By Joshua A. Swanson
He’s the biggest story in America’s favorite sport, the National Football League. So big that the President of the United States name-dropped him at a Philadelphia rally in early September. “Some of you may have seen Joe Biden at the Eagles game,” President Obama said after the Eagles opener against the Cleveland Browns. “He told me, ‘Barack, you gotta get on the Wentz Wagon. We got a new quarterback. We got hope in Philly.’” Hope in Philly and then some. The front page headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday, September 26 after the Eagles’ dominating 34-3 win over their instate rival Pittsburgh Steelers says it all, “New Heights: A win over Super Bowl contender has raised expectations.”
Biden knows a winner when he sees one, and knows that just like another famous Philadelphian that the Eagles have caught lightning in a bottle with Carson Wentz, the heady quarterback with a rocket arm and off-the-charts football IQ from North Dakota State.
In addition to Obama and Biden, Wentz’s football acumen and sensational play have earned admiration from the likes of Brett Favre. “Pretty impressed,” Favre told SiriusXM NFL Radio after the Eagles manhandled the Chicago Bears 29-14 in a week two matchup on Monday Night Football. “I thought he handled himself the last two weeks with a lot of poise. … He (and not Jay Cutler) looked like the 10-year veteran.” With Peyton Manning retiring after last year’s Super Bowl, Wentz has fast become the favorite bro-crush of Monday Night Football’s energetic analyst, Jon Gruden.
In a conference call before last spring’s NFL Draft, Gruden highlighted the attributes that have helped Wentz handle the pressure of playing the most demanding position in all of sports in one of the most demanding cities in all of sports. “[T]he one thing that stands out about Wentz is his off-the-field intangibles. He’s a two-time captain, he’s a 4.0 GPA, he’s a fifth-year finishing senior, valedictorian in high school, very faith-oriented. If anybody can stand the mental pressure that comes with playing in Philadelphia and withstand the physical pressure that it takes to play at a high level, it’s Carson Wentz.” Wentz has looked like anything but a rookie in his first three starts, all wins, in leading the Eagles to sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
Through three games, Wentz has a quarterback rating of 103.8, the seventh best in the NFL, ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck. Four of those five are Super Bowl champions, and all are potential hall of famers. Wentz has five touchdown passes and no interceptions–no turnovers, period. How impressive is that? It’s historic. Wentz is the first rookie in NFL history to not have an interception in his first 100 pass attempts to begin a career. Wentz has completed 66 of his 102 pass attempts, good for a completion rate of 64.7 percent, for 769 yards, along with the aforementioned five TDs and zero turnovers. In short, he’s in total control of Philadelphia’s suddenly potent offense.
Wentz was lights out in the Eagles rout of the Steelers, finishing 23-of-31 for 301 yards and two touchdowns, outdueling Roethlisberger. “Look at the film. Those are plays he made at North Dakota State,” said Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. On one of those plays, early in the second half, facing a critical 3rd-and-8 from his own 23-yard line, the Eagles leading 13-3, Wentz broke the game open with a 73-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles. Pressured from his backside, Wentz side-stepped one defender, moved up into the pocket to the right, and used his eyes and the threat of scrambling to freeze Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier. Once Shazier committed, Wentz lofted a perfect 25-yard toss, hitting Sproles in stride on the wheel route–a route often used by the Bison in their offensive game plans, including Chase Morlock’s late touchdown against Iowa. The touchdown gave the Eagles a 20-3 lead and they never looked back. While it looked seamless, it’s a play few rookie quarterbacks make.
“I was reading to the field. I was about to pull the trigger [and run], and someone from the Steelers stepped up, I had to step up and avoid him and just made a play from there,” said Wentz during the postgame press conference. After two games, one of the few criticisms of Wentz was his willingness to take a big hit instead of sliding or getting out of bounds. From a city that loves its athletes to be rock tough, they pleaded with their newly minted franchise quarterback to protect himself. Lesson learned. Wentz was looking for the big play when the play began to break down, something great quarterbacks do. Wentz said of the Sproles’ touchdown, “For me, I always want to be a thrower first. Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking, that’s where the big plays are happening, me scrambling, yeah, I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, I’m not that fast, though. I want to get it to the guys that can make plays, and we always want to make plays when they’re there and that’s what happened.”
The play, and Wentz’s performance, earned praise from the two-time Super Bowl winner Roethlisberger. “I thought he played great. He won the game. He managed the game, he makes throws, he does the checks and audibles. I’m not sure how much freedom he has but just look at the score.” From Bismarck, N.D., to North Dakota State, to a Philly phenomenon that has made about as big of splash– in all the right ways–on the biggest of all sports stages, Wentz is the real life version ofRocky Balboa, the fictional boxer who gutted and grinded his way into the hearts of Philadelphians, sprinting up those 72 steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Given their personas and hardhat-lunch- pail attitudes, the Rocky comparisons are apropos. Following the Steelers game, on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Countdown,” former NFL head coach Herm Edwards proclaimed to Chris Berman, “They’re building a statue next to Rocky, of Wentz!” A little hyperbolic, sure, but like Biden said, for the first time in a long time, they got hope in Philly.
Just like he did at NDSU, Wentz shows up early, stays late, and is so consumed by football that his girlfriend recently told the New York Post that she’s caught him watching game film on his cell phone during date night. He’s gritty, not afraid to take a hit or to stand tall in the pocket and deliver a strike knowing that he’s going to get lit up like a Christmas tree by a linebacker moving at him like a freight train. That takes major cajones. It’s leading by example–again, just like Wentz did at NDSU when he came back after breaking his wrist to lead the Bison to a fifth straight national championship after having not played in a game for nearly three months. It goes without saying that the rookie quarterback has won over a locker room of established veterans.
Who could have possibly seen all of this coming? Not just the fact that Wentz is starting, but looking like a top tier NFL quarterback in guiding the Eagles to a 3-0 start heading into their bye week, one of five undefeated teams in the league (along with teams like the Patriots and Broncos and, of course, Vikings) through September and on top of the NFC East. A few local media folks have penned that absolutely nobody saw this coming, even the homer-est of the homer Bison fans. Really? Check out the April 2016 version of this column, “Nothing small-time about Wentz or North Dakota State,” written before the Eagles changed the course of their franchise by taking Wentz.
The summation of that column said, in essence, that this Wentz guy is going to be good, very good. The closing paragraph warned teams that passed on Wentz to start updating their resumes. “So, for those expert analysts and NFL execs knocking Wentz for playing at some small school in Fargo, N.D., I’ll leave you with this: start updating your resume. There is nothing small-time about Wentz or NDSU. If you pass on Wentz because you have some misconception of the level of play at NDSU, get ready for the red-haired, faith-based, hometown, pride of North Dakota kid from tiny Bismarck to spend the next 15 seasons stealing your lunch on the NFL playground.”
Wentz is three games into his NFL career and picking on defenses like we saw him do time and time again at NDSU. He’s leading the Eagles just like he led the Bison. How is any of that surprising? It’s not. Like the Browns, Bears, and the Steelers have all recently learned, there’s nothing small-time about Wentz or North Dakota State. As they say in Philly, “Fly Eagles Fly!” Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!