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Carson Wentz and the NFL’s Football Problem

With the league reportedly set to lose another superstar to a season-ending injury, the NFL chews up and spits out the most compelling story of the 2017 season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NFL quarterbacks throw short of the first-down sticks nearly two-thirds of the time on long third downs. The story of the modern NFL offense is that despite the athletes getting better and this generation of quarterbacks throwing more passes from high school on than ever before, NFL teams somehow took these pieces and gave us the most conservative passing era of all time. It is, from an aesthetic standpoint, one of the most frustrating developments in the sport. Players that look likely to make the playoffs, including Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Case Keenum, and Blake Bortles, are all egregious check-down offenders. Although the data suggest otherwise, the problem with the dump-off strategy is that it appears to work.

Well, there was at least one successful quarterback who was moving in the opposite direction—toward aggression, downfield throwing, and throwing the ball to the first-down marker. In other words: toward fun. His 7.9 air yards per completion were highest in the NFL among current starters. Yet, he likely won’t be going to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Flacco is averaging 4.5 air yards, and Keenum is at 5.4, and both of them would be in the postseason if it started next weekend.

According to multiple reports, Carson Wentz likely tore his ACL in Sunday’s 43-35 road win over the Los Angeles Rams, though that won’t be confirmed until Monday. When Houston’s Deshaun Watson, one of the most fun players in the NFL, was ruled out with an ACL tear last month, I wrote, “If you’re still looking for a silver lining for the 2017 season with Watson gone, Carson Wentz is fun, and Alex Smith and the Chiefs are interesting.” The Chiefs are no longer interesting, and Wentz is joining Watson on the ship of lost quarterbacks. Nothing can sum up this season more than the phrase: “Here comes Nick Foles.”

So now what? Well, the league has a problem. If you are an interesting or fun NFL player, you’ve probably suffered a serious injury in the past year. Football Outsiders says the number of reported injuries has spiked since 2007. This may not be a true reflection of the number of injuries since, as they note, they’re looking at reported injuries, meaning the rise could all be explained by more players reporting their injuries than in years past. (Of course, the simplest explanation is that injuries are getting worse.) So, scientifically, there is no consensus whether injuries are up. Unscientifically, let me say: This sucks.

Wentz was everything this season was not. He was a young, healthy, budding superstar who looked like he was going to lead a complete team to a Super Bowl. He was likely injured while diving into the end zone in the third quarter. You could argue that his injury was emblematic of the season—potential excitement gets extinguished in a cloud of injury—but it wasn’t. What was emblematic of the 2017 season was the holding penalty that negated the touchdown—mistakes and injuries compounding each other. Foles replaced him, the Eagles still won, and now three quarterbacks who were on Jeff Fisher’s Rams in summer 2016 are likely to be starting divisional playoff weekend.

There’s still the notion the 11-2 Eagles could make the Super Bowl with Foles. Tony Dungy even said it on Sunday Night Football. But that’s the heart of the problem: If Foles can get to the Super Bowl, that’s not a sign that the Eagles’ roster talent is good enough to overcome anything. (It is a good roster, though!) No, it’s a warning sign that the league has a serious shortage of superstars on relevant teams. The NFL built a $14 billion business on violence and this is the natural result. The athletes get bigger and faster, and they hit harder, and no safety measure can prevent the sport from being itself. NFL superstars get hurt because they are human and the open field of an NFL game is no place for humans.

I was at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday. For most of the day, the stadium was in a celebratory mood. Eagles fans outnumbered Rams fans by a good deal. The game itself was an epic. These two teams could meet in the playoffs, and there was genuine excitement for the future—not just what might happen in January but what might happen for the next 10 years in the NFC between two talented teams with the nos. 1 and 2 overall picks from the 2016 draft.

And then Wentz dove for the end zone and left the game, and the rumors about an ACL tear soon turned into sourced reports.

There’s a sort of gloom in the tunnels of the Coliseum. It’s a 90-year-old building and certainly feels like it, and as the sun set, Eagles players walked out of a cramped locker room and into a dimly lit hallway, talking about how bummed they were. Doug Pederson, cutting off reporters who were asking about Wentz, instead said there was “jubilation” about clinching the division. I don’t mean to discredit Doug here, but I saw no jubilation. The hallway became a bit of a mob scene when Wentz emerged with a brace on to make himself a plate of food. There’s even some Zapruder-style footage of the quarterback going to the bus.

The past 12 months have been hellish on the presumed next wave of superstars. A little over a year ago, Derek Carr was leading the MVP voting according to ESPN. He broke his leg before playing in his first career playoff game, and he hasn’t exactly returned to glory after suffering an injury within the first few weeks of the season and looking uninspired since he’s returned. Wentz, if you’re curious, was leading ESPN’s MVP poll as recently as late November, and he was expected to battle Tom Brady through the rest of December for the award. We won’t get that now, just like we won’t get a full season of Aaron Rodgers, who would’ve assuredly competed for it. We didn’t get Deshaun Watson walking away with Rookie of the Year, and potentially competing for MVP, too. We barely saw his teammate J.J. Watt at all. We didn’t get a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. as the only bright spot in the Giants’ disastrous season. We lost Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor right as the Seahawks started to figure things out. We got 11 carries from David Johnson.

Andrew Luck hasn’t played this year. Marcus Mariota broke his leg last December. Ryan Tannehill has missed this season with a knee injury. Teddy Bridgewater’s career was forever altered by a knee injury last summer. Sam Bradford is out for the year with a knee injury. There is no other way to look at the quarterbacks who are age 30 and younger and not see the total devastation to their ranks through injury. Something is very, very wrong. We need to put Jimmy Garoppolo in one of those security systems from The Purge.

I’ve heard this argument from some NFL employees: The league is basically post-superstar and the sport doesn’t need these larger-than-life talents and personalities since it has fantasy and (off-the-record) gambling forever more. The reality, though, is much different. The NFL needs stars, and it needs even more of them. The last Peyton Manning–Tom Brady AFC title game was a ratings juggernaut. Even the superstars who could go deep into the playoffs this year—Brady, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger—are aging out of the sport. The NFC playoffs have the potential to be fun—the Jeff Fisher jokes will be great and the increase in parity in the conference could create some close games. But in the same week that saw scary injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tom Savage, the NFL just lost another superstar. As the CTE issue continues to grow in the background, the league’s stars are starting to resemble the Simpsons softball episode, where every star player keeps disappearing due to their own specific misfortune.

The NFL has a scary problem right now. Its problem is the sport itself.