December 26, 2016
Just a short time after smashing his head into the turf and leaving the game, Carson Wentz threw his valuable body in front of a defender and, on the same play, made contact with the biggest man on the field. The rookie quarterback survived the impact of both blows, as did his team.
On a night when the Eagles broke a five-game losing streak and ruined the Giants’ playoff celebration, that play was a defining moment in the remarkable first season for the new franchise quarterback, a sequence that displayed all of the qualities that will make him a superstar in the NFL and a beloved figure in this tough sports city.
Our last truly worthy sports hero had a similar, welcome-to-my-world moment 19 years ago. Allen Iverson was staring into the eyes of Michael Jordan at the top of the key, before putting a double move on the defensive player of the year, crossing over, and then calmly nailing an 18-foot jumper.
Sports fans here fell in love with Iverson that night, just as they are doing with Carson Wentz now that he has passed our biggest test. The fact that both players Wentz hit – Eli Apple of the Giants and Jason Peters of the Eagles – were injured on the play only added to the gravity of the moment. The rookie is tough. Philadelphia tough.
It is still amazing to me – and more than a little frustrating – that Wentz did not receive the warm embrace he deserved this season, a product of the best move ever made by reborn GM Howie Roseman.
Oh, the fans loved him when he started his NFL career with three straight wins, but the usual rookie mistakes that followed have created an illogical skepticism. Did people really believe a kid from North Dakota – FCS football, no less – was going to conquer the NFL with no weapons and a makeshift offensive line?
Even in last Thursday night’s game, Wentz tried to muscle a throw near the sideline that cost him an early interception. But what about his work just before that unfortunate pass? He wriggled out of danger with some athletic moves, bought time for his receivers, and never panicked. Not many quarterbacks could escape that rush.
In fact, Wentz has shown repeatedly in the past two games just how much grit he brings to the huddle. The previous week in Baltimore, he battered his way into the end zone late with another bold move, giving the Eagles a lead the defense would hand right back.
Of course, both Wentz and coach Doug Pederson have taken heat from media types who are demanding that the Eagles stop putting the franchise quarterback in danger with reckless play-calls and overly aggressive decisions. These same pacifists, no doubt, would prefer that the NFL ban all physical contact.
Hey, it’s football, you naysayers. And Wentz plays it exactly the way our city prefers – with a dirty uniform and a passion to win.
With one game to go in his rookie season, here’s what we can now say for sure about Carson Wentz: He has a powerful arm, is elusive in the pocket, can recognize and adjust to sophisticated defenses and is a team-first, low-maintenance leader on and off the field.
The only real question when Wentz arrived here last April was how the kid would adjust to big, bad Philadelphia. Well, after that win over the Giants, it’s safe to say he was born to play here.
Nelson Agholor is the Domonic Brown of the Eagles. Surely you remember how the Phillies outfielder dazzled everybody in the minor leagues with his talent but then failed every test when required to use those skills in Philadelphia. Agholor is the same player in a different sport.
The wide receiver, a superstar at USC, was involved in three remarkable plays during last Thursday night’s win over the Giants, and they merely added to the enigma that he has become.
With the Eagles dominating early in the game, Agholor dropped a ball that would have reinforced the big start. It was a simple slant, the pass delivered precisely to the spot where Agholor has the most difficulty – his hands. The boos that cascaded down from the pre-holiday crowd were deafening.
Later in the game, Agholor collected a perfectly thrown 40-yard pass from Carson Wentz and did two unexpected things. He caught the ball, and he scored a touchdown. It seemed like an optical illusion. For once, the first-round draft pick didn’t choke.
In its own way, what was even more impressive was a catch near the sideline by Agholor that seemed impossible – especially for him. He caught the ball with both feet pinned to the line, and then fell out of bounds. The refs called the pass incomplete – probably figuring it was Agholor, so there’s no way he could make that play.
But he did, as was proven after coach Doug Pederson challenged the call. Of course, this was Agholor, so he still managed to catch the ball one yard short of a first down. Still, Caleb Sturgis’ 41-yard field goal on the next play was more makeable because of the catch, and those points proved crucial in the final minutes.
Dom Brown was the same way. Every once in a while, he would hit a monster home run, flash that winning smile of his, and convince everyone all over again that he was just a late bloomer. Brown’s legacy is a six-week stretch in 2013 when he dominated baseball, and six years of otherwise unfulfilled promise.
The Eagles will probably bring Agholor back next season because of those two catches in Thursday night game – because he clearly has the talent to excel – but his legacy here will be that drop, and the many more to come before the Eagles admit their mistake and cut him loose.
By the way, Brown is still playing baseball. At 29, he batted .239 last season in Buffalo, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. He has no intention of retiring because who knows? Next year could be the year for him.
For players like Brown and Agholor, there’s always next year – except next year never comes.
The Phillies will pay close to $31 million next season for two journeyman starting pitchers named Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz. Now please explain why fans are supposed to feel good about the people running their baseball team right now.
Last week, novice GM Matt Klentak traded a nondescript prospect, Josh Tobias, to the Red Sox for Buchholz, who hasn’t had a good full season since 2010. Through all of the seasons since then, he has either been hurt or been clobbered. Last year, he was healthy but his numbers weren’t: 4.78 ERA, with 21 homers allowed in 139 innings.
The amazing part of the trade was that Klentak agreed to pay all of the $13.5 million left on Buchholz’s contract – proving, once again, that the Phillies have plenty of money to spend, but no good ideas on how to spend it.
That’s also why they agreed to pay the qualifying offer of $17.2 million to Hellickson, who was decent as the one experienced starter in a young rotation last year, but hardly a $17 million pitcher. Why else do you think the 29-year-old grabbed the offer without testing the market? Because there is no market for him at that price – nor was there for Buchholz at his price.
Klentak’s explanation seems as naïve as pretty much everything else he has done since arriving here as a totally unproven GM. What appealed to him the most is that the Phillies have no commitment to either pitcher beyond 2017, providing flexibility when free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado become available in two years.
The other point Klentak keeps making is that he wants to add no players who would block the young talent expected to arrive in the next two seasons . That’s the chronic problem with the Phils. The kids are always just a year or two away. No one wants to explain why, over the past 10 years, not one new star has emerged.
Assuming he has full personnel control – president Andy MacPhail insists he does – Matt Klentak thinks it’s smart to overpay for mediocre talent. He sees no reason to add talented young veterans who could accelerate the process of rebuilding. Right now, he just wants everybody to trust the process.
Where did we hear that one before?
And finally …
• Nerlens Noel received a standing ovation when he entered a game last week. The best theory as to why is that the Sixers center had been benched and the team was playing badly, especially on defense. Somehow, Noel – a grump as well as a bust so far – took it as an endorsement by the fans. Oh, please. They were just telling the organization that they’re sick of all the losing. Noel will hear cheers like that one more time in Philadelphia. When he’s traded.
• How does Richard Sherman get away with all of his stupid behavior? The elite Seattle defensive back publicly threatened to ruin the career of Seattlepi.com’s Jim Moore last week after the reporter pressed Sherman about his public criticism of the Seahawks’ play-calling. Since Sherman won the Super Bowl three years ago, his big mouth has brought shame to his team and the NFL. Is anybody ever going to stand up to this bully?
• Fans already clamoring for the firing of Doug Pederson as Eagles coach need to remember who hired him, and who will be picking his replacement when he does leave. Owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman are the same geniuses who were ready to hire Gus Bradley four years ago before Chip Kelly took the job. Bradley was fired last week from Jacksonville with a 14-48 record – one of the worst marks in NFL history. Maybe the problem is not Pederson.
• Ryan Mathews is a talented running back, but here’s one vote for him never to take another handoff as an Eagle. He suffered a herniated disk late in last Thursday night’s game, and is done for the season. Add that injury to the many others he has suffered in his seven-year NFL career, and it just doesn’t make sense to bring him back. Instead, the Birds must – absolutely must – keep Darren Sproles. He’s older than Mathews, but much more reliable.
• I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Lane Johnson didn’t get suspended for 10 games on a drug violation this season. The Eagles are 4-1 with the big right tackle, and 2-7 without him. Is it possible that the biggest moment of the 2016 season was Johnson paying a visit to his local GNC?