PHILADELPHIA — When Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense came off the field midway through the first quarter on Thursday night, having run three mundane series that totaled nine plays, it still seemed likely that the second-year quarterback, nothing less than the cornerstone of the franchise, had completed the helmet-on portion of his evening.
Even though the last of the three series had ended with a sack, a decidedly minor-key coda for the scattered crowd in Lincoln Financial Field, the standard course of action was to get the kid out of there. Wentz came to the sideline, shook hands with a few coaches and teammates, and backup Matt McGloin grabbed a ball and began to warm up.
“I’m leaning in the direction similar to last week,” head coach Doug Pederson said about Wentz’s anticipated reps as the team began preparation for the Bills. “A drive, maybe two at the most.”
So, when the offense completed those three series with Wentz, even if they whizzed past in the no-turnover minimum of nine snaps, that was pretty much within the range of what Pederson predicted. In the exhibition opener against Green Bay, Wentz got 11 snaps, all of which came on the team’s opening drive for a touchdown. Put on the baseball cap, son. It’s a long season.
But predictions and prudence can be put aside sometimes, particularly when a team is trying to smooth out a few bumps before they become larger, and particularly when it is trying to establish a positive narrative that it hopes will carry over to the regular season.
The organization in general, and the offensive coaching staff, was looking forward to turning the page from Jordan Matthews to Alshon Jeffery as the new favorite receiver of the young quarterback. Wentz took it hard when Matthews was traded to Buffalo in a deal in which the Eagles acquired cornerback Ronald Darby for a third-round pick. It might be too much to call Matthews a throw-in, but, considering the Eagles were unlikely to extend him to a second contract after this season, a “deal sweetener” could be an apt description.
Wentz and Matthews developed a close relationship last season, when Matthews was the leader among wide receivers and slot receivers with 73 catches for 804 yards. The two formed a regular worship group along with teammates Zach Ertz, Chris Maragos, Trey Burton and Jordan Hicks. Most of that core group took Matthews out to dinner in the Navy Yard last Friday after the trade was made and Wentz later drove Matthews to the airport.
Howie Roseman, the executive vice president of football operations, gave the quarterback a heads-up before the deal was announced, and Wentz wasn’t happy when he got the news.
“Obviously, he knew how I felt with Jordan being one of my best friends,” Wentz said. “So, on the personal side, it was tough. He knew that. He was prepared for that, and I told him that. But keeping business, business, that’s just part of this.”
Still, it was a cold plunge into the harsh world of NFL transactions, especially when it is the first time, and especially when the team probably sought out the move as much as anything. Through the practices leading up to Thursday’s game, the mood was hard to read. Jeffery, signed to be the No. 1 receiving option, took part in team drills on Monday and Tuesday after missing almost all recent practice time with a shoulder injury. If the page was going to flip quickly, it would take place when Jeffery got on the field in a game and caught a pass from Wentz.
Unfortunately, those first three series of the night didn’t do much to advance the plot. Wentz went 1 for 3, completing a pass to Ertz, but missing twice on attempts to Jeffery. One was badly overthrown and the other, on a fade route into the left side of the end zone, didn’t connect when Jeffery couldn’t weave through defensive traffic to get there.
It was all a bit of a downer and sometime during the nearly four minutes Buffalo had the ball on the next drive, it was decided Wentz wasn’t done after all. McGloin put down the ball, and Wentz put his helmet back on, and the future of the franchise came out once again to punch up the script.
“I wasn’t necessarily surprised [to get another series]. I could see it going either way. Three three-and-outs wasn’t where we wanted it to end,” Wentz said. “I was happy and thankful we got that last drive.”
Pederson merely said he wanted to see some flow to the offense and he jump-started it by going no-huddle and lowering the degree of difficulty. On the first play, the call was a quick pass to Jeffery on the right side, a high-percentage dart just to get that completion out of the way. It was followed by more of the same, to Nelson Agholor, to Jeffery again, and to LaGarrette Blount on a dump pass that might have been a middle screen. The drive lasted another four plays: a run by Blount, an incomplete to Jeffery, a scramble for 2 yards, and, finally, a short pass to Blount that became a turnover when Blount was stripped of the ball.
It wasn’t a triumphant series, but it got the job done. There would be no continuing stories about the quarterback and the designated star receiver being unable to combine for a completion, or about the popular receiver who was traded away.
“It was different,” Wentz said of Matthews’ absence, “but we’ve got to keep plugging along.”
The page had been turned and apparently, whether for real or for show, someone thought that was important enough to send out the quarterback for just one more series after it seemed very clear he was done. Maybe it was that important.