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Jalen Hurts Can Make the Eagles Better, but They Still Have a Carson Wentz Problem

How has it gone so wrong for Wentz and how do the Eagles fix it?

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Carson Wentz was once, I assure you, good. I guess you had to be there.

He is not now—whether he ever will be again is a question the Eagles will pay a lot of money to answer in the next few years. Answering that question will be the central theme of their franchise for the next year, certainly, and perhaps beyond that. It is very expensive to keep Wentz and equally expensive to get rid of him. Neither option necessarily solves the Eagles’ problems right now, which can be described as everything.

Wentz was benched on Tuesday in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts, two days after he was pulled in a listless loss to the Green Bay Packers, the type of uninspiring game they’ve played weekly in 2020. Over the past few weeks, Wentz, who ranks 30th in passer rating and leads the NFL in interceptions, has graduated from being simply a bad quarterback into perhaps the biggest team-building problem in football. Now, I understand the gravity of that title—this is a league with Adam Gase in it—but problems like Gase can be quickly remedied by firing him and moving on. Wentz is not as easily dealt with, because the four-year $128 million extension he signed in 2019 has yet to kick in. If the Eagles wanted to cut him before March of next year, he’d cost around $60 million in dead salary cap—almost three times Aaron Rodgers’s 2020 cap hit. If they wait until after June 1, it will cost them $34 million in 2021 plus an additional $24 million in 2022.

The easiest way to shed him would be for the Eagles to find a trade partner willing to take on nearly $50 million in guarantees over the next two years, but they’d have to limit such potential partners only to teams with no internet connection and no working televisions. There are teams that might do this, but the likeliest option is that Wentz remains on the roster making a ton of money until the Eagles either fix him (and themselves), or until enough time passes to where the Eagles can take the cap hit—mind you, the future of the salary cap is unknown because of COVID-19-related revenue dips. Whatever path the Eagles take, it will be hard.

When a franchise quarterback on a big-money deal fails, the franchise goes with it. Wentz and the Eagles are a cautionary tale for how quickly things can go south. A few years ago, a person within the Eagles’ organization told me that part of the appeal of players like Wentz—and why you can give up picks and money to get and keep them—is that a franchise quarterback’s career is usually so long, and their value so high, that it’s almost always worth the cost. In essence, you can’t overpay for a star quarterback. This is true. Then Wentz stopped being a star. Now the quarterback is the problem.

The Eagles traded two first-round picks, a second, a third, and a fourth to move up to no. 2 in the 2016 draft to select Wentz and gave him that huge contract three years into his career. Along the way, the Eagles offset some of those costs with savvy moves—trading Sam Bradford to Minnesota for a first- and fourth-round pick, for instance—and responsible salary cap management. The 2017 team was a master class in how to build around a young, cheap quarterback. Wentz was talented, and the roster was stacked. The coaching staff was innovative and aggressive. After Wentz was injured, his backup, Nick Foles, outdueled Tom Brady in the most offensive-minded Super Bowl of all time. The farther removed the franchise has become from that season, the wilder the year seems. I believe that there are a lot of smart people in the Eagles’ organization and that the franchise has been right far more than it has been wrong in recent history. Right now, however, something is deeply wrong.

As long as Wentz is a backup, his is the worst contract in football. The cost of doing business with almost any young quarterback is confronting the prospect of either giving him a massive deal after three or four years or dealing with the drama of the franchise tag or potential free agency. The deals end up being too big to fail. For superstar quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, these contracts are well worth the barrier of entry. Players like Kirk Cousins or Foles, however, may be beneficiaries of an inflated market and not worth the star contracts they receive. Then there are players like Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who’s overpaid at over $30 million, but whose team has done enough to ensure he isn’t the problem holding the team back. Wentz is now all alone in another group: one who provides no value while sitting on the bench. He can get out of this slump—I think he will—but in the mega-contract era, no highly paid 27-year-old quarterback has spent significant time on the bench. Hell, Zeke Elliott’s extension hasn’t kicked in either, but at least he plays. This is, in part, why I think Wentz will see the field soon. He has to. There’s also the matter that Hurts’s first game will come against a really good Saints defense.

Fox’s Jay Glazer reported that Wentz’s confidence dipped when the Eagles selected Hurts in the second round of this year’s draft. This is a bit of a warning sign in itself. Playing football exposes insecurities quickly, and most great players use competition to channel over-the-top anger; Wentz is folding and leading the NFL in interceptions. Wentz’s career trajectory has always been a little weird. He did not win the Super Bowl, even though he got the team in position to do so with his play that season. There is not a statue of him, as there is for Foles. But he didn’t need to get the yips because of a second-round pick. Aaron Rodgers was pissed off about Jordan Love, selected by the Packers in the first round, so he set the NFC on fire this year. Tom Brady didn’t lose confidence when the Patriots drafted any number of quarterbacks in the middle rounds; he outplayed and outlasted Jimmy Garoppolo in Foxboro. Wentz is not on Rodgers’s or Brady’s level—we knew that long before this year—he’s just paid like he is.

How much this is even Wentz’s fault is up for debate. It is obvious the Eagles’ coaching staff has lost some of its sharpness; injuries to offensive linemen Andre Dillard and Brandon Brooks in the preseason have also lowered the team’s ceiling. There is no excuse, however, for not competing in a moribund NFC East where the Football Team and Giants are pulling away in the division. Philadelphia’s receivers are not good. Zach Ertz, long one of the most reliable tight ends in the game, has been banged up and unproductive. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler quoted an NFC executive saying that Doug Pederson should have simplified the game for his quarterback. “He had too much on his plate at the earlier part of the year, in terms of operating at the line of scrimmage. In recent games, they’ve taken some of that away and asked him to just play. He’s pressing because he doesn’t trust the players around him, and then you mix in all of the play calls and checks, and it’s a lot.”

Pederson is not blameless for this season. I wonder, quite often, what happened to the innovative staff of 2017, the one that retooled on the fly after Wentz’s injury, held a mini training camp during the playoff bye week, simplified the offense for Foles and outsmarted Bill Belichick. A lot of that staff is gone, including then-offensive coordinator Frank Reich, but even after Reich’s departure, the staff showed more life than it has this season. Fowler’s reporting indicates that the league still thinks Wentz is pretty good, which is why you can’t rule out a team rolling the dice and trading for him. But the lingering question, I suppose, is that if the league is saying Pederson is asking Wentz to do too much, how much did they even think of him in the first place? He once looked like a quarterback who could overcome obstacles; now, a short time later he looks like a quarterback who needs everything perfectly in place to be good. Hell, Wentz put a depleted roster on his back last December to snag a division title over Dallas. He feels like a different player now.

This is not Wentz’s Eagles obituary. It can’t be. Getting rid of him is unlikely, so the Eagles have to find a way for him to be productive. It’s easy to say there’s no coming back from this—quarterbacks of Wentz’s stature are rarely, if ever, benched in what should be their prime, but that’s simply not the case. There is coming back from this because it benefits everyone that Wentz isn’t a sunk cost. Wentz’s Eagles career will go on, for better or worse.

Life can only be understood looking backward, so let’s recap: Wentz entered the league in 2016 as sort of a mystery from North Dakota State. Howie Roseman, the Eagles general manager, told me that year that Wentz’s college offense had “pro style” roots but had massive hints of the spread game that was about to dominate the NFL, in part because of the Eagles’ success running it with Wentz. Longtime offensive coordinator Brad Childress, whose entire job with the 2015 Chiefs was to spend a year studying spread offenses for Andy Reid, told me in 2016 that Wentz was the perfect blend of college and pro. He called him a master of the piano for all the different things he did. A lot of smart people I talked to that year thought Wentz could do it all.

In 2017, that made a lot of sense. Wentz used his supporting cast well and was running away with the MVP. I watched the Eagles play the Rams in Los Angeles—the high-water mark of the Wentz era. Roughly the entire city of Philadelphia took over the West Side of Los Angeles in the days before the game. In the stadium on Sunday, Eagles players could basically do Lambeau Leap–style celebrations into crowds of Eagles fans during a road game. That was the day Wentz tore his ACL and Foles took over. I remember the despair among Eagles players and staff in the tunnel after the game. Wentz was playing like a superstar and his year was over. In 2018, he was injured again, and Foles once again won a playoff game and almost won a second. In 2019, Wentz carried a crappy roster to the playoffs. He hasn’t been perfect in recent years but he’s simply lost the ability to operate on a football field in 2020:

The Athletic’s Zach Berman said that the Eagles’ rationale in drafting Hurts was that Wentz could get hurt, and they’d have a solid backup, or that he’d play well and they’d never call on Hurts. They never, Berman said, considered “Door no. 3”—Wentz is benched for performance issues. Berman’s colleague Sheil Kapadia detailed Wentz’s fall recently. He no longer hits intermediate throws like he used to. He no longer has any pocket presence to speak of. But the Eagles will be forced to find a way to make it work. Remember, Eagles passing game coordinator Press Taylor once said the next football innovation was to have two quarterbacks on the field at once. Well, do something. Taylor is widely credited with helping bring the “Philly Special” into existence. It’s hard to imagine any such innovation—a genuine two-quarterback offense or a play like the Philly Special—coming from Philadelphia now.

Eagles beat writer Eliot Shorr-Parks summed it up succinctly: The Eagles didn’t fail Wentz, but they made his life harder with decisions at wide receiver and by taking Hurts. If there’s anything to give the Eagles credit for, it’s not being so beholden to the past that they didn’t take out an insurance policy on Wentz by drafting Hurts. But Wentz is still here, and he isn’t going away. This is not the end of Wentz in Philadelphia. And therein lies the challenge for both parties.

The original version of this article had incorrect dead salary cap figures for Carson Wentz’s contract. Those have been updated.