all this praise. He doesn't take the bait. "I'm not listening," he responds, before heading to his press conference where he would praise everyone — his teammates, his coaches, his fans — except himself.
Elsewhere in the locker room, there is receiver Jordan Matthews, who connected with Wentz on a 12-yard touchdown in the second quarter. After the score, Wentz ran toward Matthews and the two pretended like they were going for the emphatic chest bump before they stopped, mimicked the motion of adjusting their ties, and engaged in, yes, a firm handshake.
When asked about the scoring play, Matthews says he knew before the ball was snapped, as soon as the middle linebacker backed off in coverage, that the ball was coming his way. He knew this, he says, because he had full confidence that his rookie quarterback would read the coverage the same way he did. Which then, in turn, explains the handshake.
"Me and Carson, we just study the details, we work hard, so we are not surprised when we go out there and make plays," Matthews says. "We want to play with each other for a long time. And guys that have the chemistry to play with each other for a long time, they don't act like it's the first time they've done it every time they get in [the end zone]. It's just business as usual."
Except not quite usual, since Wentz just became the second rookie quarterback since 1970 to start a season 3-0 and is sitting at 82 pass attempts and counting without throwing an interception. How exactly does Matthews explain that? The receiver does not seem all that surprised, actually. He points out a few things, which he says explains this torrid start. Some of them are physical, unteachable things. Some of them are not, like that at 8 a.m. on that same game-day morning, as Matthews was arriving for breakfast at the team facility, Wentz was already there, waiting and studying film.
"Everyone thinks that's a crazy thing," Matthews says, "but that's his standard. He's got the skill set, he's got the body, he's got the arm, and he works his butt off every single day. To be on top, you have to work hard until hard work is your standard. It's not looked at like this guy is working hard. Because if he don't do that, he's not Carson Wentz no more. That's just who he is."
Back in August, tight end Zach Ertz — who has missed the team's past two games with a rib injury — was early on the Wentz bandwagon, even though the rookie was the Eagles' third-string quarterback at the time. Ertz said then that Wentz could have come in "acting like a diva, being the No. 2 overall pick, complaining [that he isn't playing]. But he's been the complete opposite. He's embraced the opportunity to come out here and compete every day. And the guys see how he is reacting to this situation, so we know that we can trust him down the road."
Reminded of those comments now, Ertz says that is exactly why "nobody in this locker room is surprised [by how Wentz has been playing]. When he was the No. 3 quarterback, he just really focused on getting better, focused on the little things, and that is paying off now."
It's the rookie's ability to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, to get the team into the right plays based off the defensive coverage he sees, that has impressed Ertz most. "We are not running bad plays," Ertz says. "He is putting us in favorable situations for the offense. And that speaks to his preparation during the week. He's just doing an unbelievable job."
When asked what people might not know about Wentz, Ertz doesn't hesitate: "He truly cares about his teammates, each and every one of us. He is a very good teammate, and that sticks out for a lot of guys."
At this point it's probably not even worth it to enumerate the things that center Jason Kelce says about Wentz. Not that they aren't worth repeating, but it's just that the same words keep coming up: poise, preparation, professionalism.
"He's really ahead of his time right now," Kelce says. "It's just very fun to be a part of."
The next morning, as I'm en route to the airport, the party is finally over on the Philadelphia streets. My Uber driver this time is Louis. "Watch that game last night?" he asks, as I get into his Toyota RAV4.
"This Wentz kid looks good," he continues. "Too good. It's a little scary. You don't want to get too excited."
What happened to the unbridled enthusiasm from last night? Had 12 hours really given the city enough time to begin contemplating worst-case scenarios?
Soon I'm on the plane, and one row behind me, two strangers begin to talk about, well, yeah, you guessed it:
"I can't believe this Wentz, he's played so well."
"Yeah, but it gets your hopes up. That's the downside."
"Is this what sports fans have become in Philadelphia? This pessimism?"
"All it takes is him getting hurt, and it's all over."
"I guess all we can really do is just enjoy this moment."