PHILADELPHIA — The first thing you need to know about how well Carson Wentz is playing in 2017 is that some of his teammates weren’t even all that impressed with his nifty 17-yard scramble to convert a third down late in Monday night’s 34-24 win against Washington.
You know, the play where Wentz was engulfed in a scrum of eight other men—four teammates and four opponents—and somehow scampered free, ducking and darting like a house mouse you thought you had corralled. The Washington defense looked demoralized after that play, wondering, like the rest of us, how the heck did that sucker get loose? To some of Wentz’s teammates, however, this was nothing out of the ordinary.
“That’s just Carson,” rookie running back Corey Clement said with a shrug. “If you see him practice, he does stuff like that all the time. I wasn’t surprised. I’m sure nobody else was surprised.”
“He’s been doing that all season,” echoed veteran center Jason Kelce. “It’s very fun to watch, but it’s not surprising anymore.”
It’s saying something that Wentz, just 23 games into his pro career, can make the extraordinary look ordinary. The 24-year-old is leading the NFL in touchdown passes, with 17, and—most importantly—in the standings. The 6-1 Eagles have the best record in the league, and their franchise quarterback out of North Dakota State is a leading MVP candidate nearly halfway through the season.
It’s hard to believe that just 14 months ago, Wentz was a third-string quarterback on an Eagles team amid a post-Chip Kelly roster teardown. But his brilliant performance in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football served as a reminder—a painful reminder, if you live in Cleveland—of how the right quarterback makes anything seem possible. That’s true in the context of an individual play, and also for the season.
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Even those who weren’t “surprised” by Wentz’s scramble were pretty giddy about that ridiculous 9-yard touchdown pass to Clement to extend Philadelphia’s lead in the third quarter. Wentz ducked away from pressure by Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, then stepped up in the pocket, where he was sandwiched by two more defenders, but somehow while all that was happening, managed to spot Clement on the far right side of the end zone and lob a perfect pass off his back leg. Clement, by the way, said he was the last read in Wentz’s progression.
Running back Wendell Smallwood likened Wentz to Michael Vick, because of the way he makes defenders miss. Right tackle Lane Johnson brought up Aaron Rodgers, though he quickly noted that he wasn’t comparing Wentz to the Packers QB, per se. “But,” Johnson explained, “you see Aaron Rodgers do that sometimes, when the play breaks down, shows his elusiveness, his field vision.” Tight end Zach Ertz, thinking back on the 17-yard scramble again, concluded simply, “I don’t know if there’s another QB that can do that.”
These are some lofty statements, but after a night like Wentz had Monday night, the praise feels warranted. The pre-draft knocks against him—that he was a small-school kid who’d put up big numbers against inferior defenses, that the NFL game would simply be too fast for him to make an impact right away—now are laughable. As is the fact that, even after Wentz stepped into a starting role for the Eagles last season, the Browns were still defending their decision to trade out of the No. 2 slot in the 2016 draft. You never want to judge a quarterback too early, sure, but after Wentz’s hot start to his rookie season cooled down, he returned in year two seeming to have skipped several grades ahead.
For those wondering about his deep ball, Wentz got the Eagles rolling with a 64-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mack Hollins, a throw coach Doug Pederson described as the prettiest ball he’d ever seen from Wentz. For those wondering if the reins are off, know that Wentz changed the play at the line on his 10-yard touchdown throw to Nelson Agholor early in the fourth quarter, to take advantage of a matchup he spotted. And as for Wentz’s leadership qualities, perhaps the most remarkable part of the Clement TD pass, beyond the pure physical feat, was that it occurred eight plays after left tackle Jason Peters went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury when a defender backed into his right leg.
Peters, a 14-year veteran, is such a leader on this football team that nearly the entire Eagles bench, and several rival players too, came out onto the field as he was fitted with an air cast. As Peters was being carted off the field, with the crowd chanting “Ja-son Pe-ters,” he was calling out pointers for an assistant coach to relay to Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the second-year player who took his place. However long Peters will be out, there will be a major void. But in his absence it was Wentz who answered the bell, using his arm and his legs—and, on that touchdown pass, both at the same time—to advance downfield and extend his team’s lead. Scoring there, directly after the emotional blow of losing Peters, was “vital,” said Johnson.
Malcolm Jenkins, the veteran safety, said he’s stopped getting up off the bench on third down, because he expects Wentz to find a way to convert. That’s another category in which Philadelphia leads the league—they’re converting half of their third-down tries. Is an MVP résumé building? “If he wants to keep playing the way he does,” Johnson said, “I don’t see no reason why he couldn’t be one.”
The truth is, if Wentz keeps playing this way, anything seems possible in Philadelphia.
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