PHILADELPHIA — Sometimes it’s hard to read body language. Sometimes it’s not. Last year, when Carson Wentz was returning from a torn ACL and he was getting peppered with versions of the same questions (Mostly: When will you be ready?), he was pretty clipped with his answers to me when I visited training camp. Wentz is a pleasant guy usually, but I remember him being just okay that day. Borderline sullen. But he did not want talk about this knee injury that kept him from his Super Bowl dream—that’s for sure.
On Saturday morning, Wentz was the sixth of 90 Eagles out at practice. He stretched, and he jogged forward and backward, and he smiled, and he had a hell of time in the oppressive summer humidity for the next two-and-a-half hours, even when he had an interception taken to the house by linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill in a team period of training camp. No question in my mind this is a happier soul than a year ago. I don’t think that’s because he’s $128 million richer; the Eagles signed him to this huge four-year contract extension in June. I think it’s because now he’s playing without the knee brace that limited him last year, and he’s playing with a healed vertebra in his back that he hurt last year.
A couple of notes that interested me on Wentz:
• He tore his ACL in a big NFC game at the Rams on Dec. 10, 2017. Wentz missed six games, including the Super Bowl, and watched Nick Foles lead his team.
• He suffered his back injury in a big NFC game at Dallas on Dec. 9, 2018. Wentz missed the last five games, including the NFC divisional game, and watched Nick Foles lead his team.
So … two season-ending injuries in three seasons. And the Eagles committed to Wentz with a four-year contract extension that binds the two sides to each other through the end of 2024.
Injuries, and subsequent contract extensions after them, are risk-reward things. I understand why Eagles GM Howie Roseman did what he did—the price for quarterbacks keeps going up, and if Wentz plays 16 games this year at his 2017 level, after suffering two fluke injuries (lots of those happen in football), the extension that was worth $32 million a year this year jumps to $37 million next year. The Eagles took a leap of faith, for sure. This deal has to keep Roseman up at night. When I asked Doug Pederson about it, he was pretty matter-of-fact about what the Eagles need to happen here with Wentz.
“He’s been given the keys to the kingdom,” Pederson told me. “Now it’s up to him to make sure the kingdom stays healthy.”
(Cap numbers for Wentz for the next six years, by the way: $8.39 million, $18.66 million, $34.67 million, $31.27 million, $34.27 million, $32 million. The highest percentage of the cap that Wentz will take up? About 17 percent. On average, his pay will take up about 13 percent of the Eagles cap, by my best projections, over the next six years.)
Would I have waited to see Wentz play a full season? Tough call. Probably not. I think he’ll be a little smarter about putting himself in harm’s way. Plus, officials will err on the side of protecting the passers, always; starting NFL quarterbacks missed only 60 games due to injury in 2018—and that’s out of 32 starters. Pederson says he isn’t changing the offense to bubble-wrap Wentz, and Wentz isn’t going to overhaul how he plays. Nor should he. It’s a hard game. I remember when Phil Simms got hurt in four of his first five NFL seasons with the Giants, and he was called injury-prone. Then he became an ironman. So you just don’t know. Sometimes people get hurt. Wentz has to play smarter, but he’ll neuter himself if he changes his game entirely.
In some ways, what the Eagles did with Wentz this offseason, giving him the big deal, reminds me of how Pederson coaches. Pederson did get a little more conservative last year than in Philly’s Super Bowl year, but he says now that’s because early in the season Wentz was coming back from the knee injury, and late in the season, he wasn’t playing. “I want to coach aggressive,” Pederson told me on my camp visit. “That’s what I gotta get back to. Last year was not my mentality. I’ve learned from that.”
Wentz looks a little Bradyish, actually. He’s lost a few pounds (he won’t say how many) which he attributes to training and nutrition—not trying to be Tom Brady II.
“Back feels good. Knee feels good,” Wentz told me. “I feel about as healthy as I’ve felt in a long time, both physically and mentally. Been able to take a step back due to the injury the last few years, unfortunately, but it allowed me to see the game from a different perspective. Allowed me to invest a lot of time and energy into my body and into not only get healthy but finding ways to stay healthy for hopefully the duration of my career. I feel really good and ready to go.
“I wasn’t necessarily setting out to lose weight. It was just a byproduct of some of the things I’ve been doing but at the end of the day it’s all about how I feel. By no means do I think I’m now too skinny or anything. I’ve lost a couple pounds. I’m not making a big deal about that. But just overall, being healthier … I think will help the longevity of my career. Having played a couple seasons now knowing the rigors of this game, obviously I’ve gotten hurt a few times but it wasn’t because of not being able to take a hit or anything.”
The NFL needs Wentz. He’s a North Dakota kid loved by the fans and the public. He’s smart, driven. Did you know he never got a grade lower than A in any level of schooling? Teammates loves him, coaches love him. He’s electric as a player, with a great arm and athletic legs. He’s got great leadership. He’ll never do something embarrassing for the franchise. At Saturday’s practice, by my very unofficial count, I saw 43 Wentz jerseys by the fans invited to the camp workout; no idea who was second, but it wasn’t close. Wentz is one of the stories of the year in the NFL, and the fate of the NFC East rests on him. A bit of a cliché here. But it’s why we watch.