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May 28, 2018

Don't even bother getting excited to see Wentz return for Week 1

For Eagles fans, the most exhilarating moment since the championship parade four months ago happened last week, when video surfaced of Carson Wentz planting all of his weight on his surgically-repaired left knee and zipping a pass downfield.

Less than half a year after an injury that ended his MVP season, the kid looks whole again, the latest miracle of modern medicine — and, come Sept. 6, he will be ready for the season opener.

There’s only one small problem with this happy story: Wentz will NOT be ready. That video was a lie.

Setting aside the quarterback's intense desire to play the first game of the new season — and ignoring for a second the sense of justice his return would bring to him and his legion of fans — what the Eagles really have here is a major quandary. Wentz is not going to be ready, from a medical standpoint, until mid-October at the earliest. 

That’s right. Mid-October.

Did I get a medical degree since last we met? No, I did better than that. I talked to people who are among the elite in their fields of orthopedic surgery and injury rehabilitation, and the consensus is clear. You can’t rush Mother Nature.

One of these experts, Dr. John Kelly, said on my WIP radio show last week that the video was misleading, for a couple of reasons. First, Wentz was not pivoting on the still-healing left knee, the true test of the strength of the anterior-cruciate and lateral-collateral ligaments that he tore. And second, there was no threat of contact, the one thing that would truly test the joint.

Since the injury, I have talked to at least half a dozen orthopedic specialists associated with NovaCare Rehabilitation, and all have said the same thing. It takes close to a year to get back to 100 percent. At best, Wentz will be in the 70 to 80 percent range by Sept. 9, regardless of how hard he trains.

When I asked Dr. Kelly the most important question last week, his answer was clear and direct: Will Wentz be at greater risk for re-injury if he plays in the season opener?

“Yes, he will,” Dr. Kelly said. 

And that’s why the Eagles are eventually going to face most difficult situation in the two-plus seasons since Wentz arrived here, a conversation late this summer when they will tell him that he’ll have to sit out the first few games of 2018, pain or no pain.

Coach Doug Pederson already hinted at this possibility when he said after the video surfaced: “He’ll be ready . . . when we feel he’s ready.”

The most unfortunate part of the story is not the fact that Nick Foles – the Super Bowl MVP – will have to start the season under center, but that Wentz wants so very badly to get back onto the field and win his own Super Bowl. His determination is one of his most endearing qualities.

Foles is in his final season with the Eagles, a journeyman who became a hero with a performance for the ages. It is more than a little ironic that Wentz, the chosen one, now seeks what his backup has already achieved, the thrill of being on the field, a winner, at the end of the biggest game of his life.

It could still happen for Wentz when he does return this season, and, if there’s any justice in the football world, it will happen sometime during the long career that awaits him. He’s just going to have to wait a little longer to pursue his dream, because, regardless of what you hear and read for the next three months, he’s not going to start the season on the field for the Eagles.

Bet on it.

* * *

I’ve got an embarrassing confession to make. For the past five years, I have referred to Ruben Amaro Jr. as the worst general manager in Philadelphia sports history. I was wrong — very, very wrong.

Based on new information being provided, on a daily basis, by the Phillies, Amaro was actually a fairly astute judge of talent, especially when he wasn’t too busy trying to stretch an extra year or two out of the previous run of success. The current team is largely a product of Amaro’s remarkable final days here.

Look at it this way: The biggest attractions on the young ballclub today represent none of the work of the legendary GM who preceded Amaro — or the disappointing GM who succeeded him. 

Pat Gillick was merely a consultant when the best young Phillies — Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery, Seranthony Dominguez — joined the club. As for Matt Klentak, he did add two major free-agent contributors, Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta, but otherwise has whiffed far more than he has connected in his three years here.

No, it was Amaro who drafted or signed all of the above names, the core of the current team. The same Amaro who took the best string of teams the Phillies ever had, the 2008-2011 clubs – and ended the era in an avalanche of bloated contracts and absurd free-agent acquisitions.

Almost never elusive with the media, Amaro said in a recent interview with the New York Times: “I told my daughters when I first got my [Phillies GM] job, ‘For about three or four years, you’re going to think your dad’s brilliant — and then after that you’re going to think he’s the biggest idiot on the planet.’ It was almost true to form.”

But Amaro was no idiot, at least not near the end of his seven-year tenure here. He claimed Herrera from Texas in the Rule 5 draft; grabbed Nola, Hoskins and Kingery in the college draft; got Alfaro in a deal with Texas for Cole Hamels; snagged Pivetta in a trade with Washington for Jonathan Papelbon; and plucked Dominguez out of the international draft pool.

Amaro also said recently that his one regret was that he didn’t start the rebuilding process sooner — though you may remember he tried to when he traded Cliff Lee in 2009 for a package of nobodies. Somehow, toward the end of his time here, Amaro figured out the difference between a dud like Phillippe Aumont and a stud like Aaron Nola.

As a weird postscript to the Amaro story, the GM refused a recent interview request by the New York Daily News — an extremely rare occurrence — because he thought it would be awkward for the struggling NL-East rival Mets, where he now serves as a first-base coach.

Who knows? Maybe the Mets will want to hire him as their next GM. Or — here’s the craziest twist of all — maybe the Phillies will want him back. In an Internet poll last Friday, 60 percent of the thousands of voters preferred Amaro over Klentak. 

Life really is full of surprises, isn’t it?

* * *

J.J. Redick settled the idiotic debate between Sam Hinkie devotees and intelligent basketball fans when he was asked last week whether the Sixers should sign the best player in the NBA as a free agent this off-season.

“If you have the chance to get LeBron James,” he said, “you go for it and you figure out the rest later.”


What made Redick’s remark especially meaningful is that the signing of James could mean the end of the sharpshooter’s tenure here, since Redick’s $23-million, one-year deal with the Sixers ended when they were eliminated by the Celtics earlier this month.

Meanwhile, James staved off elimination himself on Sunday night against the same scrappy Boston team, the latest extraordinary win in his remarkable career. As soon as the NBA Finals end, you should expect weeks of speculation before he decides where to go.

Cleveland still seems to have an advantage, since it is his hometown and he might not want to face the wrath of the locals again. After that, however, the Sixers seem to have as good a chance to woo him as anybody.

Of course, he would be surrounded by a better team if he moved to Philadelphia. Plus, he would be able to play alongside his protégé and friend Ben Simmons. And he is already on the record crowing about the electric atmosphere at the Wells Fargo Center. Oh, yeah. The Sixers have plenty of money under the salary cap to pull off the signing, too.

Will it happen? The only thing we can predict right now is that the Hinkie purists will howl if LeBron James does come here – which is another great reason for it to happen.

* * *

And finally . . . 

•  The new anthem-protest policy is just another example of commissioner Roger Goodell not knowing how to handle a crisis. Players no longer can stand on the sideline if they plan to protest? That’s what two years of discussion produced? Already, some NFL owners have said they plan no discipline if their players violate the new rule. And Goodell keeps making millions and millions of dollars doing nothing productive for his league or for the fans. Shameful.

•  Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie didn’t escape the anthem-policy uproar, either. His prepared statement did nothing more than highlight his unwillingness to take a stand on an issue that he acknowledges is important. It’s the same with his team's White House visit next week. He is planning to attend even though it is no secret he dislikes (detests?) President Donald Trump. Take a stand on something, Jeffrey. You’re the owner of the NFL champions. If not now, when?

•  Lost in the hubbub over Super Bowl hero Nick Foles refusing to move to Cleveland for the 35th pick in the NFL draft was what the situation said about the Eagles’ belief in third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld. The fact that the Birds were ready to accept the offer, even though Carson Wentz may not be ready for the opener, proves they are comfortable with Sudfeld as a starter. In other words, the deepest position on the Eagles is also the most important – quarterback.  

•  Michael Bennett is still an effective pass rusher, but he is not exactly winning any early support here with the baggage he is carrying from Seattle to Philadelphia. First, there was the indictment in Houston after an incident at Super Bowl LI, then his controversial book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, and now he’s blowing off the OTAs. The Seahawks decided he was no longer worth the trouble. It’s looking more and more like they were right.

•  The Phillies won’t say it, so I will. Attendance has been abysmal this season, given the surprising exploits of the team. On the day they made it (very briefly) into first place, a crowd of 26,788 fans turned out – slightly more than half the seats available in Citizens Bank Park on Saturday. Yes, there were some showers in the forecast, but it was the first day of the Memorial Day weekend and Aaron Nola was on the mound. This just in, Philadelphia: The Phillies are good again. It’s time to head back to the ballpark.