September 09, 2020
The familiar voices that used to echo through the NovaCare Complex, Lincoln Financial Field and through the bowels of U.S. Bank Stadium one early-February Sunday in 2018 are gone now.
When Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long spoke, their Eagles’ teammates tended to stand up and listen.
Both came from Super Bowl champion pedigrees, Jenkins his rookie season in 2009 with the New Orleans Saints, and Long toward the end of his career with the 2016 New England Patriots. And both were instrumental in the Eagles winning it all, both on and off the field.
Facing somewhat of a leadership vacuum with the loss of their two defensive leaders, it was time for franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, who signed a lucrative extension last year, to transition from being the leader of the offense to the leader of the entire team.
But, after a story published in this space in January 2019 raised questions about Wentz’s ability to lead, some were rightfully worried if the young gunslinger from North Dakota was ready for his voice to be the guiding light in the locker room at the NovaCare Complex.
Those questions, it seems, have been answered.
“Everybody believes in Carson. They do now,” said one of the sources from PhillyVoice’s 2019 story. “My issue was availability. If you're going to be a leader, then lead. Be accessible. When he got hurt (three years ago), he shut himself down and shut himself off from the rest of us.
“He’s made conscious, serious efforts to connect with guys. Some guys continued to shut him out. That’s on them—not Carson.”
In other words, some of the players that sniped behind Wentz’s back are now defending him.
Wentz is naturally a guarded, private person. It’s taken him a few years to build his comfort zone, especially with the strong personalities that were in the locker room when the Eagles were making their 2017 Super Bowl push.
It was easy to get lost, and Wentz, being deferential to the veterans, also knew his place three years ago.
Jenkins was one of the best leaders in Philadelphia sports history. He was given the inner leverage by Eagles’ general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Doug Pederson to help shape the persona of the Super Bowl team.
"For me, this is going into my fifth year... definitely feel like a veteran now. But those things kind of just come, I think, with age and with experience." —Carson Wentz
When management felt Jenkins had lost a step and couldn’t cover anymore, and Jenkins himself wanted another chance at winning a Super Bowl, they parted ways. And in doing so, allowed Wentz to emerge as a leader. If there were underlying issues, Wentz took the added steps to visit teammates at their homes, numerous sources confirmed.
“I think he's embraced (being the leader),” Eagles’ veteran defensive end Brandon Graham said. “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’s grown more comfortable with the role. He’s more vocal, something he says that had to develop through time.
“For me, this is going into my fifth year, which still seems crazy to say it’s my fifth year,” he said. “Definitely feel like a veteran now. But those things kind of just come, I think, with age and with experience. You lose a guy like Malcolm, who was very, very much a big voice for our team in the locker room and, you know, everyone had a lot of respect for him.
“So, I know there’ll be a lot of guys that are very passionate about a lot of different things and are able to articulate and be the Eagles and be who we are and represent that. So, I look forward to being one of those guys as well.”
Said a source from the original January 2019 PhillyVoice story who played a major role with the Eagles Super Bowl team but is now with another organization: “The guy took a band of XFL players to a division title (last year). I can understand why some may question why they drafted (Jalen Hurts). It doesn't matter, because it's Carson's team now. Malcolm is gone. Long is gone. Carson's voice has to be heard. It better be heard.
“Carson got a bad knock a few years ago with the (knee) injury and the doubts about his leadership. He looked at himself, saw where he could be better and did something about it. He did.”
Another thing that changed for Carson Wentz was his social activism. He impressed many of his teammates, according to numerous sources in and around the team, when he stepped out of “his North Dakota bubble” with his social media post on May 28th:
Been thinking about the George Floyd situation and thinking of the words to say & coming up empty. All I know is that the institutional racism in this country breaks my heart and needs to stop. Can’t even fathom what the black community has to endure on a daily basis.
Being from North Dakota, I’ve spent a large part of my life surrounded by people of similar color, so I’m never gonna act like I know what the black community goes through or even has gone through already. I’ll never know the feeling of having to worry about my kids going outside because of their skin color.
However, I do know that we are all equal at the foot of the cross and Jesus Taught us to value others’ lives like they were our own — regardless of skin tone.
So, this might seem like a ramble — and perhaps it is. I don’t understand the society that we live in that doesn’t value all human life. It’s heartbreaking and disturbing. My prayers go out to every man, woman, and child that has to endure the effects of racism in our society.
It was unlike Wentz. Until then, he had been silent on social, political or racial matters.
“You know what, he’s really come in and really embraced this football team, embraced this opportunity,” Pederson said. “He really even embraced this opportunity with the social injustice, with bridging the gap between himself and his Black teammates.
“That’s all part of being a leader, and he’s really done an outstanding job there. I see him at practice wrapping his arm around some of the young players and talking to them about football and probably other things.
“I’m not in those conversations but I do see him talking to those young players, and that’s so encouraging to me, to have your leader of your football team going into his fifth year, obviously, but embracing that and leading this football team like we all know he can.”
Despite being the franchise quarterback, Wentz had spent quite a bit of time living in Nick Foles’ shadow after the former Eagles backup led the team to its first Super Bowl victory in Wentz’s absence.
Last season, Foles was officially gone and the team turned the page from that chapter in its history, with Wentz living in a QB controversy-free environment. That, coupled with his shiny new contract, was the proof the non-believers on the outside needed to see to confirm what many on the inside already knew: this is Carson Wentz’s team.
That’s what made the events of April 24, 2020 so shocking.
As one member of the Eagles joked, he was in his car and almost drove off the road when he heard the Eagles took Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts with the 53rd overall pick in the second round.
“Just when this becomes Carson’s team, then you yank the rug (out) from under him?” he said. “More than a few guys were scratching their heads over that.
“Hell, we could have taken a prime Tom Brady with that pick and guys would still be wondering about that. If (management) wants this to be Carson’s team, then let it be Carson’s team! Don’t f--- with the guy.”
How things have changed in a few years. And that’s due in large part not only to Wentz recognizing a need to improve in certain areas, but doing the work to actually make himself better.
A few years ago, there would’ve been questions about Wentz looking over his shoulder. Or the outside talk of a potential QB controversy pecking away at the back of his mind. Or worse, an actual QB controversy.
There’s none of that now. Carson Wentz is the Eagles franchise quarterback. And nobody is questioning that.
But the Hurts’ selection still hangs there. One NFC exec questioned it, repeating a common refrain in Philadelphia when it comes to Roseman.
“Howie likes to think of himself as the smartest guy in the room and take chances,” he said in May. “The Eagles are a team, from what I knew going into the draft, that didn’t need a quarterback. They had other needs to fill with that pick.
“So, now they have two quality quarterbacks, if Hurts matures. Who do they throw to? Who protects them? Yeah, the (Hurts) pick shocked a lot of people. But Wentz does have issues with staying on the field. That’s a hard, cold fact.”
Wentz’s injury history is no secret.
In 2017, his second NFL season and potential MVP campaign was cut short when he suffered a torn ACL while diving for the goal line. The next year, after watching Foles lead the Birds to the Super Bowl, Wentz suffered a stress fracture in his back that ended his season. Once again, Foles picked up the mantle and led the Birds into the playoffs, this time falling in their second postseason matchup to the Saints.
Last year, however, Wentz managed to stay healthy and start all 16 regular season games for the first time since his rookie year. It wasn’t until the wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks that the injury bug bit the Eagles quarterback, and it was hardly his fault, as his head was slammed into the ground from behind by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Still, the result was the same. The Eagles were forced to finish their season with Wentz on the sideline.
During the offseason, Wentz added about 15 to 20 pounds, weighing over 250 on a 6-foot-5 frame that arrived at the 2019 training at around 235.
He’s certainly sturdier.
The more looming issue is whether or not Wentz can sustain another head shot like the one he received from Clowney that ended his season.
Dr. Brian McDonough, the long-time medical editor of KYW news radio, has a great familiarity with what Wentz went through after that hit and praised the Eagles quarterback for realizing there was an issue and getting himself evaluated.
But football players, much like fighters, take repeated blows to the head. Through time, they become that much more susceptible to concussions. The added weight will help Wentz.
A piecemeal offensive line, with no Brandon Brooks and Jason Peters making a last-minute switch back to left tackle, will likely not. Protecting Wentz’s blind side, the franchise quarterback’s health is the utmost priority — particularly his head.
“What we’ve learned especially over the last 15 years is that repeated concussions can be problematic, because it is easier to get a concussion the second, third or fourth time,” Dr. McDonough said. “That’s why you see certain people, while they’re more prone to have concussions on the first place, or whether some sort of injury from the initial concussion starts a cycle.
“I don’t know if there’s been studies on that, but I can tell you we definitely see a relationship. Someone that gets a concussion is more likely to have a second, and if they have a second, they’re more likely to have others.”
"For Carson, it’s just a matter of running the show, running the offense, running the team. He's going into his fifth year. He knows how to play this game." —Doug Pederson
In the context of Wentz’s injuries, coupled with the fact that the NFL is moving to an 18-game season, the Hurts pick perhaps makes a little more sense.
One NFC East exec called it “brilliant,” and Roseman “a genius” for taking a quarterback in the second round despite having one of the best young QBs already on his roster.
“Let me clarify,” the rival exec said, laughing. “Howie’s an ‘evil genius,’ because we have to play them twice a year and they’re kicking everyone’s ass here (in the NFC East). I’m sure some people in Philly were shaking their heads over it, thinking they’ll use (Hurts) in some way, and maybe even doubting Wentz’s durability, which certainly has to come into question.
“But the ‘new NFL’ is going to 18 games soon. Everyone is going to need two high-end, No. 1 quarterbacks. Some were saying Hurts may be used as future trade bait. I don’t see it. The days of one QB going a full season will be over (when the 18-game season is implemented).
“If your No. 1 plays 14, 15 games and your No. 2 plays in three, or four, the goal remains the same—give your team the best possible chance to win. (Individual) numbers and stats won’t matter, but what does and what always will in my book is who wins in the end. The Eagles may now have two guys who can beat you, if Hurts develops the way he should.”
They may have two quality quarterbacks (one still very much in-the-making), but, barring the unforeseen, only one will line up under center for the Birds on Sunday’s this fall.
And there are no questions about who that should be.
Last year, Wentz became the first Eagles’ quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season (4,039) and did so in his first full season since his rookie year. However, there are still things he needs to accomplish. Like, for example, he has yet to win a playoff game.
Maybe that gets resolved this year. The on-the-field product won’t be revealed until Sunday, but the behind-the-scenes workings of the Eagles quarterback has those inside the building excited.
According to Pederson, Wentz has bonded with the young receiving corps, including first-round pick Jalen Reagor. He’s been open to questions. The two have been studying film together.
The head coach calls it a carryover from last season.
“That's something that Carson has embraced and will continue to embrace as the leader of the team,” Pederson said. “For Carson, it’s just a matter of running the show, running the offense, running the team. He's going into his fifth year. He knows how to play this game. He plays it just like a professional.
“We have to maintain that aggressiveness and I think with just continuing to teach and maybe part of the injuries that he’s gone through in the last couple of seasons are things that he can learn from.”
It appears Wentz did learn from the past. And that’s a good thing since, finally, the Eagles are Carson Wentz’s team.
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: @JSantoliquito.