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Dave Spadaro; Courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

Photograph Courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

To tell the story of where Carson Wentz is now in this 2016 season, it makes sense to go back to the instant Wentz became a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. On April 28, as the Eagles’ time started to wind down to make the second overall selection in the NFL draft, Executive Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman hushed the draft room at the NovaCare Complex and addressed the scouts, coaches and executive administration.

“We’re about to make history here,” Roseman said, as he then turned his attention to the telephone, dialing Wentz’ cell phone and asking him the most important question of his life.
“Are you ready to be an Eagle?” Roseman asked. “We’re ready to have you here.”

In the minutes that followed the announcement from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the decision-making people in the Eagles’ front office slapped hands and hugged and beamed from ear to ear. They felt, after months of a deep dive into the quarterback draft pool, that they had the most talented player of the lot, a young man around whom the franchise could build for the decade ahead, and a signal caller and leader who would give them a shot at Super Bowl contention.

“He’s a special player, and I can’t wait for the fans of Philadelphia to get to know him,” Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie said that night. “They’re going to love him.”

Here we are now, in the midst of an Eagles season that has, frankly, taken everyone by surprise. Wentz – thrust into action when the Eagles stunningly traded starting quarterback Sam Bradford to Minnesota eight days before the regular season began – has become someone to love. And Eagles fans are giving that to him in droves. Wentz’s No. 11 is the best-selling jersey in the NFL. He played virtually flawless football in the month of September, when he was named the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Month.

The Eagles were 4-2 and very much in the thick of things in second place in the NFC East after their 21-10 win over previously unbeaten Minnesota, setting the stage for a Sunday night showdown against Division leader Dallas. Wentz wasn’t as red hot in the second three games as he was in his opening three, operating behind an offensive line missing suspended right tackle Lane Johnson, but Wentz has impressed everyone with his toughness and maturity in tough times.

Wentz, who played his college football at North Dakota State, is suddenly the talk of the NFL, even if he doesn’t talk all that much about himself.

“Carson is the same guy now that he was when we took him out to dinner before the draft and we sat and talked, and asked him every question we could think of,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich says. “He’s the same guy who we took into the classroom and drilled on the X’s and O’s of the game.”

carson wentz eagles

Photograph by David Michael Howarth

“He’s just a guy who loves to play football. He gets it. He’s got that special ‘It’ factor that you don’t see very often in this game. So when you have a chance to have one of those kinds of players for your very own, you work with him and you challenge him and encourage him, but most of all you enjoy him, because he’s special. He’s very special.”

That’s the general consensus of those who have studied Wentz since his days at North Dakota State, where he won two FCS championships. They marvel at his physical skills – the big arm, the athletic ability to move in and out of the pocket, and his 6-feet, 5-inch, 237-pound frame that allows him to see over offensive linemen and find passing alleys. What is already legendary (among coaches and players, anyway) is the mental side of Wentz, who reports to the Eagles’ NovaCare Complex each day at 5:30 am (even though players’ report time is 8 am) to study film and prepare for the next opponent.

“That is something you just don’t see in veteran players, let alone rookies,” Reich says.

“Carson is a committed football player. He understands what it takes to prepare to win, and if you don’t have that, it’s very difficult to win,” Reich adds. “The physical skills are one thing, and they are very, very good, but it’s the mental side of his game that makes such a huge difference. When you talk to him, you sometimes have to remind yourself that he’s a rookie, because he has the knowledge and the understanding of a player who has been in this league a long, long time.”

If it all sounds too good to be true, pinch yourself. Wentz is a genuine, boy-next-door, 23-year-old kid who feels he is “blessed to play the game I love, that I have always loved,” he says. Wentz’s life is extraordinarily ordinary; he grew up in Bismark, North Dakota, and scored straight-As in every class. At North Dakota State, where Wentz started at quarterback and won back-to-back National Championships at the FCS level (one step below the FBS level, won by Alabama last season), he maintained a 4.0 average majoring in health and physical education, with a minor in psychology.

Wentz has played sports and excelled in them all of his life, and he is a deeply religious man with a tattoo that reads “AO1” on his wrist, which means “Audience of One” with Jesus Christ.

When Wentz was drafted by the Eagles and then moved to the Philadelphia area, he brought along his older brother, Zach, and Zach’s wife. He lives with them to remain grounded and focused on the task of playing quarterback in one of the nation’s hotbeds for NFL fever.

“It’s really been a big help to feel at home from the first minute I came to Philadelphia,” Wentz says. “It was important for me to have my family here. Things are going really well. It’s cool to be here and to play this game. I love it. I’m having a lot of fun. It just doesn’t get any better than playing football in Philadelphia.”

Want to know something personal about Wentz? Good luck. He lists in his bucket list in the team’s Media Guide hunting in Alaska and traveling to Europe. If he could do anything other than play quarterback in the NFL, Wentz would be a high school teacher and a coach or an athletic director. Hobbies? Sure. “Hunting, going to lakes, relaxing with friends and spending time with his dog, Henley,” a golden retriever.

“Honestly,” head coach Doug Pederson says, “he’s a dream to coach. He’s mature, he’s committed and he understands what it takes to have success. We never looked at Carson as a small-school quarterback, because North Dakota State has won five straight national championships at that level and has beaten a lot of bigger schools along the way. We looked at him as a quarterback we could develop. We didn’t know he would come along quite this fast.”

That’s the part of the story that has been most remarkable. Wentz and Jared Goff were considered the top two quarterback candidates in the ’16 NFL draft as both the Los Angeles Rams (first) and the Eagles (second) maneuvered their way in the weeks leading to the draft to trade their way to the top of the first round. Los Angeles selected Goff, who has yet to play for the Rams as they slowly nurture him as a developmental prospect.

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Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles addresses the media at the NovaCare Complex the day after the NFL draft; Courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s plan was to keep Wentz under wraps in this rookie campaign, feed him the big picture by the spoonful and see what would transpire in 2017 at the quarterback position. There was no doubt, the Eagles said: Bradford was the starter, Chase Daniel was the backup and Wentz would be in mothballs all year.

Uh, hold up. Things happen in the “Not For Long.” Minnesota lost its starting quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, late in the preseason. The Vikings were in a desperate situation, and they traded a first-round pick in 2017 and a fourth-round pick in 2018 for Bradford, who was arguably the league’s Most Valuable Player leading Minnesota through an unbeaten first five games of the season.

Meanwhile, the Eagles passed on the idea of bumping Daniel into the starting role, instead naming Wentz the starter less than a week before the opener against Cleveland. Wentz, geese hunting in South Jersey when he got the call from Pederson that he was the starter, handled the news and the assignment with an uncanny veteran’s maturity.

“It was surreal the way things changed, but you have to be ready for anything in this game,” Wentz says. “I was excited when I found out. I want to play ball. I prepared to play from the first day I became an Eagle. It’s what I’ve been doing my entire life. I love playing football. To be in this position and to have the support of my teammates and my coaches, it’s been awesome.”

So far, so great for Wentz and the Eagles. The team feels it has something special in Wentz, who demonstrates the mental capacity of a player far beyond his NFL experience. And with an arm that can make every throw in the book, Wentz has the physical skills to match his mental game plus a work ethic that makes him the first player at the NovaCare Complex every day – and the last one to leave.

“I’ve told him this,” Pederson says, “that his biggest challenge is going to be not buying into the hype and the things that people are saying about him, one way or the other. I don’t see any evidence that he’s going to be that kind of guy, but it’s something that every player has to understand. Staying grounded is extremely important in this game. It humbles you. The thing is, Carson is already humble. He just wants to be the best football player he can be, and that’s exciting for us because the sky is the limit for this young man.”

 

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro has covered every Eagles game since 1987 and is seen and heard throughout the year on television, radio and Eagles coverage everywhere. You can hear his Eagles Live Podcast on iTunes.

November 2016
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