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December 11, 2017

Wentz injury a devastating gut punch as dream turns into nightmare for Eagles fans

When the game was finally over, when the Eagles somehow had fulfilled the dream of thousands of fans who traveled 6,000 miles round-trip to cheer on their team, there was only a fleeting sense of exhilaration. The truth is, no one knew how to feel. Normally, ambivalence is not in the DNA of Philadelphia sports fans.

The record shows that the Eagles won the game, 43-35, yesterday over the Rams, won the NFC East, won a battle of attrition for both teams, and won the admiration of fans everywhere for their resilience. This was an amazing win over a desperate and talented opponent, and it featured game-defining plays by Chris Long, Nelson Agholor and Nick Foles.

Unfortunately, the very presence of the long-forgotten Foles on the field at the end was part of an even bigger story because it followed the depressing departure of Carson Wentz, who tore the ACL in his left knee and, in all likelihood, will be lost for the season, if not longer.

Deep down, all of the Eagles fans at the Coliseum yesterday knew what that injury meant about this miraculous 11-2 season. The dream is over. Foles is a good backup quarterback and he was a better-than-good starter in 2013, but the Eagles will not win the Super Bowl this season without Carson Wentz.

Let me repeat that statement, more slowly. The Eagles will not end their 57-year championship drought this season. When Wentz got pancaked in the end zone, any logical sense of optimism flickered out. Not even the thrilling win that followed could change that reality.

So how should we feel today? Should we be proud that the Eagles battled back without their leader? Should we be thrilled that Chris Long swatted that ball out of L.A. quarterback Jared Goff’s right hand and set up the game-winning field goal? Should we be relieved that Agholor avenged an early turnover with a brilliant first-down catch that secured the win?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. We have no choice but to embrace a win so many of us craved in the days leading up to the game. It’s how we are wired as fans. But there’s a burden to be as savvy as Eagles fans are. We also know the truth. As soon as the severity of Wentz’s injury was revealed, we knew the championship parade was not going to happen this season.

In the end, the Eagles flirted with disaster so often with Wentz, a nightmare like this became all but inevitable. By unofficial count, he had sustained 21 hits by the ferocious Rams in less than three quarters. Some were a product of his own incredible desire to win, including the dangerous dive into the end zone that finished him. Many more were because of an offensive line that has become more unreliable by the week.

The good news is that this Eagles team proved its character by refusing to lose even after there was every reason for surrender. They should be able to remain interesting and competitive until Wentz’s knee heals and he can resume his remarkable career.

But the bad news is, the way the Birds’ won the game proved this actually could have been the team that ended the drought, the team that answered our prayers. With Wentz, this team really had a chance. Without him, it’s just another heartbreak coming up somewhere on the playoff schedule.

When the numbness wears off from that thrilling, maddening game — when we finally figure out how to feel — it’s hard to imagine a win that will ever bring more disappointment than this one.

***

To gauge just how much the Eagles-Rams game meant to the core of passionate Birds’ fans who attended, you had to meet some of the people. I did during a four-day West-Coast visit that gave a new perspective about how hungry they are for a championship — and how devastated they will soon be because this is not going to be the season when they get one.

At the height of an insane week, the Fox pregame show literally put out a casting call for Rams fans because it was almost impossible to find any on the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a shame the TV producers weren’t looking for Eagles enthusiasts, who were everywhere, annoying the laid-back West Coasters with an endless clamor of chants and fight songs.

I walked along the boardwalk in Venice Beach on Saturday, and there was wave after wave of strollers bedecked in Eagles gear. Finding a Rams hat or jersey was a challenge. We have always crowed about our passion for sports in Philadelphia, but it has never been on display quite like it was in LA over the past week.


For example, Dan Leonardo was presiding over an overflow crowd at the Britannia Pub, a cozy bar in Santa Monica. Leonardo is a graphic artist who moved to the West Coast 20 years ago, and for the past five, he has been hosting big crowds at the bar for every Eagles game. He said when the Eagles and Rams are playing at the same time, the pub doesn’t have even show the home team’s game on any of its TVs.

I asked if he gets any complaints.

“Not really,” he said.

Barry Goldberg is a radiologist who grew up in Jenkintown and now lives in upstate New York. The name might ring a bell. He is also a character in the sitcom The Goldbergs because his brother Adam is the writer and producer of that hit sitcom. Barry recruited Howie Roseman, Don Smolenski, Merrill Reese and Mike Quick to play cameos in a show taped last week because Barry is absolutely devoted to the Birds.

How devoted? Would you believe he commutes five hours each way for most Eagles home games? That’s 10 hours, six or seven times a year, in one day.

“The trip is a lot longer when they lose,” he said.

And then there was his friend, Drew Kremps, a florist who also made his network TV debut last week in a speaking role on the show. Kremps was on the same flight as me last Thursday, and he had no hesitation leading impromptu Eagles cheers, whether the occupants wanted it or not. He was with a group of five buddies, all bonded by their love for the Birds.

It was that way everywhere. There was a Seattle water-management expert, who has never stepped foot in Philadelphia, was there in full Eagles regalia. A Sports Illustrated reporter assigned to interview Eagles fans said she couldn’t believe how many were demanding their 15 minutes of fame. And I can’t leave out the retired folks, who saved up all year for this trip to Hollywood.

Thanks to that huge Eagles win, they all got what they wanted. But because of Wentz’s season-ending injury, unfortunately, they will not get the Hollywood ending they deserve.

***

As expected, I took some serious grief from the Ron Hextall robots over the past week because I declared here that he was a terrible general manager. Heck, I was even trolled by Matt Mullin, the terrific writer here at PhillyVoice, who pointed out that I was lavishing praise on the Flyers’ legend not that long ago and suggesting that I am, shall we say, flexible with my opinions.

I do not resent that implication. In fact, I embrace it. Maybe it’s the influence of doing morning sports radio on WIP for 28 years, but I tend to adjust my perspectives to the day-to-day exploits of our pro teams based on how they are performing. A 10-game losing streak will always turn my appraisals negative. Very negative.

But the ensuing winning streak over the past week has not forced me to reverse field on Hextall — at least not yet — nor of his equally annoying head coach Dave Hakstol. Somehow, 18 years after his last game in the NHL, Hextall thinks he can still bully people. It was charming when he was an unusually aggressive goaltender; it is insulting now that he’s a GM.

Last week, at the beginning of what became a winning western swing, he declared that he would no longer answer questions about Hakstol’s status. Does he not understand that it’s his responsibility to answer those questions, no matter how repetitive or irritating they may be? Despite their recent winning ways, does he think he or his coach is above challenge?

In the midst of all the drama involving Hextall and Hakstol, Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said something ignorant, something a GM who is more connected to his fans would have addressed, both behind closed doors and in a public statement. After the win in Edmonton, Elliott said: “These aren’t our fans here. We don’t have to entertain them.”

Hello? If Elliott actually finds it a burden to perform for fans who have paid a hundred dollars or more to attend a game, he really needs career counseling. His attitude suggests he’d be much happier as an accountant or a monk.

Playing professional sports is a privilege, not a headache. And so is serving as a GM. Winning streak or not, Elliott and Hextall need to learn that lesson, and we — the media, the fans, even the social-media trolls — need to enforce that belief.

And finally ...

     • “Someone that has hands that are as good as his, that can catch every ball thrown his way, that can do all sorts of things in the post, that can be a pick-and-roll player like that. . . . That’s really hard to find, which is why you’ll hear people that have coached him . . . rave about him. We feel very excited to be able to take him.” — Genius (and unemployed former Sixers GM) Sam Hinkie on Jahlil Okafor, who was discarded in the Trevor Booker deal with New Jersey last week.

     • The name of Eagles assistant GM Joe Douglas has already come up for the Giants’ GM opening, and New York will not be the only suitor for his exceptional skill at judging talent. The Birds can keep him (I hope) if they hand him the GM title (Howie Roseman is the vice president of football operations) and pay him commensurate with the top people in the industry. After the brilliant personnel moves of the past year, the Eagles have to find a way to keep Douglas.

     • Sashi Brown was fired as GM of the Cleveland Browns last week, and his 1-27 record was only part of the reason. Equally glaring was his insane decision to trade the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft (Carson Wentz) to the Eagles. What was he thinking? And why are the quarterback guru (coach Hue Jackson) and analytics genius (Paul DePodesta) still employed there? All three were complicit in one of the worst decisions in NFL history. And we thank them.

     • After all the excitement this month surrounding Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton, the baseball winter meetings begin today in Orlando today. Is it asking too much for Phillies GM Matt Klentak to make some moves? After all, he has talent logjams at second base, shortstop and first base. Will he trade Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis or Tommy Joseph? Will he do anything at all? Your fan base is bored, Matt. Do something, dammit.

     • The biggest surprise of the week out here in LA was the appearance of Kobe Bryant, who professed his love for the Eagles and then gave the team a pep talk. Although Bryant has won very little of the admiration most local sports heroes receive in Philadelphia, it’s encouraging to know that his early years made him a big Birds’ fan. And the fact that they won the game, well, maybe it’s not too late for Bryant after all. (But since they lost the game, thanks for nothing, Kobe.)