October 24, 2017
Carson Wentz was surrounded by burgundy jerseys, trapped in the pocket with nowhere to run, doomed to failure on an important third-down play. And then – poof! – he burst out of the tangle of bodies and raced up the field for 17 yards and a first down.
That didn’t just happen, did it?
This time it was more than just the score – 34-24, over the Redskins – that amazed the crowd; it was the way the Eagles managed to win the sixth of their first seven games. Throughout the night, Wentz scurried for first downs, threaded throws long and short and calmly led his offense through the usual chaos of an NFL game.
He is creating a jubilation around the Eagles that has been missing for more than a decade, but also a sense of disbelief that this young team with an unproven head coach could be The One – if not this season, then soon.
It isn’t possible that the Eagles are the best team in the NFL right now, is it? (Check the standings. They are.) There’s no way they have the best quarterback in the game right now, is there? (Were you watching the game? Duh.)
After last night’s win, fans calling my WIP radio show this morning were giddy with appreciation but also confused about where this all leads. How could a 24-year-old quarterback with so little experience be this good this fast? When does the other shoe drop?
Remember, Philadelphia has been a football city of false hopes for generations since the last Eagles’ championship in 1960. So many quarterbacks have been our supposed savior – everyone from Ron Jaworski to Randall Cunningham to Donovan McNabb to Nick Foles – but none has delivered the ultimate prize.
Is Carson Wentz the real thing, or is he just another tease? Early returns favor the former option, for one simple reason. Wentz acts like a winner. He is best on third down, best when the pocket is collapsing around him, best when the pressure is greatest. He refuses to lose.
After the game, the players on the field were struggling to explain that miraculous escape, or the touchdown throw to Corey Clement that left the quarterback’s hand just as he was squashed between two rushers, or any number of other astonishing plays.
"Amazing," said Birds’ wide receiver Nelson Agholor. "Three, four plays later, we are still on the sideline figuring out how he did it."
"He gets out of trouble, he breaks tackles and he throws dimes," Washington safety D.J. Swearinger said. "He's a great quarterback and he'll be one of the greats for a long time."
The best quote came from Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, no slacker himself with 10 unassisted tackles in the win.
“That’s the magic of Carson Wentz,” he said.
Indeed it is. And Wentz figures to have a few more tricks up his sleeve this season. Who knows? Maybe it’s not too soon for him to make 57 years of futility disappear. Maybe, for his greatest trick, he can produce the Lombardi Trophy.
After that escape on Monday night, is anybody dumb enough to bet against him?
The Sixers have some talented players now and many new fans, but the culture of losing continues to plague every facet of the organization. All it took was one game to reveal the scars left by four years of failure.
After losing to Washington in the season opener last Wednesday night – the Sixers are already 1-3, if you missed it – coach Brett Brown said he was proud of his players. The newest addition, Markelle Fultz, also said he was satisfied with his debut. And the media absolutely gushed about the promising future of the team.
People who actually understand what it takes to be successful – an endangered species in Sixerland these days – cringed at the low bar being set for the 2017-’18 team. Even now, in year five of the rebuild, winning games is not important? Is that the message here?
It was definitely the spin Brown has given to yet another bumbling start in yet another season of development. The coach, who came from a winning environment in San Antonio, clearly did not bring that same atmosphere to Philadelphia. He continues to talk about how young the team is, how much work still needs to be done. Oh, please.
My co-host at WIP, Hollis Thomas – who played 14 seasons in the NFL – lashed out at the team and its many apologists on the morning after that first loss. He said accepting anything less than a victory is a formula for losing. Teams have to believe they are winners before they actually become winners.
So many of these young star athletes are still in the early 20s – Fultz is just 19 – and the worst message they can hear early in their careers is that winning is not essential. Yet, that’s exactly what their coach is telling them when he says he’s proud after a loss. It’s a stupid way to teach your players how to win.
Fortunately, not every member of the Sixers family embraces this losing attitude. Joel Embiid, who has already missed one game because he hasn’t been cleared to play on back-to-back nights, said the players cannot expect the excitement to continue without winning some games.
And then there’s J.J. Redick, a free-agent addition who whose teams have made the playoffs in all 11 of his NBA seasons. He made it very clear how he feels about moral victories.
“I don’t like taking positives from losses,” he said. “We need to clean up a lot of stuff. We need to be better. It takes a lot to win in this league. We need to figure that out.”
If Redick understands that, why doesn’t the coach?
After four years of one-sided officiating by Pete Morelli, the NFL and its referees’ union added a personal-foul penalty last week with insulting and idiotic responses to the furor.
Morelli has been biased against the Eagles. The statistics don’t lie. He called 10 penalties on the Eagles in Carolina on Oct. 12, compared to one against the Panthers. Last season, it was 14 against the Eagles vs. two on the Lions. In the past four games, Morelli’s crew has called 40 penalties on the Birds for 396 yards, and eight for 74 on opponents.
The great thing about numbers is that they are indisputable. It takes a special kind of arrogance to dismiss statistics like those, but the NFL nor the refs’ union took their best shots.
When online petitions topped 75,000 signatures against Morelli, the NFL issued a statement last week saying there were “no signs” that the veteran official had a bias against the Eagles. No signs? Then please explain those numbers, and the video evidence of Carolina’s offensive line consistently holding without a single flag.
Scott Green, executive director of the NFLRA, went even further. He said the complaints represent “a fundamental lack of knowledge about NFL officiating,” and called the allegations “irresponsible and baseless.”
“These recent attempts to sensationalize statistics and create clickbait headlines lack important context,” he said in a statement.
Really? The only thing sensational about the statistics are ... the actual numbers. If they seem overly dramatic, well, isn’t that the point of the critics? A disparity like that is implausible over four seasons.
That’s not my conclusion; it comes from Kerry Fraser, one of the best officials for close to three decades in the NHL. As a guest on my radio show last Friday, Fraser said it’s impossible to explain logically that much of an imbalance. He said it never happened to him in his career, not could a recall such a disparity with any other ref.
The bottom line on this story is actually a positive one. With so much attention on Morelli and the Eagles, there is almost no chance the NFL would invite more controversy by assigning him another Birds game this season.
But if it does, let’s just hope the game is played at Lincoln Financial Field. Then the league and the refs’ union will find out how Philadelphia really feels about Pete Morelli.
And finally ...
• The Sixers’ medical staff continues its insane decision-making without a word of challenge by the docile Philadelphia media. Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 draft pick, has a significant injury to his right shoulder. You don’t have to be a doctor to see this. Just watch him try to shoot free throws. But he keeps getting cleared to play, while Joel Embiid – completely healthy now – is still banned from back-to-back games. Is anyone ever going to question these guys?
• While Detroit and Boston claimed two of the top candidates for managerial positions last week, Phillies GM Matt Klentak continues to interview everyone he can find with no actual big-league experience. So far, all this search has proven is how inexperienced and insecure Klentak is. The Phillies desperately need someone on the front lines who has been there before. Why can’t they understand this?
• If anyone is going to save coach Dave Hakstol’s job this season, it’s Wayne Simmonds. The Flyer winger already has six goals in the first eight games, including the game-winner Saturday with 2:15 left to play against Edmonton. On a team filled with promising young players, Simmonds remains the top performer, and it’s not really close. Isn’t it time the city embraced Simmonds the way it has (for far less reason) Claude Giroux?
• Redskins coach Jay Gruden said last week that he was upset when the Eagles acquired the rights to quarterback Carson Wentz. What he needs to do is vent his frustration at the Cleveland Browns, who traded the North Dakota kid because they said he didn’t project as a top-20 NFL quarterback. By now, it has probably occurred to Cleveland fans that it is actually their front office that doesn’t project to be in the top 20.
• If you’re looking for a fantastic new sports biography, you won’t do better than Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life. Over 600 pages, Eig captures the magic of the most compelling athlete of the past century, describing Ali’s fights inside the ring and out with vivid images and riveting analysis. It’s one of those books that stays with you long after the end – just like Ali himself.