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February 08, 2021

Inside the downfall that led to Carson Wentz’s likely exit from Eagles

Eagles NFL
112_11032019_EaglesvsBears_Carson_Wentz_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

Former Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

Two years ago, no one could have imagined the Eagles would find themselves in this situation, on the precipice of trading Carson Wentz, a quarterback they spent considerable draft capital to move up and take in 2016 and someone who they seemed married to for the long term. 

A year ago, it might’ve seemed even less plausible, especially considering that the Birds had just handed out a massive contract extension to Wentz. Even in the face of mounting injuries and growing criticism both inside and outside the organization — which came in the form of several reports leaking out of the locker room questioning Wentz’s leadership, accountability and willingness to be coached — it seemed like the team was committed to their quarterback. They also chose to extend him, while a year earlier they let Nick Foles, who helped bring the Eagles the only Super Bowl in franchise history, go in free agency.

Then they took Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. And Wentz followed that up by having his worst season as a pro, one in which he was benched in favor of the rookie. 

Now, a divorce between Wentz, who reportedly wants out of Philadelphia, and the Eagles seems inevitable. Where he winds up remains to be seen — and there’s obviously still a chance he’s back next season, but with each passing day and new trade rumor, it seems like Jeffrey Lurie is more and more likely to absorb the massive cap hit they’ll take for dealing Wentz and that both sides will be headed for a fresh start in 2021. 

Numerous current and former Eagles, as well as others around the NFL, who were involved in the reporting of this story all came to the same conclusion — Wentz can be fixed. 

But they all also had the same question: Does he want to be fixed? Or, with the quarterback trading season officially open, does it make sense for the Birds to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with Wentz like the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams recently did by swapping Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff, with the Lions also getting some draft capital to speed their rebuilding project? 

During Nick Sirianni’s introductory press conference on Jan. 29, the new Eagles head coach was decidedly noncommittal to Wentz moving forward. Sirianni is viewed throughout the league as a positive, affable, high-energy guy. But didn’t the Eagles just get rid of someone who possessed many of those same qualities in Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson?

See, there was not just a schism between Pederson and Wentz. There was also a fracture that Wentz needs to repair within the team if he returns. Sure, players may go to Twitter and Instagram to publicly show their support for Wentz. Privately, however, this is more than just an on-field reclamation of Wentz. The Eagles may need a small army of local union cement masons to plug up the fissures within this team. 

Wentz still holds great sway within the organization, even as he appears to be headed out of town. As numerous sources put it two years ago when we first reported on Wentz and his role within the organization — and as they still do now — Wentz has a direct line to Eagles’ owner Jeff Lurie. 

And because of that, the sources still associated with the organization again requested anonymity when speaking about the team. Many also feared retribution, just as they did when first speaking to PhillyVoice for our January 2019 story.

The Eagles were contacted and asked to comment on this story, but did not offer any. At the time of publishing, Wentz and his representatives had not returned an email seeking comment.

*  *  *

As a franchise, the Eagles have done everything possible to make Wentz happy. They lavished him with a four-year, $128 million deal, including a $16.3 million signing bonus, with $107,970,683 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $32 million. In 2021, Wentz is supposed to earn a base salary of $15.4 million and a roster bonus of $10 million. 

The Eagles let venerated veterans go to give Wentz a bigger voice inside the locker room. This 4-11-1 team was supposed to be “Wentz’s team.” 

He lost that fast. This time largely due to poor play rather than the poor leadership that led some to speaking out the first time, although some of those questions still remain.

Eagles-Carson-Wentz-Rams-loss-Kate-Frese_092020Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

Now, if he does somehow return to the Eagles next season, Wentz again must win back the locker room; he did, to a degree, two years ago by admitting faults, and Wentz does deserve credit because he personally sought out numerous veterans — going as far as visiting them at their homes — to mend whatever divides existed. 

“I think he’s embraced [being the leader],” Eagles’ veteran defensive end Brandon Graham said before this season. “For sure, because you can see that he’s speaking up a lot more. Even though he’s spoke up [before], you can just tell he’s more confident because he’s coming off no injuries or nothing like that. He’s coming in just ready to learn. 

“I know with COVID happening, he hasn’t had as many reps in preseason or OTAs, but you can see that vocally he’s somebody who is the head of the team … As far as people playing, you can tell that he’s embracing being a leader of this team.” 

Wentz himself admitted that he grew more comfortable with the role. 

Then the season started. And, unfortunately, Wentz didn’t help himself by throwing an NFL-high 15 interceptions (tying Denver second-year QB Drew Lock) and being sacked a league-high 50 times in 2020 — in just 12 games. He also posted one of the worst passer ratings of any starting quarterback in the NFL this season before being benched. 

“Is there anyone in here who’s going to believe in [Wentz]? I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a good feeling that there are a lot of guys who don’t right now," one source said.

Then he darted out of Dodge City before assuming any culpability and hasn’t been heard from since. Not even a public welcome message for his new coach, Sirianni, the man tasked fixing Wentz, who’s at the eye of a team dynamic in disrepair, both physically and mentally. 

As reports continue to surface about the QB feeling “betrayed” by the Eagles — likely stemming from not just the benching but also the fact that shortly after handing him that monster contract, the team went out and spent a second-round pick on Hurts — all that work Wentz did trying to repair his image inside the locker room could be in danger of becoming undone.

In fact, it might already be beyond repair.

“Is there anyone in here who’s going to believe in [Wentz]? I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a good feeling that there are a lot of guys who don’t right now,” said one source within the organization, who wished to remain anonymous, because “if he can get an NFL head coach fired, they’ll have no problem cutting anyone’s ass.”

All one respected veteran would say is that “there’s a problem here.” 

Players “were pissed” that Wentz reportedly planned to ask for a trade and wants out if he is not going to be the starting quarterback, sources said. They interpreted it as if Wentz was quitting on them. Some thought it was Wentz quitting on himself, running away from an open competition for the starter’s role with rookie Jalen Hurts. 

Wentz never refuted the reports. In fact, he hasn’t said a peep in over eight weeks — and counting.

“Everyone was looking at each other thinking, does he want outta here? How are you supposed to follow a leader like that?” said one source of the reports suggesting Wentz wanted out, which started as far back as December 20. “When he does address it, do you really think anyone will believe him?”

*  *  *

Another resounding feeling is that Wentz has not been the same player since tearing his left ACL and LCL during the Eagles’ Super Bowl season in December 2017. Wentz had grown so used to relying on his wealth of athletic skills to improvise that he was able to get away with a lot of flaws on the field. He’s not as definitive now when he decides to run. His eye levels are all over the place, sources said — first in 2018 and again while reporting this story — and he’s too stubborn to accept constructive criticism, another questionable character trait that has been reported elsewhere as well.

Still, Pederson continued to show faith and confidence in Wentz by playing him, sources said, holding hope that Wentz would play himself out of the funk he was in. 

Pederson was very much a player’s coach. He allowed players to take ownership of the team and counted on strong locker room leadership for the players to police themselves. Over the five years Pederson was here, he was described by players, media, media personnel and management as a great guy. 

Apparently, Pederson’s biggest flaw may have been just that — he was “a great guy.” 

The now-former Eagles coach treated his players like teammates, sources said. He was incredibly approachable, and spoke to his players like men.

According to numerous sources within the Eagles and the NFL, Wentz did what he was coached to do. He simply made wrong decisions and played poorly. The looks were there. Wentz just didn’t deliver. 

“Doug allows players to take ownership and have input on decisions, and it’s something we all appreciate about him,” revered leader Malcolm Jenkins said during the Eagles’ 2017 season. “We believe in Doug, because Doug believes in us. We trust him, and he trusts us [his players]. It’s why he gives us a lot of freedom.” 

For Wentz, that freedom extended all the way to the line of scrimmage. 

Pederson trusted Wentz to get the offense into a more advantageous look based on the tackle-box count. It was very common-sense stuff, moving from a passing play to a running play, or a running play to a passing play or a running play to another running play. Two plays were called in the huddle, separated by a “kill” call for a better look, which all NFL teams do. 

What made the Eagles unique with Wentz came on their third-down system, where the quarterback was allowed to call a formation to the offense and nothing else with the latitude of a fake cadence, allowing Wentz to read the defense and call the best play based on the look. 

The variety of plays he could switch to were discussed during the week, repped in practice and discussed in meetings. It wasn’t based on a spur-of-the-moment decision. 

According to numerous sources within the Eagles and the NFL, Wentz did what he was coached to do. He simply made wrong decisions and played poorly. The looks were there. Wentz just didn’t deliver. 

What many sources strongly denied, however, was that Wentz intentionally killed plays “for no other reason than his personal distaste” for what Pederson called, as suggested in the incredibly well-reported Inquirer story by Jeff McLane on Jan. 16. No one completely ruled that possibility out, insinuating it may have happened — though probably not. 

Two sources very close to the Eagles used the exact same phrase when that topic was broached, saying, “That would never happen in a million years.” 

Eagles_Cowboys_Carson_Wentz_offensive_line_Week8_Kate_Frese_11022036.jpgKate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz peeks over his offensive line.

The Eagles’ offense also became stale. Some opposing defenses began picking up what the Eagles were doing. 

Pederson deserves some blame, sure. He could have had Wentz roll out more; he could have started Wentz with easier plays early in games and stopped having him take five- and seven-step drops on first and second downs. 

What evolved through time, however, was that Pederson became too loose and “gave Wentz too much rope” within the offense, sources stated. Wentz grew accustomed to that. But when Wentz’s mistakes mounted this season, Pederson tried, maybe too late, some sources said, to rein him in. One source equated it to dangling a new, shiny toy in front of a child for years, then trying to pull it away. 

Pederson empowered Wentz at the line of scrimmage — and Wentz thrived on that freedom. Now, it was gone. As ESPN’s Tim McManus recently reported, “when he lost control, his faith in Pederson's playcalling was believed to be lost with it.”

Numerous sources stated that there are many things Wentz lacks, but he possesses a high football IQ and can recognize what a defense is doing. 

“[Wentz is] a glorified system quarterback who needs the right coaching, the willingness to accept coaching, take proper preparation and have a lot of pieces around him,” one NFL source said. “He’s not going to create, like an Aaron Rodgers or a Patrick Mahomes. 

“That’s where the Eagles got fooled after 2017. That version of Wentz is gone. They still haven’t accepted it.” 

*  *  *

The Eagles are not without blame here. As sources said, Wentz not only needs to be more accountable — when a breakdown was blatantly his fault, Wentz took the blame; in gray areas, he did not — but he also needs to be held more accountable, which was documented in our 2019 story and in the numerous other reports since. 

According to Jenkins, who just finished his first season back with the Saints after six years in Philly, some of Wentz’s inability to accept responsibility could be the result of what he believes was the team trying to “protect his ego.”

“There was too much leeway and it didn’t make him a better player,” Jenkins said in a recent interview with Rich Eisen. “I don’t think they did him any favors by trying to protect his ego or trying to really protect him as a player, as opposed to keeping it like every other player and keeping it performance-based and really being real about what he needed to improve on — but also adjust to put him in position to make him successful. I think that’s a little bit on the coaching staff, that’s also some onus on the player.

“Every player should go into every offseason, evaluating what they did well, what they didn’t do well. You look to see improvement year after year. But, if that’s not the case, and you don’t see, and there are no changes, and it’s not being addressed, as a player you almost feel like ‘What are we doing?’ To do the same thing over and over again, and expect the same results is insanity. 

“Unfortunately, I think that a little bit of that has taken place there over the past few years and obviously, this offseason showed that some things needed to change in a major way. Carson is still there — and regardless of who they bring in to coach him and get him better — he’s still going to need to improve as a player in order for that team to have success.”

Maybe that’s why Josh McDaniels and Duce Staley didn’t wind up becoming the next head coach of the Eagles. Maybe Lurie, who reportedly preferred the new coach try to rehabilitate Wentz, knew their personalities would clash with the quarterback’s. Maybe Lurie thought hiring a guy like Sirianni would calm Wentz’s concerns and allow the two sides to get a fresh start together. 

“Did you really think that they were going to get someone in here who’s a hard-ass coach with [Wentz] calling the shots? Dicks succeed in this league," one source said. "There’s no issue with that, but you have to earn it. ... Guys will put up with it, as long as you win."

Staley was described as someone highly respected by the players he’s coached and, at one time, by the Eagles franchise. Numerous NFL sources, when asked to describe Staley, said he’s a great leader and motivator, a father figure, and the kind of guy whose players would run through a wall for him. He was also described as someone who coaches hard.

Instead of promoting Staley, the Eagles hired Sirianni, a guy more known for playing the good-cop role, an optimist who tends to focus on a player’s positives. That doesn’t make either a lesser coach, but there does seem to be a stark contrast between the pair’s coaching styles.

Meanwhile, Staley is headed to Detroit in the same role that he had with the Eagles, much to the dismay of many of the players, and McDaniels is staying in New England. 

Wentz, however, despite a historically bad season, is still here, at least for now. All the while, a beloved head coach who led the Eagles to their only Super Bowl is gone, largely in an effort to appease Wentz, whose relationship with Pederson had reportedly become “fractured.”

If you’re going to make that move — firing a Super Bowl-winning coach in order to placate your quarterback — you better be sure that move is actually going to placate the quarterback. It appears this has not, as Wentz still looks to be on his way out of Philadelphia. 

And now, a coach who was well-liked in the locker room is gone — and more than a few players blame the quarterback. 

“They handed this team over to [Wentz] last year,” one source said. “They let Chris [Long] retire; they let Malcolm [Jenkins] go. [Wentz] failed to lead [with his performance on the field]. Did you really think that they were going to get someone in here who’s a hard-ass coach with [Wentz] calling the shots? Dicks succeed in this league. There’s no issue with that, but you have to earn it. Look at [Tom] Brady; look at [Aaron] Rodgers. They win. Guys will put up with it, as long as you win. What’s [Wentz] won? It’s going on six years now.” 

*  *  *

Over the last days and weeks, it’s become quite clear that the Eagles do not seem fully committed to Wentz moving forward. 

When asked during his introductory press conference whether Wentz will be back with the Eagles next year, Sirianni said, “I can't answer that. Again, [we’re] evaluating everything. Evaluating everything. Again, there's a lot of things to go through. Evaluating everything.”

But as the offseason rolls on, trade rumors surrounding Wentz continue to pile up. Reports are coming from all over about this team calling in an offer or that team expressing interest in the five-year veteran. And maybe the Eagles will be willing to pull the trigger on a deal, not only giving Wentz a fresh start but wiping the slate clean for their new head coach.

As last season was winding down, “a large number of people in the building” — with the obvious exceptions of Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman, sources say — felt Hurts was the better option at QB going forward. That made the hiring of new quarterbacks’ coach Brian Johnson, who has a long history with Hurts, quite intriguing. Initially, it didn’t seem like it would mean much, as Lurie and Roseman seemed hellbent on refurbishing Wentz, as reports suggested that the two made that sticking point during interviews with prospective coaches with the hope that a new coach would fix the relationship between quarterback and team.

The feeling, at least last season, was that Hurts possessed superior leadership, a willingness to be coached (one source said he was in the coach’s offices so much they thought they had to get him a cot) and players’ support. The twist of it was that coaches and players both feel Wentz has the better physical skills and the stronger arm.

Still, some see enough in Hurts that his intangibles could more than make up for that gap. 

“Guys want to play for [Hurts], I’ll say that,” one source said. “You can’t see a difference between one guy and the other? Jalen goes to the sideline after a series and wants input from everyone. The other guy ... [would] have a rough series, then sit by himself and sulk.”

A few SEC coaches are amazed how much Hurts’ passing has improved, though they still have doubts if he will ever have “an NFL arm like Wentz.” Hurts was described as an extremely likable, high-character leader who can’t get enough coaching and is a tireless worker.

“Put a fast guy on him, because he won’t beat you with his arm,” as one SEC source put it about Hurts. “He looks better than he did in college, but he has a lot more to work on. Jalen is willing to work. No one will doubt that. But he may never have the arm of the other guy [Wentz] there. He’ll work hard as hell to come close, though.” 

“Guys want to play for [Hurts], I’ll say that,” one source said. “You can’t see a difference between one guy and the other? Jalen goes to the sideline after a series and wants input from everyone. The other guy just didn’t want to be bothered. He’d have a rough series, then sit by himself and sulk.”

While Wentz may have the better arm, he certainly didn’t show it in 2020. And that could lead to him playing elsewhere in 2021. 

Even after the season, however, Roseman made it sound as though the Eagles were not only tied to Wentz, but that they couldn’t imagine life without him

“In terms of Carson, I don't think it's a secret that we moved up for him because of what we thought about him as a person, as a player,” the Eagles general manager said the Monday after the season ended. “We gave him that extension because of the same things. And so, when you have players like that, they are like fingers on your hand. You can't even imagine that they are not part of you; that they are not here. That's how we feel about Carson.”

In the weeks since, however, it’s been feeling less and less like the two are married long-term, and more and more like that a break up is not only inevitable, but imminent.

Making a trade for the former second-overall pick work is not without its own complications, not the least of which would be the monstrous $34 million dead cap hit the Eagles would be forced to absorb. They would also need to find a team not only willing to tie themselves to Wentz for the foreseeable future, but also willing to give back whatever the Eagles deem the appropriate price. 

That being said, it certainly could be done. Especially if the Eagles are at the point where they’re willing to take on the dead money just to start anew.

“I think what comes out from people is that [Wentz] is not that hard to trade, when you look at other teams taking on whatever it is, $25 million a year,” said Andrew Brandt, former Vice President of the Green Bay Packers from 1999-2008 and now Executive Director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova Law School. “That’s not the issue. The issue is trading Wentz from the Eagles’ standpoint, which would leave $34 million of dead money on their [salary] cap. The highest in the history of the NFL is now Jared Goff’s $22.2 million. That will count against the Rams as he plays for the Lions.

“My thought is that it would be too big of a burden to move the player. If it happens, it happens, and it will be a big surprise under a reduced cap of 2021, which will be $180 million. The [Wentz cap hit] would be one-fifth of that for a player who would be somewhere else. That would be shocking, but the fact that the [Eagles] haven’t publicly committed to him makes you wonder if it’s still a possibility, so we’ll see.”

That was just a week ago, as Brandt has been one of the staunchest believers in that dead money being too much for owner Jeffrey Lurie to pull the trigger on a trade. Now, he's singing a different tune. 

As recently as this weekend, there were reports that a trade involving Wentz was closeESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter reported on Saturday that the while the Eagles are telling other teams they're happy to bring the QB back, they're also "expected to trade Carson Wentz in the coming days." 

Potential suitors include, among others, the Colts, where Wentz would be reunited with former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and the Bears, with some reports even suggesting a Foles reunion is possible in Philly. As for the compensation, which seems to be the biggest hurdle remaining, Roseman is looking for "a Matthew Stafford package," per Mortensen and Schefter. 

Still, there might just be too much momentum to stop the train at this point.

*  *  *

Wentz now finds himself in a no-win situation, especially in Philly. He’ll turn 29 this year. His prime years are approaching. If Sirianni were to somehow fix Wentz, what do the Eagles do about the decay around him? The team has no proven deep threat to take the heat off of Wentz or Miles Sanders. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson will be four years older than they were in 2017, with the injuries and battering to prove it. 

The defensive line is aging, but remains one of the best in the NFL, but the back seven lacks playmakers. 

In his press conference on Jan. 11 announcing Pederson’s firing, Lurie himself admitted the Eagles are a team in transition. 

“I would say the difference in vision is much more about where we’re at as a franchise,” Lurie said. “As I said, we’re at that point. It’s a transition point and we've got to get younger and we have to have a lot more volume of draft picks and we have to accumulate as much talent as we possibly can that is going to work in the long run with a focus on the mid-term and the long term and not on how to maximize 2021. 

“And it’s almost not fair to Doug, because his vision has to be: What can I do to fix this right away and what coaches can I have that can help me get to a smoother 2021? My vision is much more: How can we get back to the success we’ve had and what we’re used to in the next two, three, four, five years?” 

So, even if Wentz is fixed, he won’t have much support, consequently wasting two or three of his prime years as the Eagles rebuild. That’s why, especially from Wentz’s perspective, a fresh start in another city might be the best path forward.

"As the season wore on, I didn’t see any improvement in his mechanics. But as the season wore on, I think, too, it became more mental than physical. ... I didn’t think he should have been benched. But Doug was given no choice but to bench him." —Ron Jaworski

But that’s all assuming it's even possible for Wentz to be fixed, which may be the more pressing question at this point.

“It always starts with mechanics, and they have to be ingrained in your framework, and if you’re going to be a quarterback for a long time in this league, you have to be consistent in that area,” Eagles’ legend and NFL analyst Ron Jaworski said. “I went out to Fargo for Carson’s pro day and he was very, very sound. In his first four years, there was nothing to complain about Carson Wentz. 

“I felt the slippage started after this offseason, with the COVID and all of the things that were happening. His mechanics fell apart. It really showed up to me in his first game in Washington. The interceptions on out routes that were thrown inside. Carson has the ability to throw the football as well as anybody, but his footwork was off. He had a closed front foot that caused the ball to tail inside. 

“As the season wore on, I didn’t see any improvement in his mechanics. But as the season wore on, I think, too, it became more mental than physical. There were so many times their receivers were open and he wasn’t pulling the trigger. The design of the play was there. 

“Why didn’t he see it? I’m not in his head. I don’t know. Only he can answer that. I saw many of those as the season wore on. He started getting sloppy with his mechanics. I didn’t think he should have been benched. But Doug was given no choice but to bench him.” 

If Wentz is to be repaired, he has to be willing to be coached — and he has to get out of his own way. 

“In this COVID year, and Doug had COVID himself, I don’t think he should have been fired, and you can quote me on that,” Jaworski said. “How can you be held accountable for some of the things that went on? This is a tough town, I had 70,000 people boo me and it was hard, you have to deal with it. Carson has to look down the barrel. You can’t run and hide. 

“Carson can be repaired. He has all of the ability in the world. He’s shown he has a great work ethic. They’re going to get good people to fix him. But really the only person who can fix Carson Wentz is Carson Wentz.” 

Maybe that repair just needs to take place somewhere other than Philadelphia. 

PhillyVoice's Matt Mullin contributed to this story.

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.