Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippo had some sobering Carson Wentz news for the Philadelphia faithful when he spoke to reporters earlier in the offseason.
"This year coming up, he's probably not going to play great in all 16 games," he said.
Not great in all 16 games? Cancel the season. Declare the trade that brought Wentz to Philly a franchise-crippling failure and add Wentz to the Mount Rushmore of all-time draft busts.
Too extreme? Well, football fans in general—and Eagles fans in particular—aren't known for their measured responses. In Philly, everything rests on Wentz's shoulders: the Eagles' season, the team's future, the hopes and dreams of a region in the midst of one of its all-too-common multisport funks.
Wentz has undergone a long summer of scrutiny. Like his 2016 season, the offseason has had its highs and lows. Somewhere between the saga of Wentz the Savior and Wentz the Failure lies the tale of a second-year quarterback enduring the messy process of getting better.
Wentz finally connected with Alshon Jeffery for a pair of crisp completions late in the first quarter of the second preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. It was the moment Eagles fans were waiting for, but it felt a little long in coming.
Wentz and Jeffery had their moments throughout the offseason. Just not enough of them. The pair appeared to be finding a rhythm during minicamp in June. But according to NJ.com reporter Eliot Shorr-Parks, who rigorously tracks such things, Wentz only threw 13 passes to Jeffery in the Eagles' first 12 training camp practices.
Part of the problem was that Jeffery missed a chunk of early-August practices and the preseason opener with a minor shoulder injury. Before his two catches against the Bills, Jeffery ran the wrong route on a 3rd-and-long play, prompting receivers coach Mike Groh to suggest the receiver was "a little bit behind" due to the missed practice time.
"Every once in a while you run a wrong route, make some mistakes on a few plays," Jeffery countered after the game. "I'll be all right."
Jeffery is only one piece in Philly's effort to retool its receiving, which saw the Eagles sign Torrey Smith, draft Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson and trade Jordan Matthews after the preseason opener. But Jeffery, signed to a one-year deal after four impressive-but-injury-marred seasons with the Bears, was the linchpin of the overhaul.
"He has tremendous ball skills," DeFilippo said of Jeffery. "The way he can track a ball in the air, go up with one hand and get a ball."
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Those are all elements that should be a welcome sight for Wentz.
"The thing that's very comforting for a quarterback is when a receiver, or a tight end or a back, has a big catching radius," DeFilippo added. "You don't have to be strike-point accurate all the time."
Other receivers are anticipating a trickle-down effect from Jeffery's presence. "I think it takes a lot of pressure off when you can't double team everyone," Smith said. "It'll be nice to not have that safety tailing over top every time. That'll be new."
Said Wentz: "It's kind of a different animal throwing the ball to him."
Indeed, last season Philly's top receivers—Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham—combined to drop 21 passes, according to Football Outsiders Almanac. But dropped passes tell only a fraction of the story. Eagles receivers also misjudged deep passes, lost 50-50 balls and reliably got exactly one foot in bounds on sideline routes.
So the Eagles made changes.
Agholor, who was briefly benched last season but looked sharp in practice throughout this spring and summer, is the only holdover from last year. Gibson has dealt with the rookie dropsies throughout camp, but Hollins looks solid. Seven-year veteran Smith has adopted a leadership role. And sleepers like Marcus Johnson have benefited from the competition, which is why Matthews suddenly became expendable.
Wentz now has weapons. His skeptics might point out that he now also lacks excuses.
Wentz admitted this week the Eagles have been "kind of all over the place offensively in the first two preseason games." But he and Jeffery didn't look the least bit "behind" in this week's joint practices with the Dolphins. Jeffery regularly beat Dolphins No. 1 cornerback (and former Eagle) Byron Maxwell. And Wentz consistently got him the ball.
"Our chemistry is continually coming along," Wentz said after Tuesday's practice. "I don't think it's ever been a problem. But it's just been continually growing."
With so many new faces and Wentz still growing into his role as a team leader, that chemistry is under as much examination as every other detail of his game.
Wentz invited the Eagles receivers to a combination quarterback camp/bonding retreat in Fargo, North Dakota, during the break between minicamp and training camp. They ran routes and threw footballs, of course. But they also got to know one another.
"We went to the lake," Wentz said. "We went golfing, which was kind of a disaster. It took us four-and-a-half hours to play a best-ball scramble.
"I've never seen so many swings and misses," he added.
Other than occasional Instagram photos of big-game safaris and venison cheesesteaks, Wentz doesn't pull back the veil very often on what happens outside of Eagles headquarters. So the press pool probed the quarterback and other Eagles for details about their Wentz Hot American Summer. We learned rookie Mack Hollins was the least futile golfer, Marcus Johnson the most, and that Shelton Gibson could not stand up on a paddleboard. We even got some hot Fargo dining tips (Johnson recommends the bison burger at HoDo in Fargo).
The goal of the Fargo junket, of course, was not to lower anyone's handicap or write Urbanspoon reviews, but to build team chemistry. "We had some fun, and it was really good to get that bonding time in, on the field and off," Wentz said.
Swapping out so many offensive weapons can be a double-edged sword. The Eagles receiving corps is more talented than last year. But what about the delicate timing and communication quarterbacks and receivers must establish to create that Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison magic?
"It takes time to develop," coach Doug Pederson said, "and sometimes time that you don't have with the way that the offseason is structured. But these guys also worked out a little bit beyond the in-house rules."
Male bonding exercises on the lonesome prairie cannot hurt.
Torrey Smith recalled his rookie season for the Ravens in 2011, when the lockout erased OTAs, rookie camps and minicamps. "I didn't even know where I was lining up all through camp," Smith said. "But my first start I had three touchdowns. So we were rollin' pretty quick."
The bond between Wentz and his new receivers became even more important after the Matthews trade. Wentz himself drove Matthews to the airport after the sudden deal, which sent the closest thing he had to a go-to receiver in 2016 to the Bills.
"This is my first time experiencing this with someone that is one of my best friends," Wentz told reporters after the trade.
"Everyone loved him," Wentz added. "He was the ultimate competitor out here, always was about the team first. Replacing a guy like that in the locker room is definitely not going to be easy."
Welcoming new friends and bidding farewell to old ones is part of both football and life. But for a quarterback with all of one season of experience, every ripple can feel like a tidal wave.
The Deep Breaths
Last offseason, Wentz went from leading North Dakota State University to the FCS championship to the Senior Bowl to the scouting combine to predraft workouts to Eagles rookie camp, where he endured an unexpected trip from the third string to the starting lineup (despite a rib injury which erased part of training camp) without a break.
"Last year at this time he had played a bunch of football," Pederson said at the start of OTAs. "He was coming off his world tour." The Eagles have made a habit of recounting how grueling Wentz's 2016 was whenever asked, revealing the story to be part mantra, part talking point for the organization.
"I just remember being tired all the time," Wentz admitted. "It's an exhausting time. You're flying around, you're working out all the time. ... you have no idea what's happening."
Wentz took an extended break in the offseason. He spent a lot of time in the wilderness, pursuing big game everywhere from North Dakota to New Zealand.
"To finally just get away and get a chance to breathe and relax, spend some time with friends and family, it was big for me," he said.
Of course, most rookie quarterbacks are put through the wringer in the predraft process. Dak Prescott also attended the Senior Bowl, toured the NFL in search of a job and rose suddenly from third- to first-string. But Prescott was none the worse for wear when the Cowboys reached the playoffs.
But Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles stressed that quarterbacks must learn to get away from the football grind when the opportunity arises. "When you leave here, you have to decompress," Foles said. "You have to get away from the game. You go through a lot in here, and you give everything you got."
A four-season lifetime ago, Foles was the Eagles' hot young starting quarterback. So he understands the unique pressure that comes from being the most important sports figure in one of America's most demanding, frustrated and hypercritical sports cities.
"I know what it's like to walk through the city and get recognized everywhere you go," Foles said. "At that age, there's just so much going on. You really have to take some deep breaths."
Foles said the pressure gets easier to manage once a young quarterback knows what to expect. "There's not many people who can handle that. He's doing a great job at his age handling this platform."
But Wentz's time away from Eagles headquarters wasn't all hunting and golfing. He also focused on what may be the most criticized element of his game: the way he throws the football.
Wentz visited noted quarterback gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux between safaris early in the offseason. The news sent observers reaching for our calipers and radar guns to monitor slight changes in Wentz's delivery, which has been criticized by some as slow.
"Some simple things," Wentz said of the tweaks to his delivery. "Things to the naked eye you probably wouldn't notice."
There was speculation among the press pool that the Eagles weren't thrilled with Wentz seeing an outside specialist on the finer points of quarterback mechanics. Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich are both longtime backup quarterbacks, after all, with plenty of expertise on the finer points of making a football fly. And DeFilippo will soon be fast-tracked to the coordinator ranks (the Eagles refused to let the Jets hire him away) and beyond. Why go outside the organization?
While DeFilippo downplayed the suggestion that Wentz needed significant retooling of what some observers perceive as a slow release, he does look smoother now than he did last offseason, both when throwing the football and moving around the pocket. Some of that may be due to the House-Dedeaux guruship. Some of it may be due to the tutelage of DeFilippo and Pederson, whose drills emphasize both pocket mechanics (where to hold the ball, where to point the toe) and how to deliver accurate passes on the run (Wentz's touchdown to Hollins in the season opener looked like a maneuver the Eagles constantly practice).
But even a layman can see a wobbly pass with the naked eye, and Wentz still throws a few of those during practices. "There's a lot of quarterbacks who throw a wobble pass here or there," Pederson said during minicamp, shrugging off concerns.
Wentz's mechanics will still garner criticism. Criticizing quarterback minutiae is a cottage industry on the internet.
Belaboring a second-year quarterback's every poorly pointed toe or delayed release, however, may be missing the point. "No quarterback is ever a finished product," DeFilippo said. "Ever."
The problem with Wentz's 2016 rookie season was that it was a rookie season. Wentz didn't inspire MVP speculation or reset expectations for what rookie quarterbacks can achieve the way Dak Prescott did. He didn't produce a half-season blooper reel the way Jared Goff did. Wentz mixed good games with awful ones, mixed big-time throws with big mistakes, got bailed out by his defense in some games and let down by his receivers and running backs in others.
Twelve months ago, Wentz was a third-string quarterback with cracked ribs; when healthy, he scrapped for chances to throw passes to third-stringers with no NFL future. Now he commands the first-team offense, operates calmly out of the no-huddle, calls adjustments at the line and directs his passes to veteran NFL starters.
The experienced version of Wentz and the rookie version are almost totally different quarterbacks: different receivers, different expectations, slightly different mechanics, a different mindset. "This summer I was chomping at the bit to get back here," Wentz said in July. "Last summer, I was just trying to breathe."
The most important variable in Wentz's growth is time. He needed it last year. And while Eagles fans may not want to hear it, he needs a little more of it this year.
"I recognize that those bumps are going to come whether you're a 10-year vet or a rookie," Wentz said on Tuesday. "I am always thinking positive, just trying to get better, continue progressing."
As DeFilippo said, not every week will be a great week for Wentz.
"But I guarantee he's going to play good in the majority of them," he finished.
In Philly, "good" is rarely good enough.
But it will have to do.