PHILADELPHIA — Late in the second quarter Sunday afternoon, Carson Wentz dashed toward the left sideline and arrived at a clarifying decision. Wentz approached the first down marker as Indianapolis Colts defenders closed in. Wentz had to calculate, in a blink amid chaos, the quarterbacking dilemma one teammate later posed as the following: “Is that one extra yard worth it?”
Wentz missed the Philadelphia Eagles’ joyride to the Super Bowl because of another moment like this, a play that makes a quarterback decide between discretion and abandon. In that split-second last December, Wentz had lunged for the end zone, taken a helmet to his left knee and shredded two ligaments.
Now, in his return, the comfort of the pocket had been left behind and a roar at Lincoln Financial Field started to swell. Wentz could have slid, or tiptoed out of bounds. But part of what makes Wentz a franchise pillar, what stocks his locker room with admirers and fills Philadelphia with so many No. 11 jerseys, is also what endangers him.
Wentz leaped, headfirst, leaving himself parallel with the ground. He reached the ball in his right hand. The crowd erupted. First down.
“Just a normal scramble to me,” Wentz said. “I made a guy miss in the pocket, saw the first down marker and dove for it. Standard play.”
Wentz popped up, an act that will be accompanied in this city with sighs of relief for the rest of the season and, because of Wentz’s style, maybe for seasons to come. In his first appearance since Week 14 of last season, Wentz led the Eagles to a 20-16 victory over the Colts and proved he will neither modify his style nor make any concessions in the wake of knee surgery.
Exactly 278 days after Wentz tore up in his knee in Los Angeles and saw an MVP campaign cut short, Carson Wentz played like Carson Wentz. He might have been a half-step slower, but he still dodged pass rushers and extended players and rifled passes to tight end Zach Ertz down the seam. Wentz completed 25 of 37 passes for 255 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He orchestrated a 17-play touchdown drive to push the Eagles ahead late in the fourth quarter. He was back.
“That’s Carson,” Eagles running back Corey Clement said. “You have to take the leash off him. That guy — he’s always wired to do something great.”
The Eagles took great caution in allowing Wentz back on the field, limiting him in training camp and holding him out for the season’s first two weeks. But once Wentz returned, they put no restrictions on him. Wentz took seven hits while passing and rushed another three times. He slid just once.
Wentz insisted this week he would not alter his style, and the Eagles, for the most part, don’t want him to. Wentz may invite risk when he scrambles and dives and takes on tacklers, but the way those skills have an impact on the Eagles make them necessary.
“I’m okay with it,” center Jason Kelce said. “It changes the game. It extends drives. We’re one of the best third-down offenses in the NFL with him in there. It’s definitely a dynamic that helps us be successful on offense. That’s one of the reasons he’s a special player.”
“It’s awesome,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “It don’t make you nervous. He has the ability to make guys miss. It’s a unique ability. It’s really something that can’t be taught. He has a natural gift the way he’s able to do that.”
His gift, however, exposes Wentz to more hits than most franchise quarterbacks. The Eagles may have won a Super Bowl with Wentz on the sidelines, but that is not a challenge the Eagles want to take on again. He buys himself time to make plays, but those plays almost end with multiple defenders lurching at Wentz. When he runs, it’s not in Wentz’s nature to not take the extra yard.
Coach Doug Pederson called Wentz’s first down plunge a “safe dive” and said, “that’s just him. That’s the aggressive nature that he plays with.” Safe or not, it causes at least a degree of anxiety.
The dilemma is, Wentz’s scrambling is central to his ability. When Wentz dove for the first down, running back Wendell Smallwood thought, “Man, it’s good to have this guy back.” The Eagles built their success early last season largely on converting third downs, which is when Wentz’s scrambling most torments defenses.
“You can’t let one freak accident completely change the way you play the game,” Kelce added. “That’s one of the reasons he’s a special player. For him to mentally try and completely change who he is on the field in a game situation, that’s a lot to ask a player.”
Wentz revealed his value all week, in different and subtle ways. Coach Doug Pederson noticed more energy at practice early in the week after Wentz returned — “it definitely gave us juice,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. Wentz and Pederson decided they would open the game no-huddle, to get Wentz comfortable and spark a banged-up offense that entered the week 25th in points scored.
Injuries to wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Mike Wallace, Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles left Wentz without his two best deep threats, his top running back and his backfield security blanket. The Eagles were so depleted at wide receiver that at times they basically without them. On their opening drive, most of their formations included just one wideout — Nelson Agholor — and three tight ends. Wentz provided a reminder that he matters more than the personnel around him. He completed 5 of 7 passes, peppering throws to Ertz and completing the drive with an 18-yard dart to rookie tight end Dallas Goedert.
“Just a beast, all the way around,” Bradham said.
After a soggy, flag-choked afternoon, the Eagles trailed, 16-13, early in the fourth quarter. During their 17-play march, the Eagles committed continual penalties, forcing themselves into second- or third-and-long. As referees walked off one penalty, some Eagles bickered.
“Come on, this is easy,” Wentz told the huddle. “We do this every day.”
On the next play, the Eagles picked up a first down on a pass interference penalty. On another third and nine at the 36, Wentz evaded one blitzer and slipped out of the grasp of another defender while surging forward in the pocket. He spotted Agholor running over the middle, and Agholor hurdled a Colt for a first down. Smallwood would finish the drive with a go-ahead touchdown with 3:02 remaining. Multiple Eagles credited Wentz’s demeanor for the drive.
“Me sometimes, as a player, I need a guy to say to me, ‘I believe in you, I believe in this group.’ Sometimes, you need that extra confidence, that extra boost," Smallwood said. "And [Wentz] has the most pressure on the team. For him to be so elusive and carry us the way he carries us, it’s great.”
Afterward, Wentz jogged through the tunnel to the locker room and passed a small group of fans. “It’s Carson!” one squealed. Wentz smiled and pointed at them. “Welcome back!” another yelled.
Sunday morning, Kelce had told Wentz about the day he returned from knee surgery. He told him he looked forward to feeling contact again, that it would give him confidence. When Wentz takes hits or throws his body around, it will make the Eagles and their fans wince. Sunday, Wentz got that first hit out of the way.
“Felt great,” Wentz said. “Felt great.”