The Eagles had been one of the brightest spots in a dreary NFL season, a strutting, dancing, pop-up powerhouse led by Wentz, one of the most promising stars in the sport. After their first touchdown Sunday, players jogged off the field in a “Flying V” formation. Their 43-35 victory pushed them to 11-2, the best record in the NFL, and clinched the NFC East division. Philadelphia had a team to be charmed and thrilled by, both admirable in its proficiency and great-big fun.
Sunday started as another dazzling display. Wentz passed for 291 yards and four touchdowns, the last of which went to Alshon Jeffery late in the third quarter and put the Eagles ahead 31-28. After the score, Wentz’s franchise-record 33rd touchdown pass of the season, the persistent giddiness around the Eagles turned to dread. Wentz limped to the locker room, dabbing his face with the towel draped over his head, and another dark cloud hovered over the league.
Four plays before Wentz’s final pass, Wentz scrambled and dived into the end zone, a play nullified by a holding penalty. As Wentz lunged into the end zone, Rams linebacker Mark Barron attempted to stop him and drove his shoulder into Wentz leg. The joint buckled, but the hit seemed innocuous when Wentz remained in the game.
All season, Wentz had hurled his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame into danger and emerged unscathed. He invited punishment and even doled out plenty of it, playing the position with uncommon physicality. Defenders bounced off him. His reckless style spawned admiration but also consternation. His attraction to physical risk had become a frequent talking point. A quarterback as talented as Wentz was too valuable to risk for an extra yard here or there. But Wentz always got up, unaffected.
This time, the sport’s brutality finally victimized him. After the game, ESPN and the Associated Press reported that Eagles doctors fear Wentz tore his left anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that would end his season and place the burden of Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes on backup Nick Foles, formerly an Eagles starting quarterback. Coach Doug Pederson did not confirm those worries, saying only that Wentz will receive an MRI exam on Monday. Regardless, the image of Wentz walking off cast a pall.
The Eagles’ ceiling would drop without Wentz, but they should be able regroup and at least make an opponent work to knock them out of the playoffs. Foles has been a starter before and even threw 27 passes compared to two interceptions in a season. The Eagles’ defense has been just as good as their offense, a unit with a ball-hawking secondary and a wicked pass rush that comes in waves. Their Super Bowl odds are greatly diminished, but not all the way to zero.
No matter how well Foles plays, his presence will serve to remind of Wentz’s absence, another void for a league running out of stars.
No NFL season spares its participants, but this year has been especially harsh on the game’s brightest lights. A partial list of players lost to injury for the season includes David Johnson, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr., Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Andrew Luck, Joe Thomas, Julian Edelman and Dalvin Cook. Aaron Rodgers missed two months and is eligible to come off injured reserve next week.
Had all those players remained healthy, the NFL would still have to navigate the ownership squabbles over Roger Goodell’s contract extension, falling television ratings, the Ezekiel Elliott suspension saga and backlash over players protesting during the national anthem from both fans and the president. At its best, NFL games provide distractions from the sport’s grim realities. This year, its best players have only reinforced the damage football does. And their absences have clearly hurt the quality of the product.
Now Wentz may join the list of stars forced to sit out. He gave fans both in Philadelphia and across the country reason to watch. He was the breakout star of the season, a rocket-armed 24-year-old who came from North Dakota to take over the NFL and duel with Tom Brady for the MVP. This season in the NFL, when a player seems too good to be true, the sport has made sure he is.
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