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As Eagles fans prepare for a new season – with high hopes and even higher expectations – Sal Pal weighs in on what you can really expect, and how much to hope for.

 

Sal Paolantonio, a national correspondent for ESPN, has covered the NFL 25 years.

It was the third day of Eagles training camp and the quarterbacks, wearing (please don’t touch) red jerseys, jogged onto the field behind the team’s NovaCare facility and greeted another day of practice in the searing South Philadelphia heat and humidity like Marine recruits on their last day of boot camp.

Except there was one glaring absence: Carson Wentz. The second year franchise quarterback, the anointed savior of pro football in Philadelphia, did not come out of the Eagles locker room. Immediately, murmurs of concern among the Philadelphia media morphed into indignation: How could head coach Doug Pederson give Wentz a day off on the third day of his second training camp? The veterans were scheduled to arrive the next day, and Wentz is only 24. This sends the wrong message – that Wentz is going to get special treatment at a time when he should be leading by example.

Frankly, I had a completely different reaction. Brilliant move, I thought. Pederson is taking exactly the right approach. Remember, Wentz threw 607 passes in 2016, second-most of any rookie in NFL history. He wears a compression sleeve on his throwing arm, an arm that must be treated like a civic treasure – like the Liberty Bell, only his arm is still in use. Every practice, every day.

After practice, I asked Pederson about it. “Hey, what we’re doing is all about making Carson a better player,” he said. “Year two is a big jump in the NFL. Gotta make sure we take care of him.”

Indeed, it’s Year 2 for both Wentz and Pederson, who in preparation and approach and rhythm of life, both on and off the football field, seem perfectly in synch.

They both decided to live in South Jersey: Doug and his wife and children live not too far from my wife and I in Moorestown. We had them over for a welcome barbecue last summer. Wonderful people. Wentz lives in a more rural area (we’re not going to reveal the exact location to respect his privacy), but he travels to Cherry Hill to worship in the Connect Church.

 

In all my years covering this team, dating back to 1993, I can’t remember the head coach and the starting quarterback both living in South Jersey. Andy Reid lived on the Main Line. Donovan McNabb had a house in Moorestown. Dick Vermeil had a home in Chester County. Ron Jaworski lived in Voorhees, now Medford.

Pederson and Wentz, mind and body, are flowing from the same location each and every morning. A cynic might say it’s going to breed familiarity and a comfort level that will leave them vulnerable and naive. Don’t agree. I think it helps them navigate the NFL’s uniquely challenging road map to success.

Plus, at times, when it wants to be, South Jersey is no picnic. It has an underdog psyche that can often deliver a who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are vibe. Intoxicating, yes, but also intimidating – if you’re not from here.

From just an on-field perspective, Pederson and Wentz seem to be coping – and perfectly compatible. Don’t forget, Pederson was a back-up to two franchise quarterbacks: Brett Favre in Green Bay and McNabb. That experience cannot be overstated.

Of course, Pederson also must know that Wentz is not going anywhere. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and General Manager Howie Roseman understand implicitly that a guy like Wentz is a once-in-a-generation talent and opportunity. Pederson can go. Wentz cannot.

For now, however, their fates are linked – good or bad, win or lose. For both of them, there is only one result that will count: Do they bring the Lombardi Trophy to the fans of the longest suffering franchise in the NFC East? Boom or bust. That’s the simple math of this relationship – to each other and to this region. It’s a good thing they like it here. The pressure’s on.

 

I talked to both Wentz and Pederson one-on-one about living and working here and about the 2.0 reboot they’ve undertaken to win an NFL championship together.

The first question I asked Wentz: “Do you like it here?”

“I love it,” he said. “I love the people where I live. I love the passion they have for the game. They’ve treated me like family. They’re looking out for me, just like back home in North Dakota. It just feels right.” He named one of his golden retrievers “Jersey.”

After his stints in Green Bay and Kansas City, Pederson moved his family back to Moorestown, where they lived when he played quarterback under Reid 17 years ago.

“We love Moorestown – it’s got that hometown feel, but we can get into Philly really quickly to see a show or go out to dinner,” he said. “But we really love just getting pizza on Main Street in Moorestown, seeing friends, hanging out with our kids. It just has a nice hometown America feel.”

Of course, Pederson and Wentz are still in the honeymoon phase of this Eagles rebuilding process. Pederson, having played here and watched Reid come close and fail to win a championship and then get run out of town, understands there is really only a three-year incubation period on how long fans here will wait for this chemistry to develop into contention.

“Nobody gets that more than me,” Pederson told me. That’s why the Eagles acquired proven veterans this off-season – receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith and running back LaGarrette Blount. The Wentz window is open for business right now. So while Pederson protects his young quarterback with a day off here and there because he doesn’t want to wear him out, at the same time, he’s got to hit the accelerator. The only way to prove they are both doing the right thing is to win football games – and seven wins after winning three straight to open the season last year is not going to cut it.

The Eagles are only one of 12 NFL teams to miss the playoffs at least three straight seasons. They have not won a playoff game in eight years. So despite the hope and hype, this franchise resides firmly in the bottom third of the league.

But in the NFC East, there has not been a repeat division champ since 2004 – 12 years, longer than any other division in the NFL. That means the Cowboys, who won 13 games and the division title last year, are due for a letdown.

Pederson put himself into a bit of a box this summer by suggesting that this Eagles team has a more talented roster of players than the Packers’ teams that had Favre and won big. The upshot of that statement is simple: There is more pressure on Pederson than Wentz. If he can’t deliver as head coach with this group – which he suggests is of championship quality – then maybe somebody else can.

“It has to come together,” he said. “Everybody has to gel. It takes more than talent. I feel like we have talented players on this roster. I didn’t want to say, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ But egos have to be put aside and we have to come out here every day and work hard. I was on those teams in the 1990s and went to two Super Bowls back to back with the Packers, and so I’ve seen what it takes. I’ve just got to make sure that we’re doing those same things here to get us eventually to that game.”

But comparing the Eagles to those Packers teams and Wentz to Favre is a dangerous game. Everybody involved – from the team’s front office to the Philly media – understands that, especially No. 11.

Wentz’s favorite throwback jersey is a Favre No. 4 – in Vikings purple, not Packers green and gold. The NFL is a fickle, cruel business.

 

 

To make sure that year two starts out right, Wentz is doing and saying all the right things. This summer, he took his receivers to North Dakota to work out. He spent time in California to work on his mechanics with the throwing coach who tutored Tom Brady and Drew Brees. And he’s fully accepted the mantle of being the face of the franchise and a region of obsessed sports fans.

“Carson came in with the right frame of mind,” said Pederson. The coach and the quarterback don’t want any hint of awkwardness creeping into this delicate dance. “We’ve had many, many personal conversations in the last six months. I’m not going to get into them because I want them to remain private. But we talk about everything.”

Indeed, at the end of the 2016 season, Pederson had a heart-to-heart with Wentz and basically ordered him to put down the football, get away from the game, give his arm, his mind, his quest a rest.
Wentz did just that. He went hunting in New Zealand with his brother Zach. He went on a humanitarian mission to Haiti.

“That trip really put my life and football into perspective,” he told me.

Last year’s experience also gave him some perspective. He missed most of the preseason with an injury. Then he was handed the keys to the kingdom eight days before the opener. The Eagles traded the disgruntled Sam Bradford and Wentz was put into the driver’s seat.

“It was just a whirlwind,” he told me. “This year, mentally, I’m just in a whole different place.”

“That’s the beauty of it, for both of us,” said Pederson. “This is a time for us to listen to each other, expand on our knowledge and experience.”

Allow me to add one more thing: win football games.

 

September 2017
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