PHILADELPHIA – The shots kept on coming, one after another, and Carson Wentz absorbed them all with a smile. Four fans at the last practice of training camp had spotted the bright red jersey, and they swarmed to it with smart phones in hand. One after another, Wentz obliged them, stooping down to selfie height and mugging for the camera, smiling head-to-head as if each were an actual friend.
A franchise quarterback will always have his critics, but one thing beyond dispute is Wentz’s embrace of the role. Yet, like quarterbacks, time is a scarce commodity and, in moments like these, it is easy to let your mind drift to what the future might hold.
One year after the Eagles made their bold move up the draft board to select Wentz at No. 2 overall, he remains very much a local phenomenon, the nation at large still relatively ignorant to the talent to which the Philadelphia area feels it is privy. The sensation is likely similar to the one that North Dakotans felt throughout last summer, before the Eagles fan base discovered what, exactly, it was that they had at the quarterback position.
That’s not to say that the rest of the NFL is unaware of Wentz. The national reviews of his rookie season were mostly positive; good luck finding anyone who will argue that 2016 proved the Rams and Browns correct for passing on the chance to pick him. Yet Wentz still has not completely emerged from the cocoon of wait-and-sees that has shrouded him since last year’s draft.
Take, for instance, the testimony of Corey Graham, who arrived at camp last week with only a vague awareness of the man the Eagles had tapped as their QB.
“To be honest,” said the veteran safety, who went to a conference championship game with a Bears team quarterbacked by Jay Cutler in 2010 and then to a Super Bowl with the Joe Flacco-led Ravens in 2012, “I didn’t know much about him.”
The numbers say there wasn’t much to know: 3,782 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, a 79.3 quarterback rating, seven wins, nine losses … pretty ordinary across the board.
It didn’t take long, though, to see what the Eagles have seen for most of the last year.
“I was shocked,” Graham said. “I didn’t know he was that mobile. I mean, guys had him basically in the backfield for sacks. He’s breaking loose, keeping plays alive, running the ball, throwing the ball. He’s a lot more mobile than I expected. I did not know that he could move around and he could get away in the pocket like that. He’s got a little presence to him. He’s kind of like Big Ben [Roethlisberger] in the pocket. I mean, you see guys all over him, and you think he’s done, and then out of nowhere he’s getting away and buying time and then he’s doing it to throw the ball, too, which is big. So I was very impressed with him. I look forward to seeing him play more and more. I just want to see if he can continue to do that and do things like that, because he’s keeping plays alive and he’s making plays for our offense, and that’s a big thing.”
How good is he? How good will he be?
The question is impossible to separate from any forecast of the Eagles’ coming season. The notion that the drafting of Wentz shifted the goal posts to the long-term has always been somewhat flawed. In the NFL, the long-term does not exist. The future is a continuum of four-year windows that extend from each draft class through the end of its rookie contracts. Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl in his third season as a starter and hasn’t been back there since. Big Ben won in Years 2 and 5. Tom Brady won in Years 1, 3 and 4 and then not again until the 2014 season. Kurt Warner’s ring came in his first year as an NFL starter, for a team that had a losing record in nine straight seasons.
Of the 10 active quarterbacks with the most career touchdown passes, eight appeared in the playoffs in one of their first two seasons as starter (the exceptions: Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford, the latter of whom made the playoffs in Year 3 after missing all but three games in Year 2).
That doesn’t include Russell Wilson, who won a Super Bowl in Year 2, or Andrew Luck, who went 22-10 with two playoff appearances in his first two seasons as starter, or Kirk Cousins, who went 9-7 and went to the playoffs in his first full season as starter (his fourth total season), or Dak Prescott last year.
In several of those cases, a quarterback stepped in on a ready-made team. One can argue that Wentz’s situation is much closer to that of Cam Newton, whose Panthers went 7-9 in his second season before going 12-4 in his third year, or that of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, neither of whom has yet to make the playoffs (although they did go 9-7 and 8-7 respectively last year in their second seasons as starters).
Still, the point remains: If Wentz is who the Eagles think he is, if he is who Eagles fans think he is, if he is who I think he is, then you cannot dismiss the possibility that they finish this season at the top of the NFC East.
Look at the yearly iterations of the Packers and Saints defenses, of the Patriots running backs, the Steelers wide receivers, the Seahawks offensive line. Despite their imperfections, nobody doubts the playoff potential of any of those teams (OK, maybe the Saints).
The Eagles might be less perfect than any of those rosters, but with the addition of Ronald Darby at cornerback, they became a little less so. The question for 2017 is whether Wentz will emerge as the kind of quarterback capable of making up the difference of whatever talent gap remains between the Eagles as a whole and the NFC’s better-established contenders.
It doesn’t have to happen in Year 2. It might not happen at all. But the fun thing about this team — the reason the Eagles dealt for Wentz in the first place — is you can’t rule it out.